History of chocolate to be investigated at University
01 December 2022
The fascinating history of chocolate will be investigated at the University of Reading following the award of a highly-competitive Global Professorship by the British Academy.
Cocoa’s long and complex story, and how chocolate has changed the world, will be examined at the University’s world-leading Department of Archaeology.
Research will be led over a four-year period by Dr Kathryn Sampeck, who is currently based at Illinois State University in the United States, from early 2023.
More specifically, Dr Sampeck will delve into the role Central America has played in the confectionary’s past and how the region is still playing a big part in its trade today.
The project will place the spotlight on western El Salvador as the birthplace of chocolate, which was home to the Izalcos Pipil - a group who played a pivotal role in the production of this global commodity.
Dr Sampeck said: “Chocolate emerged in an unusual place and time and what started as a local home recipe spread like wildfire.
“Central America is pivotal to this global story, but its place in chocolate’s history has been seriously neglected.
“This is because we have lacked the evidence and tools needed to evaluate these countries’ roles. By doing a deep dive into this region’s cuisine history, we will better understand the issues of sustainability and structural inequality surrounding chocolate today.”
Today, up to 50 million people worldwide depend on cacao for their livelihood and the global chocolate industry was valued at more than $89 billion in 2021, according to market research.
The study has been made possible after Dr Sampeck secured more than £850,000 from the British Academy through the Global Professorship scheme. This provides arts, humanities and social sciences academics the opportunity to work in the UK for four years and is funded by the UK’s department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
This is the first time the University of Reading has been awarded a Global Professorship, which was one of eight awarded in 2022.
Dr Sampeck’s project will be based in the Department of Archaeology - a leading centre for research into the deep history of food production and diet - where archaeological materials collected from El Salvador will be analysed and interpreted.
She will also collaborate with the British Museum to use its world-class scientific expertise and facilities in the chemical analysis of ancient food remains.
As well as this, she will engage with the Latin American and Caribbean Network, and University Museums and Special Collections Services at the University of Reading.
Dr Gabor Thomas, Research Division Leader for Archaeology, said: “This is a hugely exciting opportunity for Archaeology.
“Dr Sampeck’s project has synergies reaching across Archaeology and her presence will increase our capacity to foster collaborative interdisciplinary research within Reading and via the University’s strategic partnership with the British Museum.”
The University of Reading is a fitting place for the research to take place, as the institution is home to the International Cocoa Quarantine Centre. It is the principal hub for the safe transfer of cocoa vegetative material between countries and its presence has led to the University gaining an international reputation for cocoa research since the 1980s.