The money that grew on trees

In the time of the Aztecs, the use of cacao beans as currency, tribute to the emperor, and wages, along with the extensive counterfeiting trade that occurred, demonstrate the value the Aztecs placed on the chocolate beverage.

In the Aztec empire, a thriving trade developed around the cacao bean as currency. It was known as the coin of the realm. Cacao served this economic purpose during both the conquest and colonial eras, but historians have much more information about exchange rates from the latter time period (Coe, 90). A list of some known exchange rates from a Nahuatl document from Tlaxcala in 1545 demonstrates the peoples’ ability to exchange the beans for various food products. However, according to Presilla, cacao beans could be exchanged for anything from a turkey to sex (Presilla, 14).

A turkey hen for 100 full beans or 120 shrunken beans

A turkey cock for 200 beans

A hare for 100 beans

A small rabbit for 30

A turkey egg for 3 cacao beans

An avocado for 3 beans

A large tomato for 1 bean

A large sapote fruit for 1 bean

A tamale for 1 bean

A fish in maize husks for3 beans

The monetary value of cacao fluctuated with respect to its availability (Coe, 90). It is not unlikely the price of a common item, such as a turkey, fluctuated widely from region to region and season to season. Additionally, as the exchange rates were transcribed and translated, they could have been misinterpreted. Because of this, it is not uncommon to find a wide variety of cacao prices. This video indicates that a cacao bean could be traded for twenty small tomatoes, while the document above indicated that one bean would buy one large tomato. 

Cacao beans were also used to pay salaries, such as wages for soldiers or even other laborers (Coe, 98). According to one source, the daily wage of a porter in central Mexico was 100 cacao beans (Coe, 90). In addition to wages, the cacao beans were used to pay tribute to the emperor. For one cacao-growing region in the Aztec world, 200 loads of cacao beans and 400 drinking bowls were expected, as is indicated by the ten flag-like symbols attached to cacao beans in this picture.

The tributes paid to the Aztec emperor included Jaquoire skins and cacao beans.

What defined a load of cacao? Cacao was counted in base 20, so a tzontli of cacao was 400 cacao beans, and a xiquipilli was 8000 beans (Coe 82). A normal load of cacao was three xiquipillis, or 24,000 beans (Coe 82).

In order for something to be used as currency, it had to be sufficiently valuable and rare. It seems that cacao fit those standards in Aztec society. The fact that the people were willing to transform something they could use to pay a necessary tribute into something they could exchange for everyday items only increases its value. Indeed it seems that cacao’s purpose as a food source for the elite was secondary in importance to its use as a payment method for any and all persons in the kingdom.

The value the Aztecs placed on cacao was evident not only from its conversion from food source to currency, but also from the enormous stores of cacao that the emperor required. According to some sources, the king needed four xiquipillis for his daily needs, including making payments and drinking chocolate for the elite (Coe, 82). His warehouse probably held around 40,000 loads of cacao.

The Spanish, always keen on anything that seemed to hold monetary value, made moves to gain access to the rich cacao beans as soon as they realized their societal value. The Spanish began to export cacao back from the New World after acquiring it in various ways. One story even told of a midnight heist of cacao from the emperor that the Spanish carried out with the help of 300 soldiers (Coe, 82). The relationship between the Spanish and Cacao can be further explored at this link

The thriving counterfeiting process also demonstrates the value of cacao beans in Aztec society. Many methods developed to supplement existing stores of beans with similar-looking fakes. Some were made of wax, avocado pit, or dough (Coe, 91). These fake cacao beans were then tossed in with a supply of normal beans to augment the stock. The labor-intensive process of creating fake cacao beans indicates the valuable reward that the beans could attain.

Cacao was extremely valuable to all the people in the Aztec empire, despite the restriction of consumption to only the wealthy elite. Its conversion to currency, the massive stocks cultivated by the empire, and the counterfeiting process that developed all indicate the extreme importance of this natural resource. As Peter Martyr (the same old-world chronicler who coined the phrase “The New World”) indicated, it seems that for the Aztec, money truly did grow on trees (Coe, 98).

Works Cited
Coe, Sophie. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.

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