Tasty History: Chocolate

Hello guys! It has been a really long time since we have had time to write a proper blog entry. But now hat we have got the podcast up and running and the team is reconfigured, it is time to deliver. And, our first topic since the formation fof Nu History couldn’t be more delicious: Chocolate! Whether you like it dark, with milk, hot, cold, as a bar or a drink, I believe there is a chocolate for every kind of person. So, today I will give you an insight into how chocolate came to be. For this, we must first travel thousands of years into the past to one of my favourite historical areas: pre-Hispanic Meso America.

The Origins of Cacao

Just to clarify; chocolate is a product derivate from cacao or cocoa beans. The actual word for chocolate comes from the Aztec xocolatl, which meant bitter water. However, cacao was used way before the Aztecs to create indeed bitter tasting beverages made with cocoa and often used for either ritual or medicinal purposes. In a recent study (2018) published by Sonia Zarillo et al. trace back the earliest recorded used of cacao to 5300 years ago, in the area of Santa Ana, (Ecuador). Coe and Coe also state that the Olmecs had domesticated cacao plants and used its produce for medicinal purposes and religious rituals, and we have ample evidence of this from the area of Veracruz (1900–900 BCE). But the most extensive knowledge of Meso-American culture that we have regarding cacao comes from the Mayan culture, (500-800CE) where there is an abundance of ceramics that depicts its varied uses. It is also the Mayans from who we get the word cacao as kakaw. Kakaw was essentially a gloop of cacao made into a drink and the most renown discovery of this type of product is found at Rio Azul. This is the site where in the 90s the scientists from Hershey Corporation first identified the original chemical signature of cacao. By the time the Aztec empire took control of most of Meso America, things had changed. It seems that the Aztecs didn’t actually grow their own cacao already by the 1400s, and instead they used to obtain it as an import, often paid as a tax from areas they conquered. They also started drinking it cold and branching its uses, so that in Aztec culture cacao was an aphrodisiac according to Szogyi.

Cocoa Beans Comes to Europe

The beans were brought back to Europe by the cargo ships from the Americas. It was in fact Columbus who originally shipped them to Spain, however they got little interest from the public until much later when chocolate was introduced to the Spanish court. Despite it being first found by the Spaniards, the success of cocoa and chocolate in Europe would come from other nations, two main rivals of Spain in fact: the English and the Dutch. Cocoa was prominently imported during the reign of Charles I and during the 16th century, it was actually used as a drug to solve tooth decay and dysentery. Moreover, one of the physicians for Queen Anne, Hans Sloane, seemingly saw Jamaican workers during his visit to the island back in 1680 mixing cocoa powder with breast milk as a form drink, so he decided to borrow the concept (but with cow’s milk) for medicinal purposes once more. At this stage, the history of chocolate takes a dark turn as during the early modern period many African slaves were used in the cocoa plantations that the English, Dutch and French had in the transatlantic colonies. And so, with cheap labour and the invention of the first mechanic cocoa grinder in Bristol (1729) the European obsession with chocolate – and slavery – continued all the way to the 19th century when things changed once again.

Dutch Production, English Consumerism: Cocoa in the 19th Century

The transformation of cacao into the product that we could recognise nowadays only happened in the 19th century thanks to a clever Dutch chemist. Coenrad van Houten came up with the idea of removing cacao butter and added baking powder to the mix all successfully achieved by his creation: the cocoa press (1828). He had previously invented a alkaline solution that made chocolate less bitter to the taste, so the “Dutch Cocoa” invention made it a lot more marketable. Interestingly most the cocoa consumed in the UK during the 19th century was produced in the Netherlands, making this a very profitable industry for the Dutch. In Victorian Britain the first chocolate houses opened in the area of Mayfair and the concept drove English society into an absolute craze. In fact, at the royal apartments in Hampton Court we know that Willian III, as well as George I and II had a dedicated chocolate kitchen. Lizzie Collingham argues however that during this period much of the cocoa powder used in these establishments was heavily adultered with other products. Amongst these feature things like lentils or tapioca, which actually made what they served more similar to a cocoa soup rather than a cocoa drink.  However by then, the price of cocoa dropped becoming more affordable and an easily available product in many houses. Cadbury’s chocolate in the UK was a great conduit for this phenomenon. Still popular today, the first shop was opened in Birmingham in 1824 by John Cadbury. Collingham again adds that the most influential brand that contributed to the popularisation of cocoa amongst the working clasess was not Cadbury, but the now forgotten Dr Tibbles’ Vi-Cocoa. Vi-Cocoa distributed a blend of cocoa, kola nut, malt and hops that made it incredibly popular between 1895 and 1910. In her book The Hungry Empire, she says that Cadbury’s target audience would have most likely been middle classes women, whilst Vi-Cocoa was targeting the working class man with an alternative to tea.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Daniel Peters enhanced Victorian chocolate by using powdered milk in the beverages and therefore creating milk chocolate, and instant national favourite. Dutch cocoa balanced bitterness reached a new height when the Swiss chocolatier Rodolpe Lindt (1879) used his conching machine to turn cocoa butter into an improved product, with better texture and flavour. The manufacturing advances of the time also allowed for Lindt’s product to be easier to distribute and reach new markets, so Lindt was a key player in changing chocolate into a food item rather than a drink. Meanwhile in America? Cacao beans were also used as a currency up until the 19th century in Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Brazil. Funnily enough, these were easy to fake: empty casks were often filled with soil to pretend they were ripe cacao beans.

