Forgetting Chocolate: Spouted Vessels, Coclé, and the Maya

by Stephen Houston (Brown University)


The Romans and the Greeks before them cherished the taste of a particular resin. Tapped from silphium, a wild plant growing along the coast of North Africa, the flavoring went well with roast meat, brought savor to tripe, udder, and sow’s womb, partnered nicely with vegetables, salted tuna, and sea squirt (an invertebrate anchored to ocean floors), helped digestion, and even went into eye-drops (Dalby 2000:17–19). But its popularity and fussy conditions of growth undid the plant. Grazing sheep displaced its natural habitat, and the last root went down the gullet of the Emperor Nero (Dalby 2000:18).

Beloved foods come and go. How many Europeans still consume garum, that smelly fish sauce—Pliny the Elder called it a “secretion of putrefying matter”—traded throughout the Mediterranean and into the furthest reaches of the Roman empire (Curtis 1983:232)? Legionnaires in a British or German military camp doubtless grumbled if they failed to receive their ration or special issue of oil. In the United States, molasses, a viscous treacle resulting from cane refining, sweetened many foods in the 19th century, but gradually gave way to refined sugars. Boston’s Molasses Disaster of 1919, in which a burst tank released a brown tsunami 15 feet high, killing 21 people, would be unthinkable today, for a variety of reasons (Molasses Disaster; I am told that on hot days a cloying odor still fills the neighborhood). Mostly, though, such quantities are not needed. Shoofly pie, of gooey molasses, is no longer much on the menu, although it was in my Pennsylvania childhood.

Consider, if one can, another unthinkable: forgetting chocolate or cacao, from a plant found wild and later cultivated in ancient America. Avid debate surrounds the pharmacological effects of this “chemical kaleidoscope”—whether it serves as an anti-depressive or libido enhancer cannot be easily shown (S. Coe and M. Coe 1996:28–34). But craved it was, in many forms. As a liquid, for example, chocolate “introduce[d] Europe to the pleasures of alkaloid consumption” (Coe and Coe 1996:31). Yet there are grounds for believing that, as an elite consumable, it did indeed drop out of use in one area, the Grand Coclé of Panama. Mortuary deposits in that area, as excavated by Samuel Lothrop and J. Alden Mason—as well as looters and “amateur archaeologists”—revealed staggering wealth, especially in gold but also hundreds of vessels and other goods (Lothrop 1937, 1942; Hearne and Sharer 1992). An element of that wealth, flaunted in feasts, may have been the consumption of chocolate by techniques imported from northern Central America or Mesoamerica, and perhaps indirectly from the Maya.

The main clue is a particular shape of ceramic. In his final opus, James Ford, striving for a grand synthesis of New World diffusion—heroically, for he was dying of cancer—charted the movement of ceramic “complexes” across “Formative” America (Ford 1969). One diagnostic: the “jar with bridge spout” or “teapot vessel,” long-understood by most specialists in Mesoamerica and northern Central America to characterize early agricultural settlements (Figure 1; Ford 1969:19, 21, 116, 120–123, Chart 16; on Ford and his diffusionist interests, see Willey 1988:68–70). Not all spouted jars or vessels are the same, of course. These evinced a consistent shape: a bulbous body (sometimes with a well-defined circumference at the mid-line); a vertical if slightly inclined neck; a flattened eversion around the rim; and a straight or gently inclining spout often, but not always, connected to the rim by a ceramic bridge. Volume varied, as did the presence of paint or modeling into effigies.


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Figure 1. Bridge spouts and “Formative” America, esp. Chiapas, Tehuacan, and Veracruz, as excerpted from a chart by James Ford (1969:Chart 16). Dark squares mark time, visible here in 500 year increments from bottom to top, 1500 BC to AD 500. 


