The Cultural and Economic Value of Cocoa Beans

When looking at the history of Chocolate, it is impossible not to get captivated by the early use of cacao beans in the ancient Mesoamerican cultures of the Aztecs and the Maya.  Existing in present-day Mexico and extending down to the bottom parts of Latin America, these two societies were both often at war and partaking in trade.  While the barter system may have been the dominant trading means of the time, inevitably the use of currency begins to impose itself on trade.  Both the ancient Maya and Aztecs had great interest in Gold and Silver as a currency, however, historians argue that in both higher volume and day-to-day transactions, the cocoa bean emerged as a more valid and efficient currency of trade.[1]  This interested the Spanish explorers at the time because the elite also drank cocoa bean drinks, in essence, drinking away the money of the people.  The power and versatility of this commodity was relatively lacking in the western world. Below is a depiction of the transaction between a trader and citizens using cocoa beans as a currency; while it was a food and drink of the elite in the Maya culture, I would argue that this only inflated the value of the bean as a commoditized currency from the demand side. [2]  It can be said, then, that cocoa to a degree facilitated the interregional trade between these Mesoamerican civilizations because it was accepted by both the Maya and Aztecs as a valuable commodity.

Cacao as Currency
Moldy Cacao Beans

The value of the bean as currency was an interesting phenomenon of the time.  While the elite demand of the bean played a role in its self-contained value, the delicate nature of the pod and tree also made cacao a scarce commodity.  In the economic world, this would classify it as an even better mode of trade because as a currency, it would be difficult to inflate from the supply side.  This begs the question, why did silver and gold win out as the currency of the time?  While it does have many of the necessary qualities of “good money”, being portable, scarce, malleable, and uniform, it loses out because it is perishable (see picture for perishable cocoa).  Furthermore, the cocoa bean became so valuable as a currency, that traders began counterfeiting cocoa nibs in an effort to cheat people out of money.  In fact this, not the perishability, is cited as being the reason why gold and silver won out as the currency of the time.[3]

While I have argued that cacao held economic value as a scarce and perishable resource, it is also important to note the cultural value that cacao held from the perspective of the Maya and Aztec people of the time.  Chocolate was seen to have countless health benefits, while also acting as a valuable nutritional source for the elites and soldiers.  However, the most powerful value-addition of chocolate was most likely cultural.  Chocolate was often thought to have hallucinogenic qualities, particularly by the Mesoamerican people where chocolate was more widely consumed across social classes.  The power of Chocolate as a ritualistic drink can be seen in the video below.  The ritual leader often uses words like “magic of chocolate” and describes “chocolatl”, the traditional mayan drink, as stimulating and relaxing at the same time.  If westerners were to draw parallels, I would say that beer and wine offer the same type of benefits as chocolatl did for the Maya.  From all sides, it seems that Cocoa and Chocolate filled a very important niche for the Mesoamerican people.  The value of cocoa at the time may be the reason why chocolate is held in such high esteem today as a luxury good.

[1] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996, 58.

[2] Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2001,18.

[3] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996, 59.

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