So as you can see the journey of cacao, cocoa, and chocolate is a varied and multicultural one. From its origins in America to its developments in Europe kakaw has adopted many forms and purposes. And, although I certainly believe most of us don’t use it as a medicine for tooth decay…I think we can probably agree it is a medicine for the soul and, as recent scientific research confirms, good for our mental health. With this history of chocolate, and the many more to come articles and podcasts regarding food history, I am trying to send a message of hope and unity. I truly believe that food brings people together, and in this day an age of conflict and division, humans and human history could do more with interconnectivity and hope.

I hope you join us on the next one 🙂

The Diquis Spheres – (2019 Update)

Today we will move across the globe to discover the Diquis Spheres. These are some stone spheres found in the delta of Diquis, between the rivers Terraba and Sierpe, in the peninsula of Osa and the Isla del Caño (Costa Rica). They are unique archaeological finds due to their number of existing specimens (over 300!), as well as their sizes, formations and rounded perfection. Their dimensions vary from the 10 cm to 2.57 m of diameter. They can weigh as much as 16 tones and have been found in 34 different archaeological sites. These are the products of the Diquis culture: a pre-Columbian culture, indigenous from Costa Rica. Diquis means great waters or river in the Boruca language (the native speaking tongue), which seems to tie in with the locations of the finds. However, their meaning and origin is a mystery.

According to Ifigenia Quintanilla (University of Costa Rica), the spheres were most likely produced sometime between the 800 and the 500 B.C. However, local archaeologists investigating the subject have trouble dating and interpreting them as 90% of the spheres have been moved and found away from their original locations. The theories on their meaning and purpose get even more obscure and confusing. Most archaeologists and historians support the idea that these artifices had an astronomical function. Perhaps they were a way of timing agricultural cycles, or even maybe representations of constellations. Another supported hypothesis is that these could be used as markers of social status for the leaders of the indigenous tribes. Nevertheless, more fantastical explanations have been proposed:

-Some think these could have been done by the people of Atlantis, or even by extra-terrestrial beings!

-There is also the myth that the Diquis culture knew of a chemical product that could manipulate the physical state and shape of stone.

-Some more logical beliefs consider that perhaps these were used as territorial markers.

-More interestingly, many have found them to be an analogy of a pre-Columbian myth. This is related to the god of thunder Tara, or Tlachque, who used throw some spherical objects against the Serke, or the gods of wind and hurricane, to keep them away from these lands.

The Diquis Spheres in Modern Day Costa Rica:

The spheres were discovered in 1939 when the American company United Fruits made some moves over Costa Rica in order to clear some woodlands for the sake of banana cultivation. And then the mystery and fascination began.

They were first mentioned, and worthy of scholarly consideration, in 1943 when Doris Stone wrote an article for the magazine American Antiquity about them. Since then, many studies have been carried out to try to understand what these items actually are. And it seems that one of the most plausible explanation is that these spheres were used as some form of astronomical tool (Ivar Zapp, George Erikson, 1998). Other theories, such as the work produces by Patricia Fernandez and Ifigenia Quintanilla support the idea that these were public items; symbols of local power (2003). Perhaps this ties in with the theory that the stones were actually used by this society for funerary purposes, and that although no clear dating or chronology has been established yet, the society that produced them were likely to be a splinter group from the Aguas Buenas settlement (Roberto Herrera, 2017). This makes sense if we consider, as pointed out by some of the most striking pieces of goldsmithing does come from the Diquis area as well.

However, the research moves slowly. It took years for scholars to actually show a decent interest in the subject and try to solve the mystery. It seems that for several decades, the spheres lied out in this banana plantation, forgotten, catching the interest of occasional looters. Nonetheless, these stones are part of the collective memory of Costa Rica. They are a symbol of identity for the indigenous and local inhabitants, and they are commonly referenced in their popular culture and the media. Thanks to the superb work of archaeologists Francisco Corrales and  Adrian Badilla (Museo Nacional de Costa Rica) since 2002 to the area has gained some interest, to the point that, it is worth mentioning that the Diquis spheres have as of 2014 – a year after the original introduction to this piece was written – now been added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the site, tourism and conservation of the area evolves slowly as this is a new field for the Costa Rican nation.

We can only hope that the new generations of archaeologist will bring us more answers as to the origin and faction of these items, and of course, how they were made!

