What Chocolate-Drinking Jars Tell Indigenous Potters Now

The Chaco Canyon chocolate-drinking jars have a distinct shape, with connections to similarly shaped Mayan vessels. After testing distinguishable jar fragments from an excavated trash pile in in the canyon, archaeologists determined all of the drinking jars were used to consume cacao. (A336494, A336499, A336493, James Di Loreto, Smithsonian)
The Chaco Canyon chocolate-drinking jars have a distinct shape, with connections to similarly shaped Mayan vessels. After testing distinguishable jar fragments from an excavated trash pile in in the canyon, archaeologists determined all of the drinking jars were used to consume cacao. (A336494, A336499, A336493, James Di Loreto, Smithsonian)

When an archaeologist found traces of cacao residue in Puebloan cylinder drinking jars a decade ago, the implications were huge. Her discovery of chocolate proved that Southwestern desert dwellers in Chaco Canyon had been trading with tropical Mesoamerican cacao-harvesters, like the Maya, as far back as 900 CE.

But the drinking vessels are as significant as the chocolate hidden inside them. They are living proof of a dynamic pottery-making tradition that continues in descendant tribes of the Chaco Canyon Puebloans today.

In the early 1900s, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History joined an archaeological expedition that collected some of the cylinder vessels from Chaco Canyon. Two of them are now on display at the museum’s “Objects of Wonder” exhibit. The jars’ acquisition is a reminder of the museum’s colonial past, but nowadays the museum’s anthropologists have a new purpose for the jars and other pottery: to connect them with indigenous people who are spearheading cultural revitalization in their communities.

For example, the museum’s Recovering Voices program works with indigenous communities like the Hopi descendants of the Chaco Puebloans to better understand pottery-making traditions. It also brings established potters to the collection so that they can study it for the next generation.

“We have to recognize that the world has changed a lot and many museums got access to places that maybe they shouldn’t have. Now it is important to sit back and listen to what people and larger communities have to tell us,” said Dr. Torben Rick, the Curator of North American Archaeology at the museum. “So much can come out of that. I think it’s important for the Natural History Museum to move forward and try to become even more community-focused in the future.

A shape shift in drinking vessels

A pottery jar on a gray background.
Chacoans stopped using these cylinder vessels after 1100 CE, when many of the jars were burned in a deliberately set fire. However, chocolate drinking continued. (A336494, James Di Loreto, Smithsonian)

Around the beginning of the 12th century, Chaco Canyon abruptly saw the end of cylinder drinking jars. Puebloans packed around 112 of the jars into a room in Pueblo Bonito and then set the room on fire. Although they kept drinking chocolate, they no longer used cylinder jars, suggesting the jars were as religiously important as the cacao itself.

“The vessels were seen as powerful and were destroyed with fire. The evidence shows they were special vessels,” said Dr. Patricia Crown, an archaeologist at the University of New Mexico, who discovered the cacao in the jars. “Cylinder jars ended, while chocolate drinking didn’t.”

After the jar fire in 1100 CE, the Ancestral Pueblo peoples shifted to drinking cacao out of mugs. The details of their chocolate cylinder jar ritual are lost in time.

Which came first: the chocolate drink or the drinking jar?

Studying pottery can be useful for scientists eager to learn more about the complicated exchange between the Southwest and Mesoamerica. Jars, mugs or bowls with similar shapes might be used for similar events in different societies.

In a recent podcast, Crown explained where her idea to test the Chaco jars for cacao originated. She was talking to a Mayan specialist who indicated that the Mayan jars were used for drinking chocolate, and Crown wondered if the Chaco jars might have been used in the same way. The jar shape hinted to Crown that there could have been a widespread movement of ideas and rituals as well as physical chocolate.

“There was no wall at the border between the United States and México, allowing interaction, ideas and trade goods to move back and forth” said Crown. “It helps us think about how different things were 1000 years ago when we look at where we are now.”

Puebloans were trading more than cacao. They exchanged ideas, parrots, other foods, and pottery-making techniques with civilizations across the hemisphere.

“This means there were people harvesting cacao in Mesoamerican forests and trading it up through a massive network to reach people in the Southwest. It shows the extensive knowledge base that people had,” said Rick. “In our globalized modern world, we often don’t think about people, pre-internet and pre-mass transit, as having these types of connections over 1000 years ago.”

Puebloan pottery still has something to say

People sitting at a table with indigenous pottery.
Hopi potters find personal connections with the pottery collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Potters working with the Recovering Voices program include from left to right Karen Charley, Darlene James, and Delaine Fern Chee. (Recovering Voices, Smithsonian )

The Chaco Canyon National Historic Park in New Mexico does not look the same as it did to past Puebloans. But the canyon has not lost its cultural and religious significance for Chaco Canyon’s descendants. Tribes, including the Hopi, continue to recognize Chaco Canyon as an important part of their tradition.

“One of the main things is not to buy into the idea of disappearance of this whole civilization,” said Dr. Gwyn Isaac, the Curator of North American Indigenous Culture at the museum. “There’s still a huge amount of kinship with these places and that’s how the pottery comes into its meaning. The vitality and ideas and designs that are carried through with the pottery are still very much a part of how the pottery is valued today.”

Recovering Voices is a language and cultural revitalization program that connects Indigenous communities with Smithsonian collections. For example, Hopi potters use the collections to facilitate intergenerational knowledge in their own communities and partner with the Smithsonian to improve its understanding of the collections in terms of Indigenous values.

“We have potters from Hopi come work on the collections with us. They use all the knowledge they generate from the visit to help younger generations learn about pottery,” said Isaac. “People feel intimately tied and close to their ancestors by working with the pottery. It is a way to connect to the past and present.”

In the past, Chaco cylinder jars were used to drink chocolate. Although they are no longer used for that purpose, they are not purposeless. They are compelling evidence that a dynamic trade route between the Southwest and the tropics existed and they are also living history for descendant tribal potters.

“Chaco Canyon and its pottery are indicators for these communities of continuity, not rupture,” said Isaac. “For these communities, these are ideas that have always been there. But for archaeologists and anthropologists, we’re having to be better educated by these communities as to what these places mean to them.”

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Abigail Eisenstadt

Abigail Eisenstadt is a Communications Assistant at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. She brings science to the public via the museum’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs, where she tracks media coverage, coordinates filming activities, and writes for the museum’s blog, Smithsonian Voices. Abigail received her master’s in science journalism from Boston University. In her free time, she is either outdoors or in the kitchen.

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