The sweetest story: Learn about the chocolate revolution at an HMNS Distinguished Lecture

On cold nights, one of the best comforts out there is hot chocolate. You come home from a long day’s work, take off your coat, defrost a bit (OK, we’re in Houston, so just go with me here), boil up some water, add in the mix and mmmm … hot chocolate.

Oh, the convenience of it all! But have you ever wondered what the real story of this drink was?


As modern Americans, we might consider hot chocolate to be a unique invention, seeing that much more of the chocolate around us exists in its hard candy form. But really, this drink harkens back all the way to early Mesoamerican cultures.

Cacao cultivation started as early as 1400 B.C. by the Olmec civilization. From residue left on pottery, we can tell that the Olmecs used the bean to create a fermented drink, most likely used in religious ceremonies. The Maya borrowed the Olmec’s cultivation techniques but created a drink far more recognizable to today’s chocolate connoisseurs, creating the first “modern” chocolate 2,000 years ago. The drink was associated with fertility and was also used in a ritual setting.
The Aztecs, in turn, borrowed from the Maya and seasoned it with vanilla, chili pepper and achiote to create a bitter, frothy drink called xocolatl. By this time, the beverage had become a luxury item for wealthy Mayans. Europeans would pick up on this when they came to the New World, and maintained chocolate as a luxury item for European courts until the Industrial Revolution would make chocolate accessible to the masses.

In 1828, the cocoa press was invented by Dutch chocolatier Coenraad J. van Houten. The press created a fine powder from roasted cacao beans, which dramatically lowered the production price. This, in turn, paved the way for British chocolatier J.S. Fry to make the world’s first chocolate bar in 1830. In 1875, the Swiss were the first to add powdered milk to the mix, creating milk chocolate.

Today chocolate is a worldwide industry, with 45 percent of chocolate revenue coming from Europe and two-thirds of cocoa produced in Western Africa. So to all the chocoholics out there, be grateful for the rich history of chocolate, which has made it so readily available to us today!

Can’t get enough chocolate history? Come to HMNS on Tues., Feb. 4 for “Chocolate, A Revolution in a Cup” as part of our Distinguished Lecture series. The lecture starts at 6:30 p.m., but come early for a chocolate frothing demonstration … and stick around after to taste unique chocolates from Araya Artisan Chocolate!

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
“Chocolate, A Revolution in a Cup”
Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D.
Tues., Feb. 04, 2014
6:30 p.m.

This lecture is cosponsored by Archaeology Institute of America Houston Society. Get tickets!

Teachers, get credit for hearing the chocolate doctor at a special Teacher Tuesday just for you:

ExxonMobil Teacher Tuesday
“Domestication of Plants: Chocolate”
Tues., Feb, 4, 5
8 p.m.

Examine the natural science and yummy cultural history of chocolate with hands-on classroom activities. Then attend lecture by Dr. Rosemary Joyce, who will tell how the cacao plant was domesticated to produce chocolate. Purchase tickets.

An early Maya metropolis: El Mirador raises questions for archaeologists

Located in the Central Maya Lowlands in what is now northern Guatemala, the Preclassic city of El Mirador was a giant compared to most of its contemporaries. Its massive ruins still tower above the rainforest canopy. They are silent witnesses to Maya ingenuity and the Maya’s ability to sustain such a massive settlement so early in their history. Agriculture involving the cultivation of corn, beans and squash enabled its inhabitants to thrive.

Manmade plaster-lined catchment areas collected water, making up for the absence of rivers. Even in such apparently mundane aspects of city life, the Maya showed their artistic nature.

El Mirador: An early Maya metropolisDr. Richard Hansen kneeling next to plastered panel at El Mirador.
(Image courtesy of Dr. Hansen).

In March 2009, archaeologists discovered a series of panels made of carved and modeled-lime plaster that lined a water collection system in an area of the city known as the Central Acropolis. The panels and water collection tanks date to the Late Preclassic period, from 300 B.C. to the beginning of our era. The panels, which flank the series of pools in this unique water control system, depict two “swimming” individuals that are framed by cosmic monsters of great importance in ancient Maya art.

According to Dr. Richard Hansen, who led the team of archaeologists at El Mirador: “[T]he ‘swimmers’ represent the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh.” He is referring to the Quiche Maya text of the Maya creation story, which was found in the highland town of Chichicastenango in A.D. 1700 and transcribed by a Dominican monk named Francisco Ximenez by about 1704 A.D.