Lost Cities – Caral

Today we jump across the Atlantic to one of my other passions; pre-Colombian civilisations, to bring you yet another “Lost City”. This is of course one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries of the last century (in my opinion at least!), and one of the most magnificent sites in the world, with a very impressive team taking care of it. I am, of course, talking about the sacred city of Caral-Supe, or simply known as Caral. The site is currently under the protection of La Zona Arqueológica Caral (ZAC), which is a public entity created by a state decree in 2003 specifically to preserve the area. The location is, however, not quite what you would expect for a wonderful Andean discovery. Caral is in the desert terrace that overlooks the Supe river valley, approximately 23km away from the Pacific coast. So why is Caral included in our lost cities series? In a similar way than Gedi (https://nuhistory.wordpress.com/2018/10/30/lost-cities-gedi/ ), Caral was also abandoned. However, this happened more gradually over time.  The period of occupation for the site is understood to be between 2600BC and 2000BC. That is the conservative approach. However, there are evidence that suggest the area was settled much earlier than this, which would have made Caral the oldest city in the entirety of the American continent. The data takes us as far back as the Pyramids of Giza. Nonetheless, the recent discovery of Bandurria has taken the claim for oldest city in Peru, going back to the 4000BC. Although there had been previous investigations in the Supe valley (early 1900s), it wasn’t until 1948 when Paul Kosok – the researcher that brought us the original investigations on the Nazca lines – put Caral back on the map but under the name of Chupacigarro. However, his finds were dismissed due to the lack of typical artefacts previously found in the Andes cultures. It was later in the 70s when the investigations of the Peruvian archaeologists Carlos Williams brought it to the forefront of these types of investigations. Since then more people have come to investigate what has now been classified as the biggest thriving urban area in Andean Peru, and probably the city after which many more were modelled in the years to come. Nonetheless, the most important name is that of the woman who actually understood the site for what it was and that has allowed for its preservation by the ZAC: Ruth Martha Shady Solís. She started investigating the site in the 90s under the “Caral Project”. Her constant research and dedication have been plenty fruitful: she has enough evidence to establish the Caral (or Norte Chico civilization as it is known in English), as one of the earliest, or even the first known cultures in all South America.

So how did Caral get so lucky in terms of preservation? Well, the thing is that it was originally mistaken as a natural formation. Plus, thanks to the lack of any valuables (items of gold or other precious materials) being visible, it received little attention from looters. In addition, there are no evidence of warfare unlike in the previous two sites that we have seen so far. So, as you can see, things went well for the conservation of the ancient settlement,despite it only became a site recognise by the UNESCO in 2009. It is thanks to this that it has gained the status of one of the best investigates cities in the Norte Chico area of Peru. Now that you know about how the site got to us,you’d probably be wondering what there is actually left of it. Well, the total complex is of about 60 hectares renown for its architectural complexity.Amongst the structures found, there are huge stone and earthen platforms mounts and sunken circular courts, as well as pyramids and what appear to be residential buildings. The archaeology reflects this was a peaceful society,with no discoveries of fortifications or human remains that present signs of armed conflict. The people of Caral, much like the people in Gedi seemed to have thrived in commerce and had a strong economy. One of the most surprising pieces of evidence found was that of a quipu – also known as talking knots – which are these recording devices made out of fabric, similar to an abacus. Interestingly, quipus were believed to have been invented by the Inca,but the evidence of Caral show this system dates much further back. The city of Caral expanded amply across the region creating 19 temples plus what is known as Templo Mayor (main temple in Spanish) Caral itself. This is the reason why the site is mainly identified as a religious centre which is highlighted by the further evidence of ritualistic items found in the settlement and in the surrounding area. In addition, Caral also shows evidence of public buildings which reflect a central government and administration; it has been suggested that there were different social strata which this is evident in the development of the city and the different urban areas.So what type of people were the citizens of Caral? A total of 32 flutes have been recovered here by the archaeologists, which suggests the inhabitants were skilful artisans. In fact, the dating of the site was achieved through the carbon dating of woven carrying bags known as Shicras found in some of the temples. There are also evidence that suggest Caral was an advanced civilisation.In 2000 a team of archaeologist(Marco Machacuay and Rocío Aramburú) discovered a geoglyph just to the west of the site, which resembles a long screaming face, believed to be somewhat related  to the find in Cerro Sechin, just 150 km north of the site. It is likely that the geoglyph was part of the ceremonial and ritualistic aspects of this society. Finally,I think is it fair to point out that there are ample evidence of knowledge of astronomy, supported by different utensils, as well as a monolith ( known as huanca) located in one of the main squares.Shady believes that the monolith would have been used for the observation of time and the movement of the astral bodies.

Now you will probably be wondering, how does such an advanced and rich civilisation simply disappear? Well, Rodriguez argues that the abandonment of this settlement happened slowly over time, since the 2000BC – with it being deserted by the 1800BC. He argues that the most likely causes for this occurrence are due to natural phenomenon such as earthquakes and El Niño. The peak population of Caral would have been of around 3000 at its peak, however, if one was to consider the let’s call it metropolitan area of the settlement in the Supe Valley, this would encompass a total of approximately 20000 (Shady). The communities that formed the populace of Caral are believed to have been ayllus – an extensive population with a common familial origin that congregated to work for the envelopment of the lands of religious leaders of some sort, which
is a common type of conglomeration in Quechua societies. This was the essential glue of this population and what allowed them to thrive and developed for such a long time, hence emphasising the role of Caral as a scared city. Perhaps, the city lost religious significance and due to the fabric of its society started a slow mass exodus on to other thriving areas.

