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Cacao trees and their 5,000-Year Odyssey of global domestication

Cacao trees, scientifically known as Theobroma cacao, or “the food of the gods,” holds a pivotal place in both history and modern agriculture.

Esteemed for its beans, from which chocolate, liquor, and cocoa butter are derived, recent research sheds light on the cacao tree’s extensive journey from its Amazonian cradle to its widespread cultivation across South and Central America, revealing a narrative far richer than previously acknowledged.

Tracing the origin of cacao trees

A fascinating new study delves into the ancient pathways of the cacao tree, suggesting its propagation across the Americas over 5,000 years ago, facilitated by intricate trade networks.

This exploration into the past is rooted in the analysis of residues found in ancient vessels, offering a glimpse into the sophisticated breeding of different cacao strains and highlighting the broader utilization of cacao products among ancient cultures than was once understood.

The cacao tree is among the world’s most crucial, harboring eleven distinct genetic groups, including the renowned Criollo and Nacional strains.

While its domestication in the upper Amazon basin is a well-documented fact, the extent of its spread and adoption by other cultures throughout the Americas had remained a puzzle — until now.

How the study was conducted

Claire Lanaud and her team embarked on an extensive study, analyzing 352 ceramic artifacts from 19 pre-Columbian cultures, dating from 5,900 to 400 years ago, across regions spanning Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Belize, and Panama.

Through meticulous testing for ancient cacao DNA and the presence of three methylxanthines (mild stimulants found in cacao), namely theobromine, theophylline, and caffeine, the researchers sought to identify residues of ancient T. cacao.

Furthermore, genetic information from 76 modern samples of T. cacao was utilized to trace the ancestry of the cacao found in these ancient ceramics, aiming to unravel the paths through which these ancient strains diversified and spread.

Spreading cacao trees across continents and cultures

The study’s findings are revelatory, illustrating that soon after its domestication in the Amazon, cacao trees were extensively cultivated along the Pacific Coast, demonstrating a high degree of diversity among the ancient strains.

This diversity suggests that genetically distinct populations were interbred, enhancing the cacao’s adaptability and utility across various cultures.

Notably, cacao genotypes from the Peruvian Amazon were discovered in the coastal Valdivia region of Ecuador and artifacts from the Colombian Caribbean coast, indicating enduring contacts and a wide diffusion of cacao strains facilitated by trade and cultural exchange.

This extensive diffusion and crossbreeding of cacao strains across countries underscore the dynamic interactions and sophisticated agricultural practices of ancient South and Central American cultures.

Cacao’s genetic legacy and future challenges

The researchers suggest that understanding the genetic history and diversity of cacao trees can offer valuable insights into combating contemporary challenges faced by modern cacao strains, such as disease and climate change.

In summary, this mouthwatering study enriches our understanding of the ancient cacao trade and its pivotal role in pre-Columbian cultures, while highlighting the importance of preserving genetic diversity to safeguard the future of this invaluable crop against impending threats.

Through unraveling the ancient journey of cacao trees, this research contributes significantly to our comprehension of agricultural history and the enduring legacy of “the food of the gods.”

The full study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.


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