The Origin of Cacao

For many years it has been thought that the domestication of cacao took place in Central America as cacao residues has been discovered in ceramic pottery from the 3,800 years old settlement Paso de la Amada in the Pacific Coast of Chiapas, Mexico (Zarrillo, 2020). These ancient spouted vessels have been confirmed to be used to prepare the so representative beverages made from cacao of the Pre- Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, in fact the words “cacao” and “chocolate” are derived from the Maya words for this food “kakaw” and “chokola’j”(  (Coe and Coe, 2019). However, the recent study of the residues in the ceramic stirrup spout bottles recovered from Santa Ana, La Florida (SALF), in southeaster Ecuador, has thrown new light on the origins of cultivated Cacao.

The ceramic stirrup spout bottles recovered from Santa Ana La Florida were very similar to the ones already found in Mexico and Central America and which were already known to be used for drinking cacao. Bearing this in mind, the archaeologist Sonia Zarrillo started to analyse the ceramic artefacts’ residues in order to find any trace of cacao.

After ten years of investigation involving three independent lines of archaeologist evidence -cacao starch grains, absorbed theobromine residues and ancient DNA –it has been confirmed the use of cacao in the area of Santa Ana La Florida (SALF) dating from approximately 5,300 years ago (1500 years earlier than in Mesoamerica) pointing the upper Amazon as the oldest region yet identified as the birthplace of cacao (Zarrillo et al, 2018).

The area of the upper Amazon between Ecuador and Peru was the territory for the Mayo- Chinchipe culture 5,500 years ago; therefore they played an important role in the origin, domestication and use of cacao but also its spread to Central America (Origen Milenario - Cacao, 2020). In addition to its antiquity, this culture is well-known for its ability to trade its local products (among them cacao) with other cultures in the Andes and the Pacific Coast ( 2020). In this sense, cacao, especially “Fine Aroma” variety is the identity of Ecuador for its millennial origin but also its unique fragrance and flavor favored by the Ecuadorian geographic conditions that attribute the Ecuadorian Cacao with the denomination of origin “Arriba Nacional” (Benítez, 2011).

- Johana Mora Solorzano


Zarrillo, S., 2020. Clues To Cacao. [online] Nature Research Ecology & Evolution Community. Available at: <> 

 Coe, S. and Coe, M., 2019. The True History Of Chocolate. [Place of publication not identified]: Thames and Hudson, pp.433, 618.

Zarrillo, S., Gaikwad, N., Lanaud, C. et al. The use and domestication of Theobroma cacao during the mid-Holocene in the upper Amazon. Nat Ecol Evol 2, 1879–1888 (2018).

Cacao. 2020. Origen Milenario - Cacao. [online] Available at: <> 2020. Mayo Chinchipe - Marañón Archaeological Landscape - UNESCO World Heritage Centre. [online] Available at: <>

Benítez, A., 2011. [online] Available at: <>

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