If you wanted to find out more about Caral, I am sad to say you will have to learn some Spanish as the majority of the publications are done by the local archaeologists. Shady and Rodrigues – which I have mentioned in my piece – have a multitude of books on the subject. Amongst these, I would recommend Rodríguez, Gonzalo (2015). Guerrero, Ricardo; Pease, María Elena, eds. Culturas antiguas del Perú: Caral. Hacia la primera civilización de América. As well as, Shady, Ruth; Cáceda, Daniel; Crispín, Aldemar; Machacuay, Marco; Novoa, Pedro; Quispe, Edna (2009). Caral. La civilización más antigua de las Américas: 15 años develando su historia. Nevertheless, I believe a lot of the work done by Shady has been translated to English. Otherwise have a look at Andean Archaeology III: North and South, Volume 3, edited by William Isbell, Helaine Silverman – also a pretty good book with an overall narrative.

Cantona – Ancient Ghost Town (Updated 4/10/2018)

Here is an updated version of something I wrote a little while back. However, more recent studies have provided interesting info that I thought was worth the share and rehash of the old post!

Nu History

The site of Cantona in the modern state of Puebla (Mexico) is one of those golden and mysterious archaeological finds that the experts are still trying to figure out. One of the main mysteries about this place is who actually occupied or originally settled in this ancient city. The experts suggest this could have been a settlement of the pseudo mythological Olmec people, but the archaeological finds are inconclusive. David Carballo has recently suggested that the urban plan of the city seems to indicate and agglomeration of different communities with the purpose of defence. Even the name of the settlement is disputed, and this could be key for our understanding of the site. According to the native inhabitants of the San Pedro Tepeyahualco area, the city’s name should be Caltonac.


Cantona was discovered in 1855, allegedly by Henri de Saussure, but it was Nicolas de Leon who in the early 1900s did extensive…

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Conflicts with Funny Names

Today I bring you an idea I borrowed from a history magazine I found at work (I am not sure if it was BBC history or History Extra, but it must have been one or the other). There were a few pages dedicated to  armed conflicts with some pretty silly or bizarre names. Now their list was pretty extensive, and in no means I have time to cover that amount of stuff in here. So instead I had a look at some of the issues that I found more interesting, and tried to keep them varied in terms of geographical location as well as historical period. So here it goes to a collection of pretty random war names.

War of the Bucket: sometimes also referred to as the War of the Oaken Bucket; a bellicose dispute between Bologna and Modena. The year was 1325 and the area where the vast majority of the conflict actually develops, is in the district of Emilia. It all started with some troops from Modena pilfered a bucket from a well belonging to the Bologna city walls. And you would think: all that fuss for a blooming bucket?! Well my friends, in case you are not up to speed with the Italian politics of the period, this was obviously not just about the bucket, but about the fact that Modena and Bologna where on opposite sides of the power struggle between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope. Bologna, as a supporter of the Pope was part of the Guelfs, whilst Modena sided with the HRE and the Ghibellines. In short, the outcome of this not so silly war was a victory for Modena, despite the 30000 soldiers that Bologna sent to confront their enemy. And what happened to the bucket? In case you are interested, this is apparently still displayed at Modena’s city hall – just out of spite.

Football War: this was a relatively recent conflict between El Salvador and Honduras. It is often referred to as well as the Soccer War or the 100 Hours War due to its duration – whether that makes it qualify as a war or not… And it is all because of football; indeed. It started in 1969 during the world cup qualifier match for the 1970 FIFA competition between these two nations. And was this really about football? Well, just like with the bucket; not quite that simple I am afraid. Issues rise up regarding immigration due to disputed border and land ownership which affected the mix population of Hondurans and Salvadorans in the area, the latter being effectively kicked out of the country in 1967. So y the time the match comes up, people in Honduras were concerned there were Salvadorans crossing the border not just for the sake of the match, but to stay. A series of nationalistic riots pushed the military to get involved, to the point that the Honduran government was sincerely concerned there would be a trespassing on behalf of the Salvadoran army which eventually happened. For the  over 100 hours that the conflict lasted, the number of casualties added up to around 3000 deaths, most of which were Honduran civilians.

The Flagstaff War: British v Maori. This is the conflict that in fact relates to Hone Heke’s rebellion. After a somewhat peaceful coexistence between the inhabitants of New Zealand and the newcomer British Empire, Heke instigated the war against their new friends due to many things, but I guess the straw that broke the camel’s back was the fact that the British transferred their capital to Auckland from Okiato. This resulted in dramatic economic loses for Heke and his fellowmen. Thus, they decided to take their anger out on the British flag on Maiki Hill, which was chopped down repeatedly in 1844. This caused severe grievances as the British would keep on putting it back on the ground, and Heke and his people kept on cutting it down. The last time this stand-off was performed, it actually ended in violence with the death of one of the keepers of the flag. Leading to several battles; the entire conflict becoming a stalemate, which nonetheless has mostly been presented as a British victory as it meant grounds for reconciliation with Heke and the rest of the Maori communities…

Potato War/Plumfuss (1778-9). This was a conflict involving Austria against Prussia, with the special and additional mentions of Bavaria and Saxony. During the Bavarian War of Succession there was an attempt made by the alliance of Prussia and Saxony to stop the Hapsburg control over the region of Bavaria. As a result the fight entangles into a series of skirmishes. However, although the conflict was not so terrible there were thousands of death due to starvation as the result of  the raiding and pillaging soldiers who spoilt the vast majority of the food supplies. So, yes, perhaps this one war and its funny name have a higher affiliation in terms of terminology than the others. And the reason for the variance between potato and plum? It is a German thing: the Prussians and Saxons referred to it as the Kartoffelkrieg (Kartoffel being potato, krieg: war), whilst the Austrians used the term zwetschgenrummel (zwetschgen – plum, rummel – hustle). So it really depends on which side of the war your stand with this one.