Dr. Stephen Houston, who has worked at the neighboring site of El Zotz, says, “These figures represent god impersonators and bear no secure connection to twins in the Popol Vuh.” Instead, he argues,”Perhaps the artists commemorated a narrative of the first rainmakers and their watery assistants. In this way the rulers of El Mirador, through the mechanism of deity impersonation, presented themselves as supernatural agents who controlled the rain.”

El Mirador: An early Maya metropolisReplica of the El Mirador panel on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

What we have here is one of the earliest representations to mythical characters we know from the Popol Vuh. The problem is that there is a huge time gap between this plaster panel and the earliest-known document referencing the Popol Vuh. The Newberry Library’s manuscript of this creation story is one of the most widely known and possibly the earliest surviving copy. It was transcribed between 1700 and 1715 in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, by the Dominican priest Francisco Ximénez. Father Brasseur de Bourbourg published a French translation of the text in1861. Images of the title page and first page of the text of the Ximenez manuscript are also on display. An original print of the latter, dating back to 1861, is currently also on display at our Maya 2012: Prophecy Becomes History exhibit.

An alternative interpretation of what we see in the panel is that it illustrates the role of Maya royalty.  As intermediaries between our physical world and the supernatural one, Maya rulers were called upon to ensure plentiful rains.

Proponents of either hypothesis have reasons to support their line of thinking. Because there are no inscriptions clearly identifying these characters in the water as either mythical heroes or historical rulers from El Mirador, I would favor a third interpretation: we just do not know who is represented here.

Visit Maya 2012: Prophecy Becomes History through March 31 and draw your own conclusions.

Educator How-To: Calculating your birthday in Maya Long Count

Adapted from “Cracking the Maya Code,” a NOVA activity.

We’re familiar with a method of tracking time that uses days, months, years, decades, and centuries. This method of timekeeping is based upon the Gregorian Calendar System. The Maya, however, measured time in kins, uinals, tuns, katuns and baktuns using a system called the Long Count.  If you add the numbers in a Maya Long Count date, the sum is the number of days from the beginning of the Maya Fourth Creation:  August 13, 3114 B.C.

Educator How-To: Calculate your birthday in Maya Long CountMaya Long Count dates are written as a series of numbers separated by periods. For example,  12 . 18 . 14 . 11. 16 (December 31, 1987) is the date you will use as a starting point for your calculations. The same date is shown below in its separate component parts above its representative glyph.

Educator How-To: Calculate your birthday in Maya Long Count

Step One: Using the “Maya Long Count Conversion” chart above, convert each place value in the date 12 . 18 . 14 . 11 . 16  into days. Add these five numbers together and subtract 2 to get the total number of days. A formula has been provided below to help you get started. You will need to do your calculations on another sheet of paper.

12*Baktun + 18*Katun + 14* Tun + 11*Uinal + 16*Kin – 2 = ________days

Step Two: Record your birth date (in the Gregorian method). If you were born prior to January 1, 1988, calculate the number of days from the day you were born to December 31, 1987 (Answer A). If you were born on or after January 1, 1988, calculate the number of days from this date to the day you were born (Answer B). Keep in mind that leap years have an extra day. The chart below will help you with the number of days for each month. Record this number.

Educator How-To: Calculate your birthday in Maya Long Count

Note: The following are leap years and have a total of 366 days (a 29th day in February): 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012.  All non-leap years have 365 days.

Step Three:  If you calculated answer A, subtract this number from the Step One answer. If you calculated answer B, add this number to the answer from Step One. Record this number..

Step Four:
Convert the number of days since the Maya Fourth Creation to your birth date in Maya Long Count using the “Maya Long Count Conversions” chart.

To calculate your birthday:

How many whole baktuns are there in C days?  This number (we’ll call it D) goes in the baktun position.
How many days are left over from C after you subtract the number of days in D baktuns? Call this E.
How many whole katuns are in E days? Call this number F and put it in the katun position.
How many days are left over from E after you subtract the number of days in F katuns? Call this number G.
How many whole tuns are in G days?  Call this number H and put it in the tun position.
How many days are left over from G after you subtract the number of days in H tuns? Call this number I.
How many whole uinals are in I days? Call this number J and put it in the uinal position.
How many days are left over after you subtract the number of days in J uinals? This is the number of kin in your birthday.

Fill in the spaces using your calculations, and check your answer here by plugging it into the applet.

Educator How-To: Calculate your birthday in Maya Long Count

It’s Baktunalia! Astronomy VP Carolyn Sumners on why Dec. 21 is cause for celebration, not wild imagination

December 21, 2012: It’s not the End of the World — it’s the Baktunalia! It’s time for a celebration, not an apocalypse.

