Many people balk at the idea that North America had any substantial civilization before 1492, the moment that it is customarily believed this continent switched from prehistory to history. I remember being on a National Public Radio talk show and a caller accused me of making an unwarranted upgrade when I said there was civilization in the ancient Southwest.
A thousand years ago, people in the Southwest had not invented the wheel, had no armies and relied on stone tools, which has marked them as uncivilized. They are imagined as cavemen. But the recent discovery of chocolate in a broken jar from pre-Columbian New Mexico might be enough to change that kind of thinking.
North Americans in the early centuries AD were gathering into population centers, dabbling in metallurgy and domesticating animals such as dogs and turkeys. Public works were going full swing. Beneath the modern city of Phoenix you will find remains of several hundred miles of mathematically engineered irrigation canals that once fed a hydraulic society on a par with early Mesopotamia.
Structures now known as “great houses” once stood in the Four Corners region -- where New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona meet. They were masonry compounds rising as tall as five stories, their ground plans going on for acres, interiors honeycombed into hundreds of rooms including massive, vaulted ceremonial chambers.
Such an architectural landscape defies cliches about this continent’s history. Add into this picture trade routes extending more than 1,000 miles along which goods were being moved from Central America into what is now the United States. These goods included copper implements, live tropical birds and, now we know, chocolate.
Chocolate is the cherry on top of Southwest archaeology, and it tips the balance of perspective.
The recent find comes from a 1,000-year-old site in New Mexico that had trade relations with people far to the south. It is the first time pre-Columbian chocolate has been found this far north. As trivial as it may seem, the discovery says a lot about early civilization in North America. Most remarkable is the context of this discovery.
Theobromine, a chemical marker for cacao, was detected on shards from the rare cylindrical jars found in a sprawling pre-Columbian ruin in northwestern New Mexico. The jars are tall, open-mouthed and about as slender as a wine bottle. Only about 200 have been found intact, and they have long presented archaeologists with an enigma. What were they used for? The only jars showing similar form belonged to Mayans who occupied great city-states 1,500 miles to the south in the jungles of southern Mexico and Central America. There, these jars were used in chocolate-drinking rituals. But what were they doing here?
Chocolate finally answers the question. People in the Southwest were doing the same thing as Mayans, both engaged in a chocolate-imbibing tradition with the same sort of ritualized vessels. We have long known about trade items coming up from Mayan territory, but this is the first proof of an actual formality shared between these two regions. The Southwest suddenly looks like it was not so far off the map.
This is what civilization is about: Distant but connected people spending time on mutual ephemera, a refinement far beyond the bare necessities of survival. In the Southwest, people traded along more than 1,000 miles, engineered massive irrigation systems, erected monuments and sipped bitter chocolate from courtly jars.
We often look back on prehistoric Indians through Manifest Desinty-colored glasses -- we see a proud and vanishing race, but not civilization-builders. Instead, they wear breechcloths and hunt rabbits in a simplistic, almost idealistic, cultural landscape. To this day, many non-archaeologists contend that monumental ruins and earthen mounds found across North America were not the work of American Indians but came from Vikings, Europeans, Chinese or Greeks. They have even been assigned to the lost and wandering tribes of Israel. Anything but Native Americans. It is as if we don’t want to see these people with a civilization of their own.
That era is over. Too much archaeological and ethno-historical evidence has accumulated against it. What happened here 1,000 years ago stands up to Stonehenge and Ban Chiang. Given another several centuries -- based on timelines followed on other continents -- North America could have become a major player in world civilization, but it was stopped short by the wide-scale cultural unrest between AD 1200 and 1400, followed by the arrival of Christopher Columbus, then smallpox, then the trappings of pioneers. If not for these obstacles, the people here might have turned the Colorado River into another Nile.
So, the next person who tells me not much was happening in prehistoric North America, all I have to say is, “chocolate.”
Craig Childs is the author, most recently, of “The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild.”