The British Museum – through the Lens of a Camera pt. 3

Finally, my last batch of pictures taken at the British Museum on the 31st August 2015. These do not only follow some of these themes I have previously captured in the other images, but you may notice they insist on a topic I have been quite fond of as of late: the pre-Columbian cultures. As we know so little about them, what a better way that enlightenment through the few pieces of material culture that they left behind? Therefore, here you have my last update regarding these images.

Pre-Columbian artefacts

“Stone sculpture of female deities”, Huaxtec, AD 900-1450.


(the rest of the Huaxtec female deities, AD 900-1450)
(the rest of the Huaxtec female deities, AD 900-1450).


Xiuhcoatl, the fire serpent, Aztec basalt sculpture c. 1300 AD
Xiuhcoatl, the fire serpent, Aztec basalt sculpture c. 1300 AD.


Maya lintel 16, c. 755-770 AD - Depicting the ruler Bird Jaguar.
Maya lintel 16, c. 755-770 AD – Depicting the ruler Bird Jaguar.


Maya lintel 15 c.770 AD. From the Yaxchilan Structure 24, depicting the Bird Jaguar King.
Maya lintel 15 c.770 AD. From the Yaxchilan Structure 24, depicting the Bird Jaguar King.


Maya lintel 24 c.725. From Yaxchilan Structure 23 - Depicting Lord Shield Jaguar and his principal wife Lady Xoc, in what has been understood as a bloodletting ritual.
Maya lintel 24 c.725. From Yaxchilan Structure 23 – Depicting Lord Shield Jaguar and his principal wife Lady Xoc, in what has been understood as a bloodletting ritual.


Maya lintel 25 c.725. From Yaxchilan Structure 23. Blood offering ritual and the manifestation of Yat Balam, founder of the Yaxchilan dynasty.
Maya lintel 25 c.725. From Yaxchilan Structure 23. Blood offering ritual and the manifestation of Yat Balam, founder of the Yaxchilan dynasty.


"turquoise mosaic mask", Mixtec-Aztec, AD 1400-1521.
“turquoise mosaic mask”, Mixtec-Aztec, AD 1400-1521.


"turquoise mosaic mask", Mixtec-Aztec, AD 1400-1521.
“turquoise mosaic mask”, Mixtec-Aztec, AD 1400-1521.


Turquoise mosaic representing a double headed serpent produced by the Mixtec-Aztec culture 1400-1521. These pieces have been understood as potential remains of lapidary art.
Turquoise mosaic representing a double-headed serpent produced by the Mixtec-Aztec culture 1400-1521. These pieces have been understood as potential remains of lapidary art.


Ceremonial shield, Mixtec-Aztec AD 1400-1525.
Ceremonial shield, Mixtec-Aztec AD 1400-1525.


"Turquoise mask of Tezcatlipoca". Mixtec-Aztec AD 1400-1521. Tezcatlipoca was one of the four most powerful gods in the Aztec pantheon.
“Turquoise mask of Tezcatlipoca”. Mixtec-Aztec AD 1400-1521. Tezcatlipoca was one of the four most powerful gods in the Aztec pantheon.


"Cast of Stela H" from the Great Plaza of Copan, Honduras, AD 400-800. The cast was made in the 19th Century by Lorenzo Giuntini.
“Cast of Stela H” from the Great Plaza of Copan, Honduras, AD 400-800. The cast was made in the 19th Century by Lorenzo Giuntini.


Cast from the Temple of the Cross at Palenque (Mexico). Made in the 19th Century by Lorenzo Giuntini.
Cast from the Temple of the Cross at Palenque (Mexico). Made in the 19th Century by Lorenzo Giuntini.


…And I thought it would be fitting closing this update with a Northern American totem…


Totem in red cedar from British Columbia, 19th Century. Collected by Edmund Verney.
Totem in red cedar from British Columbia, 19th Century. Collected by Edmund Verney.

Cantona – Ancient Ghost Town (Updated 4/10/2018)

The site of Cantona in the modern state of Puebla (Mexico) is one of those golden and mysterious archaeological finds that the experts are still trying to figure out. One of the main mysteries about this place is who actually occupied or originally settled in this ancient city. The experts suggest this could have been a settlement of the pseudo mythological Olmec people, but the archaeological finds are inconclusive. David Carballo has recently suggested that the urban plan of the city seems to indicate and agglomeration of different communities with the purpose of defence. Even the name of the settlement is disputed, and this could be key for our understanding of the site. According to the native inhabitants of the San Pedro Tepeyahualco area, the city’s name should be Caltonac.


