ITHACA, N.Y. -- Digging through history to a time before agriculture,archaeologists from Cornell University and the University of California atBerkeley have found evidence of a village that was continuously occupiedfrom 2000 B.C. to A.D. 1000 as well as hints to the secret of thecommunity's remarkable longevity.
"My guess is, it all comes down to chocolate," says John S. Henderson,professor of anthropology at Cornell and co-director, together withRosemary Joyce of Berkeley, of the archaeological dig at Puerto Escondido,Honduras. The type of ceremonial pottery uncovered by the archaeologistspoints to that region of Mesoamerica as a possible "Cradle of Chocolate."
Excavations in the lower Ulúa river valley of northwestern Honduras,conducted by the North American scientists under the auspices of theHonduran Institute of Anthropology and History, have added at least 1,000years to the documented story of a region where a hunting-and-gatheringsociety settled and skilled pottery-makers flourished.
"Our deepest excavations at Puerto Escondido show building activity andobsidian tools but no pottery," Henderson says. "The pottery we'refinding, dating between about 1100 and 900 B.C., shares the shape anddecorative style of pottery from communities to the west, in present-dayMexico -- the Olmec art style of Mesoamerica's first civilization." Thesame site also is yielding pre-Olmec pottery made between 1600 and 1100B.C., the earliest known period of pottery-making in Meso- andupper-Central America.
The author of "The World of the Ancient Maya" (Cornell University Press,1997), Henderson says the Olmec people rose from the Neolithic culture ofMesoamerica and held forth until about 500 B.C., at which time the laterand better-known civilizations of the Maya, Zapotec and Teotihuacanos werein their formative stages. Olmecs are generally associated with theVeracruz and Tabasco regions of Mexico, and the Puerto Escondidodiscoveries make that ancient village the eastern-most known site of Olmecactivity.
One possible explanation for similar pottery styles is trade amonggeographically separated peoples. The question for Henderson and Joycebecame: What social mechanisms were responsible for the similarities inpottery?
"Trade is a typical interpretation," says Joyce, the director of the PhoebeHearst Museum of Anthropology and associate professor of anthropology atUC-Berkeley. "But we suggest a more complex web of social relations,possibly centering on marriage relations between prominent families inseparate areas. Access to Ulúa valley cacao would be an important factormotivating distant partners."
"Historic records show that when the Spaniards arrived, the best chocolatein all of Mexico and Central America was growing in the Ulúa valley,"Henderson says, noting that the finest cocoa beans come only from intensecultivation and special preparation techniques. "Cocoa beans were sovaluable, they were a form of currency for the Aztecs, the late Maya andpresumably their predecessors. It was a place where money literally grewon trees."
Adding to evidence of the "chocolatl" connection (to use the Aztec wordfor "warm liquid") is the type of pottery archaeologists are finding atPuerto Escondido: small, delicate vessels used for drinking. Notsurprisingly, the Cornell and Berkeley archaeologists also are findingheavier, more utilitarian pots for cooking and food storage. But it isthe delicate pottery, with its similarity to styles found farther to theWest, that proves most intriguing.
Many of the small Olmec vessels are decorated with symbols of thesupernatural, indicating their ceremonial use in rituals by the elite ofthe community, Joyce and Henderson report. Most likely, Henderson says,the royal liquid in the Olmec ceremonial vessels was "chocolatl", centurieslater craved by Emperor Montezuma, who reportedly drank 50 portions a day.
"The Ulúa valley was an ideal place to grow "cacao", which needs theunderstory shade of other trees and rich soil," Henderson says, addingthat the valley also was a likely gateway for the introduction of "cacao",which is native to South America, to Mexico and upper Central America. Therich, alluvial soil has been accumulating in the Ulúa valley for thousandsof years and is found between successive levels of occupation in thevillage Henderson and Joyce are excavating. Newer and newer versions ofthe community, they have determined, were built upon the burned or floodedremains of the previous ones.
As they prepare to resume excavations at Puerto Escondido in 1999 andpuzzle over the discoveries made so far, the Berkeley and Cornellarchaeologists sometimes mix up a mug of instant cocoa. It is a poorimitation of the elite drink they believe may have drawn together distantpeoples for 3,000 years.
The above story is based on materials provided by Cornell University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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