Much literary attention has been given to Pre-Columbian cacao artifacts, specifically the cylindrical types used by both the Maya and Aztec for cacao preparation and consumption. Until more recently, however, there has been little attention given to the much older Preclassic spouted vessels excavated throughout Maya highlands and lowlands (see figures below). The pichinga, as these vessels are now called by modern Maya groups living in the Guatemalan highlands, are historically significant as they fit into the earlier segment of the cacao and chocolate narrative; furthermore, these pots have only more recently been able to provide the ethnographic data to substantiate why for the past century “Mayanists have dubbed [these] Preclassic spouted vessels as “chocolate pots”” (Powis et al., 2002).
Figure 1: Spouted Vessel, Tomb 1, Mound 1, Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas Mexico 100 BCE-100 CE, 21 x 18.5 cm. (source: http://www.mesoweb.com/lords/feasting.html)
Figure 2: Excavated from the Colha site in northern Belize between 600 BCE-250 CE, is one of 14 vessels that contained substantial amounts theobromine.
As early as 1918 the term “chocolate pots” was used in Thomas Gann’s report, “The Maya Indians of Southern Yucatan and Northern British Honduras” to describe the Late Preclassic spouted vessels found in burial sites at Santa Rita Corozal, Belize without any supporting evidence to confirm its accuracy. The term “chocolate pots” has since permeated literature, uncontested albeit the lack of “supporting contextual, residual, phytolith, or iconographic analyses to either confirm or deny” cacao usage (Powis et al., 2002). Why then has this phrase “chocolate pot” become so embedded within the literature? With the discovery of new methods to analyze phytoliths, these vessels now provide substantial data to conclusively determine that these vessels were indeed used during the preparations and consumption of cacao, given the high levels of theobromine found within them (Powis e al, 2002).
Preclassic spouted vessels were associated with the elite class. The contextual findings presented by Powis et al. suggest that approximately 90% of these vessels were excavated in “special deposits”, and were of elaborate forms, suggesting that cacao drinking was incorporated in ceremonial and ritual practices. Patricia McAnany and Eleanor Harrison, in their seminal 2004 work, K’axob: Ritual, Work, and Family in an Ancient Maya Village, confirm these special burial caches, suggesting that the K’axob site yielded “signature pieces” and that “they contain special characteristics such as modeling, gadrooning, incising, and appliqué,” which denoted dedicated function (McAnany and Eleanor, 2004). As is more commonly known, this practice of dedicated vessel usage was exhibited with the Classical cylindrical vessels and continued on up until the arrival of the Spaniards. However, the Primary Standard Sequence (PSS) does not appear on any spouted vessels, only on the Classic cylindrical types. Nonetheless, these elaborate spouted ceramics were part of the elite continuum of cacao’s status among the Mesoamerican people.
Spouted vessels provide the linguistic evidence needed to link the word kakawa or cacao to the Olmecs. Until the discovery of these vessels, there was no strong evidence, either archaeological, botanical, or iconographic to support the Olmec theory of origin for the word, according to David Lentz and Michael Coe (Powis et al., 2002). Within scholarship there were two opposing hypothesis to the origin of the word cacao. On the one side, as articulated by Karen Dakin and Sren Wichmann (2001), kakawa was a Uto-Aztecan term, of Nahuatl origin. This would then suggest that the history of cacao consumption started sometime during the 5th century CE. However, Lyle Campbell and Terrence Kaufman’s seminal article in 1976, “A Linguistic Look at the Olmecs”, contended that the term kakawa was of Mixe-Zoquean origin, which the Olmec spoke as early as 1500 BCE, suggesting that Preclassic Mesoamerican cultures produced, distributed, and consumed cacao at least two millennia before the Aztec. Thus the discovery of these pots was significant in that they provided the necessary data to support the much earlier Olmec origin (Powis et al., 2002).
Although it is not definitive as to why Protoclassic Mayans replaced their spouted pots with the Teotihuacan-style tripod cylindrical vases, Powis et al. suggest that the new method for cacao preparation was perhaps introduced by Mayan contact with Mexican highlanders as these new vessels were superior for cacao usages than the spouted variety. Given its form and larger size, the cylindrical vessels provided better storage; made it easier for transportation; provided more space for inscribing glyphs to identify ownership, purpose and location of craftsmanship; and perhaps most importantly, these new vessels provided wider mouths, openings from which to pour the liquid cacao from one vessel to another in order to create the all coveted foam for their beverages (Powis et al., 2001). Joseph W. Ball, in his 1983 article, “Teotihuacan, the Maya, and Ceramic Interchange,” provides a discussion of the notable homologies between the Mayan and the Teotihuacan ceramics, suggesting that:
…either aesthetic considerations or a desire to emulate a particular vessel form associated with a foreign social system and so connoting high status might have motivated such copying. Consideration should also be given to the possibility that lidded tripod cylinders might have represented specialized commodity containers. Some possible association with the transport, presentation, storage, and/or consumption of cacao or a cacao preparation comes immediately to mind given the Teotihuacan and Guatemala highland distributional foci of such vessels (Ball, 1983).
Although the “chocolate pots” of Preclassic Maya are less known and studied than the more recent cylindrical vessels, these spouted ceramics, nonetheless, play a vital role to understanding the Mesoamerican ethnography surrounding cacao and chocolate. The discovery and analyses of these spouted pots and the important data they provide have enriched scholars and chocolate lovers alike, providing us with a richer picture of how this “food of the gods” has evolved throughout the ages, and how it became intrinsic to the Pre-Columbian peoples: their sustenance, their rituals, their beliefs, and ultimately their enjoyment, a pleasure now indulged throughout the world.
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