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Humans have been eating chocolate for a long time. The earliest evidence suggests that people living in the Chiapas region of Mexico might have consumed cacao as far back as 1900 BCE, and by the Classic Maya period (250-900 CE), the Maya were raising the beans and turning them into a spicy, frothy drink for Maya royalty and religious rituals. They also used the seeds as currency.

Although the plant had a place of pride in Mesoamerican society, it is not thought to have traveled very far north. Archaeologists have searched for connections between Mesoamerican people and those who were living in the American southwest and have found few.

Now, a new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science suggests that there might have been more exchange than previously thought. Their evidence? Chocolate. Well, not chocolate exactly, but traces of theobromine and caffeine (two compounds found in cacao) in bowls from an eighth-century archaeological site in Alkali Ridge, Utah. That chocolate would have had to have been imported from Mesoamerican cacao orchards, thousands of miles away.

he study — and the surrounding debate — goes to show that chocolate consumption in North America isn’t just a question of culinary intrigue, a quirky fact in the history of a beloved food. It’s a clue that can help us fill out the mystery of the people who long ago lived on this continent. What they ate, how much they traveled and traded across cultures, who they were.

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