New research strengthens the case that people used the chocolate ingredient cacao in South America 5,400 years ago, underscoring the seed's radical transformation into today's Twix bars and M&M candies, per the AP. Tests indicate traces of cacao on artifacts from an archaeological site in Ecuador, pushing back the earliest known domestication by about 1,500 years, according to a study published Monday. "It's the earliest site now with domesticated cacao," said Cameron McNeil of Lehman College in New York, who was not involved in the research. The ancient South American civilization likely didn't use cacao to make chocolate since there's no established history of indigenous populations in the region using it that way, researchers led by the University of British Columbia in Canada said.
But the tests indicate the civilization used the cacao seed, not just the fruity pulp. The seeds are the part of the cacao pod used to make chocolate. Indigenous populations in the upper Amazon region today use cacao for fermented drinks and juices, and that's probably how it was used thousands of years ago as well. Scientists mostly agree that cacao was first domesticated in South America instead of Central America as previously believed. The study in Nature Ecology & Evolution provides fresh evidence: Residue from one artifact in Ecuador estimated to be 5,310 to 5,440 years old tested positive for cacao. How cacao's use spread is not clear. But by the time Spanish explorers arrived in Central America in the late 1400s, they found people were using it to make hot and cold chocolate drinks with spices, often with a foamy top. (There may be trouble ahead for cacao lovers.)