Cantona was discovered in 1855, allegedly by Henri de Saussure, but it was Nicolas de Leon who in the early 1900s did extensive research on the site, leaving a comprehensive survey of the structures and discoveries he came across. The plot occupies around 12.5 square kilometres and has been divided in three different sections: the southern area-which corresponds with the Acropolis- is the preferred location for archaeologists and other scholars as it is the best preserved. The whole city is structured in different patios and stone workshops and seems to lack the characteristic stucco decorations of other Mesoamerican sites. Cantona was also a fully fortified complex, built with no mortar (no evidence found in the archaeological data), giving it this imposing look of stone on stone; an impressive site to look at, rivalled only by the likes of Teotihuacan. There are clear signs of active religious and ritualistic celebrations, amongst which human sacrifices are not lacking. However, it has been pointed out by Angel Garcia Cook that, despite the site sharing similarities with other Mesoamerican locations, the cultural differences suggest a lack of connection and influence from the Toltek/Aztect/Mayan culture that is apparent in sites such as Teotihuacan and Cholula.  Moreover, some unusual finds have been unearthed in Cantona. Currently, there are 27 ballgame courts that have cropped up in different areas of the city. The most visited aspect of this settlement is the Plaza de la Fertilidad, which receives it name from the phallic statues that are depicted all around this main square.

One of the latest items of debate about Cantona is the reason for its abandonment – or presumed abandonment. It has been argued that the sudden leave of inhabitants in this area was caused by a severe drought, however that theory is contested. The site is located in a volcanic basin; a good resource for obsidian which was highly demanded for tool making and trading purposes. The area flourished with the help of the materials available, and seems to have reached a peak of 90000 inhabitants before the mass exodus. Archaeologists are certain the evacuation of this area would have occurred between 900 AD and 1500 AD. Certainly the climatological circumstances of the area would have not contributed to a balance environment optimal for human live. It seems that the monsoon season was quite pronounced and was followed by severe droughts, resulting in numerous bad crops and issues with water supplies. It has been suggested this processed was particularly acute for about 650 years, perhaps fitting with the time frame previously suggested for the abandonment of the city. On a contrary note, however, it seems this period of harsh climate changes coincides with population increases in the area. So this has pushed researchers in Mesoamerican history to look elsewhere for the causes of the inhabitants moving out of the site. It has been considered that because this was a firmly fortified city, political unrest and general weather difficulties all over the place may have driven people to move in despite the hardship. Nevertheless, this did not stop the situation from deteriorating, leading to the eventual and full desertion of Cantona by its population.

In any case the facts about Cantona, as many of the other sites and cultures we have explored from Meso and Southamerica, are still quite scarce. I hope the future years will tell us some more about what actually happened in this place, and more interestingly, where did the people of Cantona go…?

Four Maya Rulers – Lost and Forgotten

Today I wanted to speak to you about some of the most prominent rulers of the Maya civilization. To my surprise, I thought I would be able to compile sufficient data about these 4 leaders, yet I was proven wrong. It is surprising how little we actually know about them. Even though the decipherment of Mayan glyphs advances, effectively all we have left over by this great culture -and many others in the area of Meso and South America- is their great monuments and archaeological remains. This is the reason why I have taken it as a task- you may have noticed that lately I have been posting quite a bit on this subject- to spread the word about these civilizations, and perhaps inspire others to become experts on the subject to enlighten us all!

Thus what follows is a brief description of these rulers based at Palanque and Tikal, and the few things we know about them. I would also like to advise that, while doing my research, I had to take advantage of my knowledge of Spanish to get details about these characters, because the widely information available in English was truly appalling or insufficient. So, you can consider this a work of history as much as a translation effort!


Pakal the Great / “El Grande”/ Ahau de Palenque (603-683 CE), also known as K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, was ruler of the Maya – and ahau or ajaw as referred to in their culture- with his seat of power located at Palenque. Pakal came to power after a conflicting and bellicose, so consolidating his influence and bringing some stability were key items in his agenda.He embarked himself in a vigorous military campaign that lead him to the acquisition of new land where to assert his position as ajaw.  At Palenque, Pakal begin the huge monumental complex that his own would later on expand. His first contribution to this was the temple El Olvidado, but he is better known for improving the palace. Moreover, he contributed to the improvement of Maya agricultural techniques and begun the series of glyphs from where we obtain most information about these dynasties and their people. After his death Pakal transcended into a divine figure and was worshiped as a god, who was believed to be able to communicate with the new rulers. He was buried at the Temple of Inscriptions, although his remains are still a disputed issue amongst the archaeologists regarding the true identity of these bones. It seems that the Maya manipulated the dates of his rulers and some other important members of society to make them coincide with prominent astronomical and astrological events, as a sign of good omen, or for mythological purposes. Nevertheless, recent research undertaken in 2003 by Vera Tiesler at the Universdad Autonoma de Yucatan re-examined his bones and concluded he was considerably old – estimates of 80 years although not all the researchers agreed on this figure, however they were certain he was at least 55 years old at the time of his death. Moreover, the results pointed out that he has suffered from osteoporosis and arthritis.  Pakal has also raised controversy regarding the iconography of his tomb, leading some -Charles Berlitz amongst them- to believe that he was connected with aliens, as they believed he was depicted piloting his grave as in the fashion of a spaceship. These theories have nowadays lost their popularity, but there are many who still contemplate this idea.

