Commercialization of Cacao Beans in the Aztec Empire

Image from Bernardino de Sahagún’s Florentine Codex, as published in Coe & Coe, 2013
Image from Bernardino de Sahagún’s Florentine Codex, as published in Coe & Coe, 2013

A group of merchants, the pochteca, played a prominent role in the commercialization and commoditization of cacao within the Aztec empire. As the pochteca made cacao more available to the Aztec empire, cacao emerged as not only something of intrinsic value, but also of tradable value, permeating through various aspects of Aztec market life. Since farmers could not grow cacao within the Aztec empire due to the unsuitability of climate around the major cities, the only way cacao could appear in Aztec cities was through import. The pochteca served an economic function connecting buyers of cacao, often times Aztec nobility, with sellers, those who could indigenously grow the product. It is in this way that they served as intermediaries in the market for goods, particularly luxury goods, such as cacao.

The pochteca specialized in long-distance trade from foreign markets such as Xicallanco and Xoconocho to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. Often times they also served as warriors repelling attacks on their trade routes and as spies obtaining knowledge for the Aztec royalty, given that they developed fluency in various local languages through trade. As Coe & Coe mention, the pochteca were different from ordinary market traders. They were part of age-old guilds having their own god, Yacatecuhtli, responsible for commerce (Coe & Coe, 2013, pg. 74 & Van Tuerenhout, 2005, pg. 101). The hereditary nature of the guilds created a barrier of entry for commoners seeking to enter this trade business, thusly giving the pochteca a monopoly over long-distance trade of luxury goods. Furthermore, given that the pochteca were transporting luxury goods for royalty and nobility, they had high status in Aztec society, just below the noblemen themselves. They were granted their own court and laws and were allowed to wear the same type of clothing as the noblemen (Van Tuerenhout, 2005, pg. 100-101).

The image above documents the pochteca as illustrated by artists in Bernardino de Sahagún’s Florentine Codex, a comprehensive research project conducted in Mesoamerica in the mid to late 1500s. The image shows the pochteca en route with hunched over backs, indicating the labor-intensity and long-haul toil required to bring valuable goods to the Aztec empire. They are seen carrying woven sacks of tradable goods. Using a legend of tradable merchandise from a page of another compilation, the Mendoza Codex, in the image below, we see next to the tiger skins that the sacks the pochteca are carrying in fact contain cacao (Berdan & Anawalt, 1997). Furthermore, the footprints on the road in the image above indicate that the merchants are following some sort of pre-determined path, possibly a trade route to the imperial city centers. The road has been traversed before and illuminates the key role the pochteca played in transporting valuable tradable items, such as cacao, and in connecting the Aztec Empire to foreign lands.

Image from the Codex Mendoza, Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University
Image from the Codex Mendoza, Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University

Through the pochteca, cacao began to take on value as an exchangeable good in addition to the existing religious and fundamental value the Aztecs held for cacao. The Aztecs fundamentally revered cacao for its religious significance. The cacao tree represented the joining of earth to heaven and a gift from the God of Wisdom, Quetzalcoatl. Mothers would give cacao drinks to their children so they could gain wisdom. This religious backing, together with the tastes and preferences for the cacao product itself served as the primary source of value of cacao for the Aztecs and the primary driver of the cacao trade. However, given the long, arduous journeys of the pochteca, it became costly to obtain cacao and thus was reserved for the nobility. Cacao was thus limited in supply, began to be used in exchange, and thus developed practical value as people could use cacao beans in local exchange as currency. For example, to buy a canoe full of water or a turkey one would have to pay 100 cacao beans. The use of cacao as currency emerged as the pochteca took a percentage of the cacao they brought as a fee (Van Tuerenhout, 2005, pg. 100). As the volume of the cacao trade increased, cacao inventories of the pochteca and the royalty increased, paving the way for its use in exchange. This gave the product tradable value.

With respect to this tradeable value, cacao shared three characteristics economists today typically associate with money or currency. Firstly, within the Aztec empire, it served as a medium of exchange, used by vendors in big city markets like the one in Tenochtitlan. Secondly, records indicate that cacao had a good shelf and storage life, making it a store of value. Thirdly, it was a unit of account, since various producers and retailers used cacao to measure the cost of their product and compare product value, simply by looking at how much cacao one would have to give up to get one item over another. In this sense, cacao served many of the key functions of modern-day currency.

The pochtecas’ role as a market-maker, bringing cacao from the outside to the inside, also became prominent locally, where the nobility would ask them to sell surplus tribute they received from taxation of goods. In this sense, the proliferation of cacao’s significance as exchangeable value comes from the pochtecas’ trading and distribution of the good. Observing the cacao prices of various goods in past records allow historians to glean a perspective how the Aztec society relatively valued different goods based on their cost in cacao beans. In this way, the pochteca served a critical role in bringing cacao to the center of commercialized Aztec market life. Today, we see the longevity of the association of currency with cacao, through artistic representations with chocolate, such as in Hanukkah gelt!

Image from Flickr Creative Commons LInk:
Image from Flickr Creative Commons

Works Cited

Albert R. Mann Library. (2007). When Money Grew on Trees. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University.

Berdan, Frances and Patricia Anawalt. (1997). The Essential Codex Mendoza (1541). Berkeley.


Coe, Sophie D. & Michael D. Coe. (2013). The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Flickr. (Accessed February 19, 2015). Creative Commons.


Van Tuerenhout, Dirk R. (2005). The Aztecs: New Perspectives. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc.


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