A notable strand in Mayanist archaeology is a claim for function. Thomas Gann, working in what was then British Honduras, called one example “the usual Maya chocolate pot” (Figure 2; Gann 1918:77, 128, fig. 74, quotation on p. 128). Mostly he seemed skeptical. Another had “a curious upturned spout” so configured “that it would be impossible either to drink or pour out the contents therefrom” (Gann 1918:77). And: “they were supposed” to have been used for chocolate “but drinking from them must have been a feat of legerdemain” (Gann 1918:77). Where did Gann get the idea? Who had “supposed” this use in the first place? One suggestion is that it came from a description of chocolate vessels “with spouts” by the “Anonymous Conqueror,” among the few Spaniards to leave an eyewitness account of the conquest of Mexico (Spouts; see Merwin and Vaillant 1932:64fn2).

The finest to survive may be an archaicizing object, the stone “Diker Bowl” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the text appears to refer to drinking from the vessel, and possibly to a glyph for seed or grano (pulverized beans?, Houston 2011). Not surprisingly, some of these—and other, even earlier ceramics—have tested positive for theobromine, a key constituent of chocolate (Henderson et al. 2008:18939–18940; Joyce and Henderson 2007:649–651; Powis et al. 2002:97–98; Powis et al. 2011:8597–8599). Whether these drinks were alcoholic or not is an intriguing proposal. Some suggest the first such drinks arose from fermented cacao pulp, i.e., they were inebriants, not a frothed, non-alcoholic beverage made from water and ground beans (e.g., Joyce and Henderson 2010:170). But using residues to distinguish the two remains a challenge.




Figure 2. Chocolate pots among the Maya: (left) “Mound 31,” near the Río Nuevo, Belize (Gann 1918:fig. 74); (right) the “Diker Bowl,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, #1999.484.3 (Diker MMA, photograph courtesy of Justin Kerr, pencil drawing by Stephen Houston, see Houston 2011 Diker Archaicism). 


More recent scholarship takes the reasonable tack that the spout helped in spuming chocolate drinks, a well-known practice in Mesoamerica (McAnany et al. 1999:138; Powis et al. 2002:94). To prepare the drink, someone blew into the spout, in contrast to later practices in which liquid chocolate was beaten with a stick or poured back and forth to raise a head of spume (S. Coe 1994:141): pure taste as the bubbles burst, leaving flavor behind. It is impossible to prove, but this might have followed shifts in perceived hygiene. Did some find it disagreeable to drink chocolate touched, perhaps, by another’s saliva…particularly that of a servant? Or was the change motivated by a need for heightened drama? I have seen this myself. On the north coast of Asturias, Spain, while gorging on razor clams, I once admired a waiter pouring cider from beaker to cup. Not a drop spilled as he drew the beaker further and further away, attaining at last an arc over a yard long.

Generations ago, in a time of diffusionist thought, the broader link between the “chocolate pots” and points south seemed self-evident. Raymond Merwin and George Vaillant (1932:64) noted that the form was “common at Coclé in Panama,” and, in his doctoral dissertation of 1921, published in 1926, Samuel Lothrop observed similar shapes in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, “related to the group of Maya pottery usually known as chocolate pots,” if of far later date (Figure 3; Lothrop 1926:117). The comparison made sense, for Lothrop was one of the last archaeologists to work in all parts of the Americas and, with colleagues, had looked closely at early links across the region (Lothrop 1927; Willey 1976). 


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Figure 3. Turkey effigy jar, Bolsón, Guanacaste, Costa Rica (Lothrop 1926:pl. XIII).


The Coclé vessels are notable for their quantity and quality (Figure 4). Yet, the chance that these held chocolate and that such drinks were of intense interest to Coclé elites appears to have faded away. Over the last decades, The archaeological literature shows little to no mention of chocolate in early Panama. One specialist expresses skepticism about much contact with Mesoamerica (Cooke 2005:155; but see Coggins and Shane 1984:pls. 44–50; Lothrop 1952; Pendergast 1970; Pillsbury et al. 2017:#164, for secure evidence of Coclé gold at Altun Ha, Belize, and Chichen Itza, Mexico). In another essay, he targets “rank” and “status” in the Grand Coclé region, commenting on prestigious drinks in the balsería “ritual game” of the Guaymí of Panama but not, at least in that paper, extending such ties back in time (Cooke 2004:274). Nor do drinks make an appearance in a recent, elegant synthesis of evidence from the Grand Coclé (Cooke 2011).



