In a Smithsonian Magazine article published this month, associate professor of anthropology Eleanor Harrison-Buck discusses her current research on cacao and the ancient Maya, a project she is working on with Serita Frey, a UNH soil scientist in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment.
A Spanish account from 1618 describes the Belize River town of Lucu: “[It had] much thick cacao that turns reddish-brown and tastes good by itself.” Harrison-Buck contends that cacao was a staple in ritual feasts for many Mesoamerican cultures for thousands of years and is thus particularly important to study and understand. But because the remains of this crop do not preserve well in soil, archaeologists know little about the ancient methods of cacao bean production. Harrison-Buck and Frey are working in Belize and elsewhere, collecting soil samples and analyzing them to see if cacao orchards leave a distinct biological footprint. Eventually, they hope to determine where cacao was produced in the Belize Valley in historic or prehistoric times.