In Crossroads and Cultures: A History of the World’s Peoples, Smith et al. assert that pre-Columbian Aztec society had an intense system of social stratification that was reinforced by a series of “social rules and rituals” (526). When first analyzing the consumption of cacao among the Aztecs, one cannot help but initially think that the crop’s characterization as a drink reserved for the elite should serve as a clear example of the class-based restrictions that Smith et. al is describing. However, a closer look at the pochteca, or merchant class within Aztec society, reveals that the relationship between cacao consumption and social class may have been a bit more nuanced. Instead, it seems that the rarity of cacao within the Aztec capital and its perception as a strengthening substance not only allowed the pochteca to access cacao in spite of their non-elite status, but also created social mobility within the social stratum.
Within Aztec society, the pochteca were a class of merchants responsible for transporting exotic and valuable goods from the empire’s trading ports to the imperial courts (Coe & Coe 1057). Because cacao could not be grown in the temperate highlands of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, the ruling elite greatly depended on the pochteca to retrieve the good from tribute states such as Xicallanco and Xoconochco.
In addition to bringing back large stores of cacao for the rulers in Tenochtitlan, the pochteca would often keep some of the cacao for themselves keep large stores of the goods within their respective warehouses. In fact, Coe and Coe describe how the many pochteca merchants would host huge banquets for their fellow merchants upon returning from an expedition and would serve cacao as a special treat (1281). Thus, it seems that the rarity of cacao within the capital played a major role in giving pochteca merchants special access to cacao in spite of their status as non-elites.
In addition to cacao’s rarity within the Tenochtitlan, its reputation among the Aztecs as a source of strength played a key role in giving the pochteca access to such a valuable good. Within Aztec society, cacao was often given to the warrior class in order to promote strength and bravery. According to the Aztecs, the cacao pod was often viewed as a symbol of the human heart and was, therefore, considered to be sacred. Coe and Coe attribute this association to the fact that both the cacao pod and heart “are repositories of precious liquid-blood and chocolate” (1442). In an account of the views of the intelligentsia by Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan missionary who spent a lot of time observing the Aztecs, the symbolic power of blood is conveyed when they state that “the heart and blood are to be feared” (Coe & Coe 1429). Therefore, this association between cacao and blood often manifested in a belief that the drink possessed a power that could be given to those who consumed it, particularly warriors. Coe and Coe highlight this when they state, “being symbolically blood, [cacao] was the right and true potion for Aztec warriors” (1458). In fact, cacao became a major staple for those in the military by being pressed into wafers that were easy to transport (Coe & Coe 1372).
After reading this, one may wonder what the link between warriors and cacao has to do with cacao consumption among the pochteca merchants. The answer to this is that, in addition to being viewed as long distant merchants, the pochteca were also viewed as warriors within Aztec society. Because these merchants had to go on very long journeys with incredibly valuable goods in tow, they were often armed and had to engage in combat in order to defend their merchandise. In fact, Coe and Coe state that members of this class often engaged in warfare against hostile groups on their journeys (1375). Therefore, due to the dangerous nature of their work and the great value of the goods that they had to carry, it seems that members of the Aztec elite made an exception for the pochteca by allowing them to freely partake of cacao so that they could acquire the perceived power that they plant was thought to possess.
It is also very important to note that, in addition to giving members of the pochteca class access to an elite privilege, cacao consumption also created greater social mobility within the merchant class. According to Coe and Coe, if a merchant wanted to increase in status within his guild, he could do so by hosting a very lavish banquet for other merchants. These affairs often involved buying a large amount of food, cacao drink and slaves for sacrifice-thus, making them incredibly expensive (1361). This suggests that cacao consumption bestowed a degree of social mobility to those who were financially able to acquire it.
All in all, it seems that the pochteca merchant class serves as an indication that the relationship between cacao consumption and social class within Aztec society is a bit more complex than many would have initially thought. Due to cacao’s rarity within the center of the empire and its symbolic significance to the Aztec people, pochteca merchants were able to gain access to a good that was usually reserved to elites and warriors and were able to find ways to elevate themselves socio-economically within their own class structure.
Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe, and Ryan J. Huxtable. The true history of chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Smith, Bonnie G., Marc Van De Mieroop, Richard von Glahn, Kris Lane. Crossroads and Cultures: A History of the World’s Peoples. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012.