Pochteca: The Traveling Merchant’s Role in Adoption of Cacao as Currency

Many Mesoamerican civilizations used cacao beans as a unit of currency for trade. While the fundamental nature of beans as a small, mobile, and countable good undoubtedly had an impact on its adoption as a unit of currency, the pochteca, or traveling merchants, were also instrumental in spurring the cacao bean’s adoption by emphasizing the inherent and associated value of this resource. By way of background, the pochteca were specialized travelers whose task was “to mount expeditions…to distant ‘ports of trade’ in the lowlands” (Coe and Coe 73). I argue that the Pochteca impacted the adoption of cacao beans as key economic currency for two reasons. First, the acknowledgement of the Pochteca’s high social class within Mesoamerican society enforced the idea of stratification of goods in where chocolate was seen as a luxury good with inherent measurable value. Second, the pochteca often also acted as commercial or military spies, ingratiating themselves with the ruling class, which would be more likely to use cacao beans for trade and governing affairs. Finally, the dangerous journey to retrieve cacao beans also enforced the idea of scarcity, thus increasing demand.

First, the pochteca were seen in the social stratification at a high status, which by association elevated Cacao to a luxury good with inherent social status. Coe and Coe (2013) states that the Pochteca occupied a high status within society just below the noble class, partially because they provided the noble class with the materials to display wealth. The pochteca would mount expeditions to the lowlands to collect cacao beans and the Spaniards even noticed that “cacao ranked with gold and gems in records of solemn offerings to the dead, and they gathered that its use was restricted to certain prestigious classes” (Presilla 17). The purpose of pochtecas was inextricably linked to the good they carried; thus, cacao could be seen as a distinguishing factor of social status . Indeed, this social hierarchy was also evident in the ways in which a pochteca could promote themselves: “an aspiring merchant…was obliged to host a large and expensive banquet for his fellow merchants at each rung of the ladder” (Coe and Coe 98). This social stratification, which placed the pochteca very close to the top, influenced the perception of cacao beans as a valuable luxury good with inherent value and was linked closely to social capital.

Second, the pochteca often doubled as commercial or military spies between regions; this meant that the governing elite highly valued the services of pochteca. The intimate connection between the two allowed for an easier adoption by the governing class to use cacao beans as a currency for trade and other affairs. Under the Triple Alliance, the three towns of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan ruled for a period in the mid-1400’s that lasted for a 100 years. Formally trained spies (often pochteca due to their travel knowledge) during this period collected military intelligence; Florentine Codex Book 9 shown below illustrates the pochteca disguised in nontraditional garb.

Blog Post 1-Photo1Figure 1. Disguised Pochteca at Tzinacantlan from Florentine Codex Book 9.

Consequently, pochteca they often perceived negatively and punished if captured. For example, we see this negative connoted in the Mixtec Codex, where the pochteca are portrayed with mice near their feet. Mice carried negative connotations as they were compared to incessant “eavesdroppers” and in the second picture from the Codex Mendoz Folio 66r, the fate of spies that were captured in enemy territory. Thus, the value cacao beans were also enhanced by the inherent dangers of a pochteca’s job.

Blog Post 1-Photo2Figure 2. Traveling pochteca with rodent near staff.

Blog Post 1-Photo3

Figure 3. Fate of pochteca spies if caught in enemy territory.

          Finally, the pochteca opened up a network of townships and governing regions where tributes needed to be collected, thus requiring a standardized currency. As noted from the International Cocoa Organization (2011), cacao beans were also used as a currency and as a tribute or tax from peoples ruled by Aztecs. For example, this facsimile from the Codex Mendoza (1541) shows the tribute that Aztecs extracted twice a year from the cacao-growing region of Soconusco in southern Mexico. Having a unit of trade that could be easily calculated was very useful between the lowlands and central cities.

Blog Post 1-Photo4 Figure 4. Sample of tribute collected from the lowlands.

Cacao was also used in a variety of ceremonies across Mesoamerica, making it a necessary unit of value for events. “Cacao beans were given to priest’s assistants at children’s coming of age ceremonies. During marriage ceremonies, the couple drank a symbolic cup of chocolate and exchanged cacao beans” (ICO 2011). The widespread geographic adoption of cacao beans, spurred by the pochteca and the transfer of knowledge across the region resulted in the demand and common use of cacao beans.

Blog Post 1-Photo5 Figure 5. Chocolate used in offerings to the Sun god in Codex Laud.  

Blog Post 1-Photo6Figure 6. Chocolate offering in marriage ceremony from Codex Zouche-Nuttall. 

          Ultimately, the use of cacao beans as currency greatly complimented the economies of Mesoamerican civilizations by providing a standard unit of currency to facilitate trade. The pochteca undoubtedly played an important role in reinforcing the sociological connections between cacao and its value due to both the pochteca’s high social status as well as their military uses by the governing elite. It is interesting to hear that the Spanish themselves utilized “cacao currency” for a rather long time. As late as 1750, the “Spanish viceroy…enacted regulations for general stores requiring them to accept both small coins and cacao beans as change” (Presilla 18).

Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Presilla, Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.

Multimedia Sources:

“When Money Grew on Trees.” Chocolate Food of the Gods. Cornell University, 1 Jan. 2007. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/moneygrewontrees.php&gt;.

“How Much Energy Can You Get From One Cacao Bean?” Ask the Experts. Mexicolore, 1 Nov. 2006. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/ask-experts/how-much-energy-can-you-get-from-one-cocoa-bean&gt;.

“International Cocoa Organization.” Chocolate Use in Early Aztec Cultures. International Cocoa Organization, 8 Jan. 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.

Mursell, Ian. “Mice: Aztec Spies!” Aztefacts. Mexicolore, 21 May 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/aztefacts/mice-aztec-spies&gt;.


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