Figure 4. Spouted jars from Grave 26, Sitio Conte, Panama (Lothrop 1942:fig. 197). 


The diffusionist tendency of earlier archaeology has been a migraine from which some areas have only just recovered: localism, in-situ process, the dignified integrity of regions—these are all concerns that merit a sympathetic response. But then there is chocolate. In a classic study of the Bribri, a Chibchan group along the border of Costa Rica and Panama, Alanson Skinner recorded drying platforms for cacao and the consumption of cacao with plantains, the latter to sweeten the former (Skinner 1920:55, 93, 94). Lothrop (1942b:113) himself mentions Nahua (or Nahuatl?) groups in Panama, evidently engaged in the production or trade of cacao. That account also gives them a “tail more than a third of a yard long,” so one wonders a little about its reliability.

Girolamo Benzoni’s Historia del Mondo Nuevo (2017[1565]:75) does report on the widespread use of cacao in “Muhammad’s Paradise” (a.k.a, Nicaragua): “The fruit is like an almond and grows in a shell about the size of a pumpkin…When it is ripe, the seeds are removed and placed in the sun to dry. When they want to drink, they roast the seeds in a pan over the fire, and then they use the stones they use to make bread to grind them. They put this paste in vases (which are like gourds grown in a certain tree that is found in every part of the Indies) and add warm water bit by bit.” Obligingly, he illustrates a cacao tree, dry seeds, and, of rather less relevance, a woman making fire—was this image about roasting seeds (Figure 5)? To be sure, there is a view that cacao in Nicaragua was of relatively recent origin, having been brought there by Nahua speakers migrating from the north (Stanislawski 1983:8, citing Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, cronista de Indias). Not all agree. The widespread mention of such cultivation down into Panama suggests far greater antiquity, especially for the processing of beans rather than simply the fermentation of pulp (Steinbrenner 2006:265, 267; see also Young 1994:15, for a line between these methods as far south as Colombia).



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Figure 5. A cacao tree (cacauate) under sheltering arbor, with probable seeds drying in the background (Benzoni 1565, Lib. II:103, Benzoni scan). 


Has the cultivation and use of cacao by Coclé elites been forgotten or overlooked, by both archaeologists and later chiefs? Is cacao the silphium or garum of ancient Panama?

The jars at Sitio Conte and elsewhere have an almost startling similarity to those of the Preclassic Maya and other peoples in northern Central America. In colonial times, not far from Coclé, cacao was processed into beans, presumably for liquid consumption. And there is demonstrable if perhaps indirect contact attested in the form of gold work brought north well before the Spanish conquest. A comment found on-line hints that similar thoughts about cacao have occurred to the curators of the “Beneath the Surface: Life, Death, and Gold in Ancient Panama,” a 2015 exhibit from the University of Pennsylvania Museum (“Straws” for Chocolate).

The main puzzles are the dates. Local specialists suggest that such spouted ceramics in the Grand Coclé must be at least 3–4 centuries after they ceased to be used in the Maya region (Cooke 2011, esp. 158, at c. AD 750–900). Yet, oddly enough, in the Huastec region of Veracruz, Mexico, that same shape is roughly the same date or just before Sitio Conte (Huastec AMNH; Harner Collection). Too much can be made of formal resemblances. Similar jars could service divergent functions, distinct recipes or drinks. But the charge should also be clear: that the Grand Coclé spouted vessels need testing for theobromine. If the alkaloid is present, they will join gold, emeralds, and sperm whale teeth as luxurious items, chocolate vessels, used long ago in Panama.


I thank John Hoopes and Jeffrey Quilter for discussions about spouted pots from Panama; Claudia Brittenham, Charles Golden, and Andrew Scherer offered helpful comments too.


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