I’ve just finished my volunteer position at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. I came back home to Albuquerque only to look at the newspaper this morning and see an article about Chaco right on the front page. It seems there has been a major breakthrough in Chacoan studies with an article published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article reports on a study that found conclusively that the Chacoans drank chocolate, and that the well-known cylinder jars found mostly at Pueblo Bonito apparently held liquid chocolate.
This is huge. I have a hard time even wrapping my mind around how big a finding this is. It’s long been known that certain Mesoamerican objects were present in the Chaco system, particularly macaws and copper bells, but they are few in number and somewhat ambiguous in context, so the extent of Mesoamerican influence in Chaco has been a hotly debated topic. For a while, especially in the 1970s, there was a big debate between “Mexicanist” scholars proposing a very direct role for Mesoamericans in the beginnings of Chaco and “Indigenist” scholars proposing that the origins of the system were local and that any Mexican connections were secondary at best. The indigenists basically won that round, and explanations of Chaco offered since the 1980s have generally emphasized continuity of local traditions rather than direct outside influence.
This is probably the right call; as Ben Nelson, an archaeologist specializing in northern Mexico, explains in his very interesting account of Mesoamerican influence in the Chaco Project synthesis volume, when looking at this kind of cultural contact what we don’t see is at least as important as what we do see. And while there are certainly some unmistakably Mesoamerican items in Chaco, and we now have one more to add to the list, what’s really more important on a general level is what Chaco lacks: pyramids, ballcourts, and other monumental architecture built according to Mesoamerican plans and canons. There is certainly monumental architecture at Chaco, but it very clearly continues southwestern traditions at a larger scale rather than copying outside styles. Nelson considers the adoption of some Mesoamerican themes and objects to have likely been a local attempt to harness the prestige of exotic, distant places for local ends, with the particular adoptions reflecting a tendency to pick and choose among the available options, with local tradition and opinion probably dictating what could and could not be introduced. He notes, without quite endorsing, the idea that the adoption of some of these ideas and their accompanying paraphernalia could have been part of an attempt by an emerging local elite class to provide justification for social inequality, which was certainly a major characteristic of Mesoamerican societies.
Which brings us back to chocolate. In their PNAS paper, Patricia Crown and Jeffrey Hurst report on chemical studies done on potsherds found in the Pueblo Bonito mounds that seem to have come from both cylinder jars and pitchers, both distinctively Chacoan forms of problematic function. These studies established quite clearly that the sherds that probably came from cylinder jars had absorbed reside from chocolate, which has a unique chemical signature, while the ones that came from pitchers or were ambiguous did not. This seems to show that chocolate was definitely present and apparently associated solely with cylinder jars, which, as Nelson noted, are one of the aspects of Chacoan society that show strong similarities to Mesoamerican prototypes. Indeed, as Crown and Hurst point out, in Maya society there is a lot of evidence for cylinder jars being part of rituals involving the consumption of liquid chocolate. Previous tests of this type on Maya ceramics have come to similar conclusions about the presence of chocolate in the jars, so this all seems to fit together nicely.
Crown and Hurst suggest that the use of chocolate this far from anywhere where it could be grown suggests both extensive trade networks and some sort of cultural interaction over great distances. This is the most conclusive evidence for such widespread interaction so far. The previously known evidence for Mesoamerican influence at Chaco has mostly been either somewhat ambiguous as to the nature of the connection (cylinder jars, the collonade at Chetro Ketl, etc.) or in the form of durable goods that could have been traded somewhat indirectly (copper bells, possibly shell ornaments, etc.). Macaws are a special case. While all the remains found at Chaco are of adult birds, suggesting that the Chacoans were bringing them in from the south as adults rather than breeding them, it’s hard to say how far they had to go to get them. There is evidence from Casas Grandes in Chihuahua from the post-Chacoan era of breeding of macaws, and it has even been suggested, though not to my knowledge established definitively, that the Mimbres culture in southwestern New Mexico bred macaws during Chacoan times.
Chocolate is a different matter, however. Crown and Hurst have a map in their article showing probable places of chocolate cultivation during Aztec times, and they are all very far from Chaco. The closest are in scattered parts of the northern of central Mexico, and even those are pretty marginal for production. Cacao is a tropical plant. Those beans were traveling a long way to get to Chaco.
As for the sociocultural implications, Crown and Hurst focus on the possible role of chocolate and cylinder jars in ritual, although they note that the question of whether these items were added to existing ritual or brought in as part of the introduction of new rituals is still open. They do mention, rather offhandedly, that consumption of chocolate among the Maya was associated with social elites as well as ritual practices. This brings to mind Nelson’s mention of the possible role of Mesoamerican items in nascent social hierarchies and their justification.
Previous work of this sort, establishing the use of chocolate, has focused on the Maya, and that is the main culture Crown and Hurst focus on in their explanations of the implications for Chaco. They do note, however, that many cultures in Mesoamerica used and traded chocolate during Chacoan times, so it is impossible at this point to pin down the exact source of the Chacoan chocolate and the interactions it represents. As I’ve noted before, despite some striking parallels (now even more striking), the idea of direct Maya interaction with Chaco is a bit farfetched, and the more likely explanation for parallels is probably to be found in cultures on the other end of the Mesoamerican culture area. Nelson suggests that the most intense interaction was probably with the cultures of the west coast of Mexico. It will take a lot more research to trace these connections, but a major door has now been opened.