Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cacao in Chaco

Archaeologists spend lots of time studying (or trying to study) prehistoric trade. One of the first things we do when assessing the artifacts from a site is to try to identify the "exotic" materials that must have been traded in or carried in from out of the area.

We are operating under a sizable handicap however, in that we are usually dealing only with the durable materials that have survived. We can tell you all sorts of things about stone tool materials or ceramics that have been traded all over North America - like obsidian from near Yellowstone, Wyoming that has been found in sites in Ohio. But most of us are tormented by the fact that we are missing most of the picture and can only guess at the trade in furs, feathers, cloth, foodstuffs, etc. that was also going on.

The prehistoric Southwest is a case in point. We've known for about a century now that the prehistoric cultures there (Anasazi, Hohokam, and Mogollon) carried on a lively trade with the high Mesoamerican cultures of Central Mexico. Large quantities of obsidian and turquoise from mines in New Mexico and Arizona have been found in the Mexico City area. Tons of marine shell from the Sea of Cortez and the Gulf of Mexico has been found in Southwestern sites, both as finished jewelry and raw material for jewelry manufacture. The Hohokam were especially sophisticated shell jewelry makers. The Southwestern cultures had no metal-working knowledge, so the small number of copper bells found in some Arizona sites were traded up from Mexico.

As to the perishable goods involved in this trade, the dry climate of the Southwest has preserved some of those, so have a little idea of what went on. Items made of rubber, obviously from Central America, have been found in Hohokam sites. Most of these were rubber balls presumably associated with a variant of the prehistoric Mesoamerican ball game. The game was sort of a hybrid of soccer and basketball with the object of shooting a rubber ball through a vertical stone ring. Ball courts are prominent features in Mesoamerican sites and what are thought to be ball courts have been seen in Hohokam sites.

It is also apparent that brightly colored parrot and macaw feathers as well as live birds were traded from Mexico north to the Southwest. I've been struggling to find a picture of a beautiful macaw feather cape that was found in a dry cave in Arizona. I've had to make do with the parrot petroglyph from the Albuquerque area that I pasted in at the top.

An article in last week's Denver Post (the NYT and LAT also picked it up) adds more to the story. An archaeologist from the University of New Mexico worked with a chemist from Hershy, PA to test residues from the interiors of pots excavated from the site of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Tests found traces of theobromine, the active ingredient in cacao, in the residues. Cacao beans, used to make chocolate, come from Central Americam, meaing that this foodstuff was traded to the Southwest prior to AD 1000.

This is exciting on a number of fronts. Cacao was a prized commodity in Mesoamerica with many ceremonial uses and cacao beans served as a form of currency there. Chaco Canyon was the cultural and political center of the Anasazi Southwest from around AD 900 - 1150 and Pueblo Bonito was one of a number of big sites located there. It makes great sense that the cacao residue was found on prized ceramics in a ceremonial structure in the prehistoric "capital" of the Anasazi.


Peculiar said...

We just found an apparent parrot petroglyph recently. I just blogged it if you'd like to take a look.

mdmnm said...

Really nice petroglyphs (& photos of the same) over at O&P.

Personally, if I was lugging a sack of cacao beans all the way up to Chaco from way down in Mexico, there'd have been a bit of shrinkage in the load - somewhere along the line a pick-me-up would have been necessary!