Archaeological proof of cacao's use, dating back to 3,900 years ago, earlier implanted the idea that the cacao tree was first grown in Central America. But genetic evidence presenting that the highest variety of the cacao tree and related species is in fact found in equatorial South America, where cacao is vital to current Indigenous groups, led the researchers from University of British Columbia to search for evidence of the plant at an archaeological site in the region.
The new study shows that people in the upper reaches of the Amazon basin, ranging up into the foothills of the Andes in southeastern Ecuador, were harvesting and consuming cacao that appears to be a close relative of the type of cacao later used in Mexico, and they were doing this 1,500 years earlier.
Theobroma cacao, well-known as the cacao tree, was a culturally significant crop in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, a historical region and cultural area that extends from around central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica. Cacao beans were used both as currency and to make the chocolate drinks consumed during feasts and rituals.
The discoveries suggest that the Mayo-Chinchipe people farmed cacao trees at least 1,500 years before the crop was used in Central America.