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Pre-Columbian South America began exploiting cocoa at least five thousand years ago

Pre-Columbian South America began exploiting cocoa at least five thousand years ago

Where does the cocoa tree come from?

According to the first botanists who were interested in the question, the birthplace of this type of tree (Theobroma, cocoa) It will be found in the Mesoamerican cultural region, where it was domesticated. This idea is very well established, but it contradicts the fact that, as numerous studies have shown, its diversity reaches its maximum in the upper Amazon, within a wide area covering the regions of Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and even Brazil.

Is this also where it was first domesticated?

First times undoubtedly, as was strongly supported in 2018 by a large study I was involved in, which identified cocoa residues in ceramics more than 5,300 years old that come from the archaeological site of Santa Ana la Florida, southeastern Ecuador, in the upper Amazon region. To learn more about the domestication of cacao in the rest of South America, I assembled a larger team to study cacao remains, this time in 352 ceramic fragments from a palette from much larger pre-Columbian cultures.

Where do these ceramics come from?

Among the nineteen archaeological cultures distributed not only in Mexico, Belize and Panama, in Central America, but also from the regions of the Amazon and the Pacific coast of Ecuador and Colombia.

What does the study of cocoa residues tell us?

Our study, based on analysis of ancient DNA and methylxanthines, revealed widespread use of cocoa in pre-Columbian South America. For at least five thousand years! We were able to reveal several centers of domestication in the Upper Amazon, and then how the cacao tree spread: thus, we highlighted the use of cocoa in the Upper Amazon, near Jaén, in Peru, and in the regions of Leticia. and Araraquara, in Colombia, before approaching the Caribbean coast with the Puerto Hormiga culture and along the Pacific coast, for example with the Valdivia culture, in Ecuador. Added to this is its use within the already well-known Central American region.

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Therefore, the oldest traces of domestication predate the arrival of cocoa trees in Central America by 1,500 years. What does this mean?

This indicates that during the thousands of years preceding domestication in Mesoamerica, there were extensive trade networks in South America, through which beans or seedlings were traded. Theobroma cocoa From various Amazonian homes. These cocoa trees reached the Pacific coast, where residents began to use them as well.

Have several types of cocoa trees been domesticated?

Populations living in its native range have exploited its local wild form Theobroma cocoaBut cocoa trees brought from other regions of the Amazon via the extensive river network have also been exploited. Trade networks explain the multiple introductions that took place between the Amazon and the Pacific coast, which led to hybridization between species of different origins, and then their dissemination. This mixing contributed to their adaptation to new environments, including that of the Pacific Coast, and later Central America.

In this regard, there is an interesting result Luxurious Criollo cocoa variety. They were not the only ones introduced to Mesoamerica: it is likely that hybrid forms from Ecuador were also introduced as early as the time of the Olmecs. [vers 1200 avant notre ère, ndlr]. This introduction was by land, certainly, but also by sea. In 2022, Christopher Beckman and Colin McEwan, two American specialists on pre-Columbian societies, showed that the Pacific coast, over a period of 4,000 years, connected pre-Columbian societies from Peru to Mexico much more effectively than overland routes.