K’inich Kan B’alam II/ Chan Bahlum II (635-702 CE). He was the son of Pakal and was crowned some months after his father’s death in 684 CE. His name is usually translated as Gran Sol Serpiente Jaguar- Great Star Snake Jaguar-. As his father’s heir, he expanded the site of Palenque and commissioned the 3 temple complex. His most important addition is perhaps the Temple of the Cross, which is a crucial source for understanding the Mayan glyphs. He also campaigned primarily against the rulers of Tonina, located 115km south from Palenque, therefore its natural political rivals. However, nothing in particular seems to have triggered this animosity, so scholars have assumed in the past that the rulers of Tonina made a pack with a different Maya settlement, opposed to Palenque. One the other hand, he established alliances with the settlement of Moral-Reforma. In addition, K’inich Kan B’alam II commissioned not only the chronicle of dynasty of Palenque as well as their military epics, but he also introduced mythical narratives, such as the biographical account of Muwaan Mat and his ascendance to divine power.

Jasaw Chan K’awiil I (682-734 CE). Jasaw established his political capital at Tikal (Peten), which became one of the largest Maya cities of its period. Before the Maya glyphs were deciphered he was also known as “Gobernante A”. The period prior to his rule is associated with a time of recession for the people of Tikal which according to Maya experts lasted for 130 years. In addition, this change of circumstances and glorifying raise to greatness is mainly associated with his victory over another Maya ruler located at Calakmul. Jasaw is particularly associated with the site of Tikal Temple I, due to the location of his burial, although there does not seem to be consensus on the actual purpose for this building, aside of its funerary function. The site is a typical pyramid in Peten style.

Yik’in Chan K’awiil/K’awiil el Oscurecedor del Cielo (734-766 CE). He was the son of Jasaw and succeeded his father in the rulership of Tikal. Like his father, prior to decoding the glyphs he was identified as “Gobernante B” and was acknowledged as the 27th ruler in the Tikal line. Maya experts consider him one of the most successful leaders of the time, as he consolidated the realm his father amassed in his lifetime. Moreover, Yik’in managed to defeat two further Maya rulers towards the year 743CE. These were Jaguar Throne, ruler of El Peru, as well as the leader of the settlement in Naranjo. Interestingly though, the location of his tomb is currently unknown, however archaeologists seem to believe his tomb could be located southwards of Temple II.



Pre-columbian Art

Pre-Columbian civilizations have always fascinated me. Today I will combined this with one of my historical obsessions: art! Now, there is something very special about these artistic representations. For pre-Columbian civilizations, art was a wide-spread way of communicating and recording events. Certainly, this applies to many cultures around the world, however we have to remember that the vast majority of these people did not actually use any other type of writing or coding. So, effectively, this is practically the only source we have (archaeology aside) to know about their everyday life, their philosophy, religion, and even cosmology! Obviously I cannot cover all of the civilizations and cultures that contribute to the varied artistic picture of this continent. So I have picked the ones I consider relevant or interesting to provide a general insight into their tradition and trends.

Mesoamerican Art

Several cultures lived in Mesoamerica before the Europeans arrived. Amongst these people, the Olmec are renowned for their contribution to the art of the pre-classic period. They are probably best known for their jade figurines, and their colossal head sculptures that measured up to 2m. Some experts believe that these artefacts perhaps fit role within the ceremonial centers that the Olmecs started developing in the area of Mexico from 1500 BC to 400BC. Towards the end of their of this period, they also started developing stella, such as the ones found in the site of La Venta. These seem to represent and record important historical events such as the legitimisation of rulers.

In the post-classic period different styles and concepts were developed by various cultures. Once of the best known pieces of architecture from this period, belongs to the Toltec (800-1000 CE). They are responsible- or so it is believed, archaeologists are currently debating the actual existence of the Toltec civilization- for the free-standing 4 meters-tall columns at Tula. These seem to have been carved from one piece of basalt and shaped to look like warriors, which would have guarded the pyramid of Quetzalcoatl. The Mixtec also produced interesting pieces of art, these were however in the form of paintings and illustrations. Developed in the area of La Mixteca (including the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla), this culture populated their codices and walls with geometric designs. In addition, the Mixtec seem to have been master jewelers, and there is an abundance of gold and turquoise ornaments produced between the 11th Century and the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. It seems that these products were in fact so precious that they were paid to the Aztecs as tribute to keep peace amongst the two people. Apparently, a lot of the artistic background and knowledge produced by the Aztecs is heavily borrowed and influenced by that of the Mixtec, so it is not so easy to define what was the Aztec style or specifics designs introduced by them.

