Researchers analyzing the genomes of cultivated cacao trees have traced their origin to a “single domestication event” some 3,600 years ago. The discovery opens a new front in a long-running argument regarding when and where humans started growing the source of chocolate.

Omar Cornejo.

“This evidence increases our understanding of how humans moved and established in America,” said Omar Cornejo, a Washington State University population geneticist in the School of Biological Sciences and lead author of an article on the study in Communications Biology, an open-access journal from the publishers of Nature.

“It is important in itself because it gives us a timeframe 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?”

The study, which involved 18 scientists from 11 institutions, also found that cacao’s domestication ended up selecting for flavor, disease resistance and the stimulant theobromine. However, that came at the cost of retaining genes that lowered crop yields.

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