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Chocolate at Chaco Canyon: a ceremonial beverage heads north

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Tracing the history of foods in the New World has become something of a cottage industry among archaeologists and anthropologists working the Mesoamerican "beat." Maize and chiles are two high-profile examples that come to mind. And researchers do so for good reason. Foods open a window on the history of cultivation, social structure, and religious practices, among other aspects of ancient living.

Cacao is no exception. In November 2007, for instance, a team led by Cornell University's John Henderson reported finding evidence at Puerto Escondido in Honduras for cacao beverages prior to 1,000 B.C. - some 500 years earlier than previous estimates. So far, that's the oldest known haven for chocoholics anywhere.

Take me to your dump

For many researchers, middens -- or what we today might call the village dump -- have become what temples and other grand buildings were to earlier generations of archaeologists. More-humble excavation targets lift a curtain on how the rest of society -- the not-do-rich and not-so-famous -- lived.

And that's exactly where Dr. Crown and colleague Jeff Hurst looked. The duo, undoubtedly with help from degree-hunting grad students, re-excavated middens that had first been unearthed in 1920s. According to the team, they found hundreds of thousands of shards. They pulled fragments that appeared to come from common pitchers as well as from cylindrical jars.

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