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Field Notebook

February 09, 2009
Chocolate is civilization...

Many balk at the idea North America had any substantial civilization prior to 1492. I remember being on an NPR talk show where a caller accused me of making an unwarranted upgrade when I said the pre-Hispanic people of the Southwest had a civilization.

Point in fact, North Americans in the early centuries AD were gathering into large population centers, dabbling in metallurgy, and domesticating animals such as dogs and turkeys. Public works were going full swing. Beneath the modern city of Phoenix you will find remains of several hundred miles of mathematically engineered irrigation canals that once fed a hydraulic society on a par with early Mesopotamia. Structures known as "great houses" once stood around the Four Corners, masonry compounds rising five stories, their ground plans going on for acres, interiors honeycombed into hundreds of rooms including massive, vaulted ceremonial chambers. Such an  architectural landscape defies savage clichés about this continent's history.

Add into this picture trade routes, extending over a thousand miles, where goods were being moved from Central America into the Southwest and Southeast of what is now the United States. These goods included copper implements, live tropical birds, and, now, chocolate.

That's right, chocolate. It is the cherry on top of Southwest archaeology, and it tips the balance of perspective.

The recent find comes from a thousand-year-old site in New Mexico that had trade relations with people far to the south. As eye-catchingly trivial as it may seem, chocolate here says a lot about early civilization in North America. Up until now its prehistoric presence has not been found this far north.

Most remarkable is its very context. Theobromine, a chemical marker for cacao, was found inside of a rare cylindrical jar from a sprawling pre-Columbian ruin known as Pueblo Bonito. The jar itself is tall, open-mouthed, and about as slender as a wine bottle. These kinds of vessels have long presented archaeologists with an enigma. What were they used for? The only jars showing similar form belonged to Mayans who occupied great city-states 1,500 miles to the south in the jungles of southern Mexico and Central America. There, these cylinder jars had been used in chocolate-drinking rituals. But what were they doing here?

One important thing to know about these jars is that only about 200 of their type have ever been found intact. and 111 came from a single room in Pueblo Bonito, a site that also contained a wealth of imported copper bells and captive tropical macaws, items that could have only been acquired from the distant south.

The Southwest suddenly looks like it was not so far off the map. Not only is chocolate here, but it comes with a ritualized vessel shared with Mayans living at least 1,500 miles away.

This is what civilization is about: distant but connected people spending time on mutual ephemera, a refinement far beyond the bare necessities of survival. Here were people who traded well over a thousand miles, engineered massive irrigation systems, erected monuments, and sipped bitter chocolate from courtly jars.

We often look back on prehistoric Indians through Edward-Curtis-colored glasses where we see a proud and vanishing race, but not civilization-builders. Instead, they wear breech cloths and hunt rabbits, a simplistic, almost idealistic cultural landscape. To this day many lay people contend that monumental ruins and earthen mounds found across North America were not the work of Indians, but came from Vikings, Europeans, Chinese, even Greeks. They have been openly assigned to the lost and wandering tribes of Israel. Anything but Native Americans. It is as if we don't want to see these people with a civilization of their own.

That era is over. Too much archaeological and ethnohistorical evidence has accumulated against it. Fact outweighs fiction. What happened here a thousand years ago stands up to Stonehenge and Ban Chiang. Given another several centuries  based on timelines followed on other continents  North America could have become a major player in world civilization, but was stopped short by the quadruple-whammy of widescale cultural unrest between 1200 and 1400 AD, followed by the arrival of Christopher Columbus, then small pox, and, eventually, shopping malls. If not for these obstacles, the people here could have turned Colorado River into another Nile.

So, when the next caller tells me not much was happening in prehistoric North America, all I have to say is, "Chocolate."


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