Kathryn E. Sampeck

Kathryn E. Sampeck

Non-resident Fellow, Du Bois Research Institute
Associate Professor at Illinois State University


Kathryn E. Sampeck (BA, MA, University of Chicago; PhD Tulane University), an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University, is a specialist in the archaeology and ethnohistory of Spanish colonialism. She has recently founded the Afro-Latin American Archaeological Consortium, an initiative supported by the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at the Hutchins Center, to promote research, programs, planning, and projects centered on Afro-Latin American contexts, issues, and material worlds. Sampeck’s publications include numerous book chapters in scholarly anthologies as well as articles in American AntiquityHistorical Archaeology, the International Journal of Historical ArchaeologyMesoaméricaAncient Mesoamerica, and Journal of Latin American Geography. She is co-editor (with Stacey Schwartzkopf) of Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Mesoamerica, to be published by University of Texas Press in fall 2017. She was Guest Editor for the summer 2015 edition of the journal Ethnohistory, “Colonial Mesoamerican Literacy: Method, Form, and Consequence,” published in cooperation with the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University. Sampeck was a 2015-2016 Central America Visiting Scholar, David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and Visiting Scholar, Afro-Latin American Research Institute. She has also received fellowships from the John Carter Brown Library and the John D. Rockefeller Library at Colonial Williamsburg as well as grants from the National Science Foundation, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Social Science Research Council, Fulbright program, and Cherokee Preservation Foundation. She is the Secretary-elect for the Archaeology Division of the American Anthropological Association and serves on the editorial boards for EthnohistoryHistorical Archaeology, and the International Journal of Historical Archaeology. Her current book project, How Chocolate Came to Be, examines the role of Afro-Central Americans and their daily lives in one of the most extreme colonial environments in all Latin America—the birthplace of chocolate.

Project Description

How Chocolate Came to Be

Chocolate bundles together deep contradictions: rich, dark, sinful, healthy, sweet, bitter; it can be a food, drink, and flavor. Few substances we consume today permeate so many realms of life, from the exceptional to the mundane. The question my research poses is:  “why is chocolate so unusually potent, transcendent, and contradictory?” A crucial part of the answer lies in the role of chocolate as a shorthand for blackness and the dilemmas of race. This association is due to more than color: one of the deep dilemmas of chocolate production is its reliance on slavery, a dependence that grew more entrenched over the course of the colonial period. Cacao, the tree whose seeds people use to make chocolate, was one of the first agricultural sources of wealth in the Spanish empire. The Izalcos region of today’s western El Salvador, an unequaled producer of cacao, quickly became one of the richest encomiendas in all the Indies and a key player in the genesis of colonial legal and contraband commercial practices. In the face of rapidly declining indigenous population, both free and enslaved people of African descent became ever more essential as agricultural labor, but even more importantly, to provision daily needs for Izalqueños in subsistence, supplies, and even in Christian spiritual life. Africans and their descendants played decisive roles as entrepreneurs, facilitators, and defenders in this volatile and dynamic economy, inhabiting a netherworld of enforced illegal practice, serving as a convenient scapegoat, and being scions of virtue. Changes in material culture, configurations of laboring, political, economic, and social spaces, imagery, and accounts about chocolate at home and abroad show that “chocolate” was a vehicle for defining new relationships with the colonial economy, tastes of the body politic, and colors of changing social realms.

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