The Maya Empire, which ruled the tropical lowlands of Guatemala until around the sixth century A.D., was at its height in the sixth century AD. The Maya were excellent farmers, potters, hieroglyph writers, calendar creators, and mathematicians, and they left behind a stunning number of magnificent buildings and iconography. However these spectacular stone cities were abandoned by 900 A.D. The reason for this decline has been the subject of much debate.
The Ancient Maya and Cacao
So the Ancient Maya are well known for their temples and hieroglyphs, but what is less known is that they also cultivated cacao trees in sacred groves. These groves were located in the shade of karst sinkholes, which provided a moist and humid environment ideal for cacao cultivation.
The cacao beans — the plant from which chocolate is made — were considered sacred to ancient Mayas, who considered them to be a present from the gods They also used them as money.
Archaeologists study soil biomarkers
In a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports, researchers from Brigham Young University, including Richard Terry, emeritus professor of agricultural and biological engineering at the university, and his students Bryce Brown and Christopher Balzotti worked together with Mexican and American archaeologists to pinpoint areas where the Maya may have utilized to provide just the right balance of humidity, calmness, and shade for cacao trees. While the drier climate of Yucatan peninsula is unsuitable for cacao growth, researchers discovered that the sinkholes common to the peninsula have microclimates with just the right conditions.
The researchers discovered theobromine and caffeine in the soil of nine of the 11 sinkholes examined. By studying these biomarkers, we can learn more about how the ancient Maya used cacao trees in their sacred groves. For example, by measuring the amount of Theobromine present in soil, we can determine how intensively the trees were cultivated.
Formal staircases, altars, grinding stones, and sherds of incense pots have also been found in association with ancient Maya sacred groves. This suggests that these areas were considered special to the Maya and were used for ritual purposes. Studying these sacred groves is an important way to learn more about this fascinating culture.
So if you’re ever in the northern Maya lowlands of Guatemala, be sure to visit one of the ancient Maya sacred cacao groves! Who knows, you might even find a few chocolate bars lying around. 😉