Today chocolate coins are a common holiday candy, especially during Hanukkah when they are given to children as gelt. Chocolate coins are common gifts or prizes for school-aged children, too. Chocolate coins are sold in grocery stores, toy stores, and convenience stores. The chocolate coin is a common form of candy whose significance is frequently overlooked. An analysis of chocolate coins provides a unique way of looking at the history of the clash between Europeans and Mesoamericans. Chocolate coins have a deep history that has been disconnected from the candy, one that I wish to elucidate here.
Chocolate is made from processed cacao seeds, or beans as they are known. The cacao bean comes from the fruit of the cacao tree, a finicky tree that can only grow in certain warm but shady regions. These fruits develop from flower cushions along the trunk of the tree. Only 3 of every 1,000 flowers on the cacao tree will yield a fruit, and each fruit only contains 30 to 40 cacao beans (Chocolate: Food of the Gods) (Martin). Cacao beans were valuable to the people of Mesoamerica and were used both as a demonstration of wealth and as a status symbol (Piedad). We know exactly how valuable these cacao beans were from records that relate the value of cacao beans to commodities and services that are common today. In Yucután, one cacao bean was worth about 4.5 hours of work (Piedadd). A document from Tlaxxcala written in 1545 lists more exchange rates:
- “One good turkey hen is worth 100 full cacao beans, or 120 shrunken cacao beans
- A turkey cock is worth 200 cacao beans
- A hare [jackrabbit] or forest rabbit is worth 100 cacao beans each
- A small rabbit is worth 30
- One turkey egg is worth 3 cacao beans
- An avaocado newly picked is worth 3 cacao beans; when an avocado is fully ripe it will be equivalent to one cacao bean
- one large tomato will be equivalent to one cacao bean” (Coe 99-100).
In the list above, notice that some of the exchange rates are listed in terms of “full” and “shrunken” cacao beans. It is interesting that cacao was used as money for several reasons. First, the quality of cacao beans was controlled by nature, not by man, and variation between different fruits and plants must have resulted in cacao beans of different values. Secondly, cacao is perishable. Even when stored in the seed casing, the bean that is approximately 40% fat by weight could go rancid after a prolonged storage.
In Europe, archaeological records indicate that metal coins existed from at the latest 700 BCE (Head). By the 13th century, governments regulated coin production, and emperors and rulers had complete control of the minting process (Hillgarth). When a new person came into power, they would strike a new set of coins with their crest, face, or propaganda message on them. Old coins were no longer accepted as payment, but the value of the metal they were casted from remained (Iroko). People could melt coins down to make the new issue coins. Yet, archaeologists find coins from all eras, and especially in burials (Hall). If it were the case that coins were used solely as currency, then we would not expect to find so many. Clearly, coins had more than just pecuniary value. There is significant evidence that coins were used as apotropaic devices in the forms of tokens, charms, pendants, as well as symbols of wealth and status (Hall).
Like coins were associated with keeping evil forces away, cacao too was associated with stories that would have been recognized by the whole community. Cacao plays integral roles in the creation stories of the Aztec and the Maya (Martin 2/3/14).
- How It’s Made: Chocolate Coins
- Today chocolate is an ordinary food and perhaps a staple of the modern diet. Yet this was not always the case. Spanish explorers brought chocolate, then consumed as a drink, to the royalty of Europe. Spaniards adopted the chocolate of the Mesoamericans and adapted its preparation to make it a sweet, solid food rather than a beverage. In effect, the Spaniards stole the flavor of Mesoamerica and added flavors to make it agreeable for the European palette. The preparation of chocolate in the form of coins is an interesting blending and extension of the pecuniary traditions of Europe and Mesoamerica that is now regarded as a child’s food and is given little respect.
- Chocolate: Food of the Gods . Ithaca, NY: Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University, 2007. <http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/index.php>.
- Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.
- Hall, Mark A. “Money Isn’t Everything: The Cultural Life of Coins in the Medieval Burgh of Perth, Scotland.” Journal of Social Archaeology 12, no. 1 (February 1, 2012): 72–91.
- Head, Barclay. “Aegina.” Historia NumorumL A Manual of Greek Numismatics. N.p.. Web. 21 Feb 2014. <http://www.snible.org/coins/hn/aegina.html>.
- Hillgarth, J. N. “Coins and Chronicles: Propaganda in Sixth-Century Spain and the Byzantine Background.” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte 15, no. 4 (November 1, 1966): 483–508.
- Iroko, Félix. “Mollusc Money .” Unesco Courier. 01 Jan 1990: 21-25. Print.
- Martin, Carla. “[unknown].” AAS 119x, Harvard University. 3 February 2014.
- Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao.” AAS 119x, Harvard University. 18 February 2014.
- Piedad, Peniche Rivero. “When Cocoa Was Used as Currency.” Unesco Courier. 01 Jan 1990: 16-20. Print.
- Presilla, Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.