Here are the facts: The Maya long count calendar will go from to as we go from December 20 to December 21, 2012. So December 20 is New Baktun Eve and December 21 is New Baktun Day.

(FYI for those who like numbers: The five digits of the Mayan long count are base 20, except for the second number from the right, which is base 18. Our numbers are base 10. We have ones, tens, hundreds, and thousands. The Maya long count has kins, winals, tuns, katuns, and baktuns. For the Maya, a day is called a “kin.” Twenty kins make a winal. Eighteen winals, or 360 kins, equal a tun, making the tun about a year long. Twenty tuns make a katun and 20 katuns equal a baktun. Thirteen baktuns is just over 5,125 years.)

The Roman Saturnalia festival also occurred at this time — a celebration featuring food, gifts, and celebrations around the Winter Solstice. Early Christians could celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25, hiding their event within the Saturnalia festivities. Hence, I’m calling this year’s rare event a Baktunalia!

See 2012: Mayan Prophecies at the Burke Baker Planetarium

Did the Maya calendar-makers over 2,000 years ago plan for their long-count calendar to reach the 13th Baktun on December 21? This is possible, but it seems unlikely. However, December is the Winter Solstice, a day the Maya recognized as the shortest day and longest night of the year — the day when the sun rises furthest in the southeast, sets furthest in the southwest, and makes its lowest and shortest path across the southern sky in the Northern Hemisphere. The Maya astronomers observed the sun on the winter solstice to document its southernmost rising and the promise that the sun would now start moving northward. There would be another spring and a new growing season.

Unlike the Internet doomsday prophets, science does not support an apocalypse in 2012. Solar activity maximum is happening in 2013. Thus far, all natural disasters in 2012 have been within the normal range of activity on a geologically active planet with dynamic weather patterns.

But there is one interesting astronomical alignment. On December 21, the sun will reach its lowest point in the sky for the Northern Hemisphere while it is in front of a dark rift in the Milky Way and directly between Earth and the Milky Way Galaxy’s center. This alignment has been in place for several years, but is often cited by the doomsday prophets. The black hole near the galactic center has the same effect on us today as it does on any day. This alignment makes no difference. Nor is it significant on December 21. After all, the sun is its strongest on this date south of the equator.

Lost in all the apocalyptic talk are the very significant achievements of the Maya regarding both time-keeping and astronomy. In the Burke Baker Planetarium, we have a show called Mayan Prophecies that visits four classic Maya cities (Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Palenque), as they would have looked over a thousand years ago. At Uxmal, we see a Maya astronomer watching the sun’s rays entering the Temple of the Magician just two 20-day months before the sun would stand overhead and the rains would come. After this event, the astronomer could prepare farmers to plant their corn and the king to plan festivals.

At Chichen Itza, the feathered serpent god called Kukulcan would climb down his pyramid, El Castillo, on the first day of spring. Astronomers would then know when to have festivities with human sacrifices, trading human blood for the coming rains — all to appease Kukulcan and the rain god, Chaac. We actually show this sacrifice (tastefully) in the full dome and very up-close in the Mayan Prophecies planetarium show.

At Tikal (located in the lowlands of Guatemala), the astronomer would climb his pyramid, now called Temple 4, to watch the rising sun on December 21. When the sun rose over Temple 3, it marked the winter solstice. After this date, the astronomer knew that the sun would rise more to the north each day and that the rainy season would come again.

At Palenque, there are inscriptions inside major temples featuring trees for the seasons. The great King Pacal supposedly rose and journeyed to the heavens on December 21. Inscriptions at Palenque also explain the beginning of the long count cycle on a date we know now as August 13, 3114 BCE. Three temples at Palenque symbolize the three hearthstones of creation, with a central fire lit at the beginning of the current long count cycle. There are also three stars in our constellation Orion that represent these hearthstones.

For all their predictive power, the Maya astronomer could not foresee his own apocalypse, which happened over a thousand years ago. A combination of factors adding to decades of drought brought famine to the Classic Mayan cities. This great civilization, that had measured time and predicted the rains, collapsed and its people returned to the rainforest and mountains. The story of the Maya people is perhaps a greater predictor of the challenges we face in 2012 and beyond.

Fascinated? Discover how the Maya aligned their pyramids and temples to watch their sky gods and used interlocking calendars to record the past and predict the future in our Mayan Prophecies lecture. Dr. Carolyn Sumners will share how archaeological, historical and astronomical records were pieced together to learn more about the Maya. This lecture includes a viewing of film 2012: Mayan Prophecies. For lecture tickets, click here.