Researchers Studying Cacao Have Discovered A ‘Single Domestication Event’ Of Chocolate Trees 3,600 Years Ago

Scientists analyzed Criollo, which has been called 'the prince of cocoas', in their new study on the domestication of cacao trees.

New research shows cacao trees were domesticated 3,600 years ago.
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Scientists analyzed Criollo, which has been called 'the prince of cocoas', in their new study on the domestication of cacao trees.

After scientists studied cultivated cacao trees, they discovered that these were the result of a”single domestication event” that took place 3,600 years ago. The latest research on these trees is just part of a larger debate on when humans first began cultivating chocolate.

As Phys.org has reported, Omar Cornejo, a Washington State University population geneticist and also the lead author of the new study on cacao trees, explained that there were many questions that scientists had in their research on the source of chocolate and when it was first domesticated.

“This evidence increases our understanding of how humans moved and established cacao in America. It is important in itself because it gives us a time frame for asking questions that are perhaps trickier: How long did it take to make a good cacao? How strong was the process of domestication? How many plants were necessary to domesticate a tree?”

Eighteen scientists that hailed from 11 institutions took part in the latest study and discovered that cacao was chosen for many different attributes, including disease resistance, flavor, and also theobromine, which is a stimulant. However, choosing the right attributes meant that crops had much lower yields, but humans were able to retain the specific genes they wanted.

Scientists involved in the new research analyzed Criollo, which has been called “the prince of cocoas,” and which was also the first source of chocolate to have been domesticated 3,600 years ago in Central America. However, Criollo originally came from the Amazon basin which is very close to what are now the borders of northern Ecuador and southern Columbia, and Cornejo believes it is most likely to have been brought by traders to Central America.

It has been surmised that 3,600 years ago the Criollo cacao trees would have numbered between between 437 and 2,674, and domestication technically ranges back to between 2,481 and 10,903 years ago. This is scientifically sound as small amounts of theobromine have been discovered in both ancient and modern human DNA as well as Olmec pottery.

Cornejo noted that scientists are now very interested in trying to take Criollo cacao trees and see if they can be combined with other cacao varieties, such as Iquitos.

“What we would like to have is a way to combine plants from populations with high productivity—like Iquitos—with plants of Criollo origin, while retaining all these desirable traits that make Criollo cacao be the best in the world.”

The new study which discusses the first domestication of cacao trees and the source of chocolate has been published in Communications Biology.