Southamerican Art

Further down in the American continent, art came to live as vigorously as is the north, particularly along the Andes. The Chavin culture (900 BC- 200 BC) is perhaps the most prominent as they were the first people in this area to create a recognisable and widespread style. The Chavin people specialised in pottery making. They developed 2 main types the polyhedral and the globular painted techniques. Their potteries were adorned using contour rivalry: a very intrinsic pattern,  which functions similar to a language with its own meaning. As an example of this we have the Raimundi Stella. Another evidence of Chavin art is the Tello Obelisk, which tells their creation myth in the shape of a giant shaft with animal and plant motifs. Finally, the Lazon located as the temple Chavin de Huantar is a most astonishing piece. This 4.53 metre long shaft presents the carving of a fanged deity or perhaps the chief cult figure of these people.

Further to the Chavin, it is widely recognise that the Nazca culture has been one of the most influential in South America, therefore I had to include them in this little update. The Nazca inhabited Peru ‘s south-east coast from 100 BC to 800 AD.  The experts believe that their heritage came from the Paracas culture and this is showed in their textile, ceramic and geoglyphs production. Following the steps of the Chavin, the Nazca people developed a master polychrome pottery technique that used up to 15 different colours! Moreover, archaeological evidence have proven that everyone has access to this product and not only the elite members of society. There are 9 phases in the evolution of this type of pottery, which I will briefly explain now. Starting in the proto-Nazca stage, with fruit, plants and animal motifs, the style moved from depictions of nature to more elaborate scenes, which is reached by stage 5. At this middle point in the development of this style, the natural realm is left behind and exchanged for military scenes. However, by stage 9 this trend is also abandoned. Instead the pots are decorated with complex geometric patterns and other social scenes, which perhaps suggests a change from a militaristic society to a different hierarchy and structure.

As a final point, I cannot leave without mentioning the famous Nazca lines. These massive pictures, which can be seen from the air are submerged in mystery and riddles. Nevertheless, the most recent studies about them show that they were created at various stages in time and with the involvement of different generations. The technique used to create this huge depictions is based on the placement of red pebbles in strategic positions on the ground. This contrast, aided by the climatological conditions of the area, effectively make the figures easily defined and visible from far away and higher up.

Let them Eat…Pumpkins

So back in October (2014) with the Halloween craze I suddenly found myself thinking: “what’s the deal with these pumpkin stuff?”. Then I realised I knew nothing about pumpkins- OK it is not a big deal, and perhaps you do not know much about pumpkins either, but you know where potatoes or tomatoes come from right? Well I came to the conclusion that I ought to know what was so special about them in both cultural and historical terms…And here is my research.

It seems that they are not only a Halloween icon, but also one of the most common crops on Earth. They had being used as a source of food as far back as 10.000 B.C as recent research by Cindy Ott shows. They were popularly grown and consumed in the Oaxaca highland (Mexico), and certainly cultivated in the Tehuacan and Tamaulipas as staple food since 6.000-5.000 B.C. Most Mesoamerican Pre-Columbian tribes like the Aztects and the Maya used them not only as a source for nutrients but also their seeds to create oil and sauces, and even the shells to make cups. Moreover, it has been suggested that they would also dry strips of pumpkin and then sew them together to make mattresses. 

The use and demand for pumpkins increased even more with the arrival of the European colonists, as there were no other staples easily available unlike in the old continent. It seems that at this stage they may have even being used to produce certain drinks, like beer (Pumpkin beer…that’s a thought for you…) The Spanish colonists took brought pumpkins back into Europe where they became popular as they were quite cheap and nutritious food, and so pumpkins started to become common ingredients in European recipes. Of course, the tradition continued in America, and in fact the first recipe for pumpkin pie recorded in American cookery books dates from 1796, provided by a woman by the name of Amelia Simons.

However, by the 19th century pumpkin consumption went into decline. The main reason behind this turn was simply that fact that other food sources were available, and even though it was still an affordable item for the poor, the wealthier classes did not deem it appropriate for their kitchens neither their tables. Ironically, while less and less pumpkins passed through the tables of both American and European people, they grew dear in their hearts and evoked a sentiment of nostalgia. Moreover, these orange, dark green and yellowish fruits (yes, they are technically fruits) became usual sightings in daily life paintings and landscapes. In addition, this contributed to the tradition of serving pumpkin for Thanksgiving, as a recollection of the traditional agricultural life of the American settlers and ancestors.

So how do we get from the pumpkin to the Halloween lanterns? Well, it is all due to the Irish, of course. With the great influx of immigrants from Ireland since the Potato Famine, a cultural mash-up took over the United States, thus combining the original Celtic idea of Samhain and the American pumpkin tradition to make Jack O’ lanterns that were meant to spook off evil spirits.

But if you think that pumpkins are things of the past, then you are wrong. Most traditions revolving around pumpkins are still alive. The production of pumpkin crops in the United States nowadays is still massive. Researches Orzolek, Greaser and Harper, from the Penn. University have gathered data that suggests that around 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins are produced each year in North America, particularly in the states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, California, and Pennsylvania. Furthermore, in modern-day Mexico they grow enough pumpkins each year to supply for the whole country as have spare to export to Japan…

And with this brief story about pumpkins, I hope your curiosity, like mine, feels a bit more satisfied and complete. knowing about this millenarian food resource that has shape shift from pies to lanterns!