Chocolate, Kokopelli, and Mesoamerican Trade Routes
[ Click the image above or here for the story from Science/AAAS ]
Thought I’d pass along an interesting report on a study about the possibility of chocolate being found in North American pottery bowls.
Chocolate was used by many Mesoamerican cultures, usually as a sacred drink for the elite, but not always (and not the sweetened drink or candy we know today, of course). The possibility of it showing up in North American bowls like these shows that a more robust trade was going on between the peoples of the tropics in Central America and parts of Mexico and those of the more northern zones represented by the U.S. This is controversial, but I think there is a high chance of it being so.
A number of years ago, I was in Monument Valley enjoying the rare treat of talking with a loquacious Navajo man. Most Navajo are quite reserved, especially around strangers. This young man was very open and verbose, so we talked a good while about many things. In that discussion, I remember him bringing up the Kokopelli legend and iconic art image. Kokopelli was the humpbacked flute player that appears all over the West in rock art and in ancient legends and is so commercialized today on everything made to sell to tourists in the desert southwest.
He told me that in his tradition, Kokopelli was remembered as a real person – an itinerant trader who, a very long time ago (as much as 1,200 years according to current estimates), came up out of Aztec Mexico and even more southerly lands. He brought trade goods like the copper bells, shells, and parrot feathers that have been documented in the North. He was unusual in that he was able to move freely between tribes without being killed. This was because he was not only a tradesman, but also a healer. The legends tell and the artworks show him playing his famous flute, and my friend said this was probably to announce his presence to a tribe he was approaching. They knew his flute and song and allowed him to come without a violent challenge, even if he had just come from an enemy tribe. They did this because he could bring healing techniques and medicines from his southern cultures. Although I have no proofs of it, I would presume many of these were shamanic techniques as well. To these northern tribes, he was an exotic traveling shaman/medicine man. The humpback was probably derived from his large sack of trade goods that he swung on his back. Kokopelli took advantage of his celebrity status and the power it brought him. Although you won’t see it much in the tourist art, he is often portrayed with an erection, and was known to engage with the tribal women wherever he traveled. Modern archeologists even consider him a fertility deity figure.
I think there is so much we do not know about pre-Columbian people’s range of travel, capacities of trade, and interactions with distant, foreign cultures. Places like Chaco Canyon in New Mexico seem to have been religious centers linked to such trade of goods and ideas. It’s fascinating that, with our modern technologies, this new research is finding the traces of tropical chocolate still lying in the grit and whorls of these wonderful northern bowls.