Understanding The Chemical Compound that Confirmed Chocolate was Consumed by the Maya

A great deal is known about the importance of the cacao bean and chocolate to Mesoamerican cultures with its production and consumption dating back over 2600 years (Trivedi, 2002). Even though linguistic evidence, paintings and hieroglyphics have been found on vessels, the real chemical evidence that chocolate existed was not discovered until 1987 when analysis of residue from a vessel found at a Mayan site in Rio Azul in northeast Guatemala was discovered to contain theobromine, the primary chemical compound that is prevalent in chocolate and the signature chemical among 500 other chemical compounds that make up chocolate (Coe & Coe, 2013; Trivedi, 2002).

What is Theobromine


The Chemical Structure of Theobromine

Source Public Domain

Theobromine, the primary chemical component in cacao, is a bitter alkaloid derived from the cacao plant. It has a chemical composition of C7H8N4O2 (Ashihara, Yokota, & Crozier, 2013). Because it is an alkaloid it is derived from plants and has a nitrogen base (Ashihara et al., 2013). While theobromine is not unique to cacao, as it is found in the leaves of tea plants and the nuts from the kola tree, it is most commonly known for its presence in cacao and the product made from cacao, chocolate. What is unique to theobromine as opposed to other alkaloids is that the term alkaloid is one that is often associated with other drugs like morphine and some natural poisons. Some of the better known members of the alkaloid family are caffeine, nicotine, quinine and cocaine, all of which are well known but none of them has the same appeal as theobromine (Ashihara et al., 2013). This appeal is because it is what makes cacao and chocolate special.

An interesting fact about theobromine is that despite having bromine in the name, theobromine does not contain any containing bromine. The name is, however, derived from the word Theobroma which in Greek theo means “god” and broma means “food”, literally translated theobromine means the food of the gods (Bernhardt, 2008).


Aztec God of Cacao

Source Public Domain

Why is Theobromine Important

What is most important about theobromine is that its presence during the chemical analysis of the vessels that have been discovered in Maya ruins provided solid evidence that chocolate was used by the Maya. Despite this evidence it is believed that the Olmec were the first to harvest and use cacao, however due to the harsh climate no artifacts form the Olmec have been found to prove this theory (Coe & Coe, 2013). What is known however is that finding traces of theobromine in Mayan relics has allowed scientists, anthropologists, and researchers a method to accurately determine both if chocolate was made and used by a certain culture, and the special significance that it had. Because the signature chemical nature of theobromine can be traced, the discovery of pottery and other vessels used in rituals can be identified using chemical means as containing chocolate not just by the hieroglyphs found on the outside of the vessel.


The hieroglyph symbol for cacao

Source public domain

Despite the paintings on many vessels depicting the symbol for cacao, by analyzing the chemical residue on the surface of the interior of the vessels it can be determined without a doubt that they did contain chocolate. Theobromine provides the crucial link to be able for scientists to say beyond a doubt that chocolate has been being produced for thousands of years, and no doubt will be produced for thousands more.


Ashihara Hiroshi, Yokota Takao, Crozier Alan (2013). “Biosynthesis and catabolism of purine alkaloids”. Advances in Botanical Research 68: 111–138. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-408061-4.00004-3.

Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2013). The true history of chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Trivedi, B. (n.d.). Ancient Chocolate Found in Maya “Teapot” Retrieved February 18, 2016, from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/07/0717_020717_TVchocolate.html

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s