Cacao as Currency: The Perils of a Perishable Money

To underscore the ubiquitous permeation of the cacao plant throughout ancient Mesoamericans’ daily life, chocolate scholars consistently remark upon a peculiar application of the plant: the cacao bean’s use as money. Alexander del Mar, a 19th-century economic historian, describes a Mexican empire whose “usual currency… consisted of flat copper pieces and cacao beans”(del Mar, 45). Sophie and Michael Coe describe cacao as a “drink and a currency,” and a “coin of the realm” with which many market and wage transactions were conducted (Coe & Coe, 98-99). Maricel Presilla depicts an Aztec society in the 1500s where “cacao beans had taken on the status of legal money,”(Presilla, 17) and Rene Millon authored a 600-page “Study of Cacao in Ancient Mesoamerica” titled When Money Grew on Trees. But is this designation appropriate? Does the ancient use of cacao really qualify as a currency, a type of money?

An academic understanding of money is a proper foundation from which to begin this examination. While modern economic texts describe money as “an officially-issued legal tender” which generally consists of currency and coin, this definition quickly digresses into delineated categories to explain its accessibility and liquidity (Money). The money supply is described in classes from M0 (cash and its close relatives) to M3 (value stored in businesses) (Money Supply). Given the ambiguities and technicalities inherent in this modern financial accounting definition, it feels appropriate to work with a more historic understanding of currency, for which we turn to Classical Greece:

Aristotle (384-322 BC)

Aristotle pronounced the four criteria of money as

1. Having intrinsic value
2. Portable
3. Divisible
4. Durable (Karimzadi, 206)


Cacao trade in ancient Aztec and Mayan societies certainly satisfies some of the above conditions; however, given the Aristotelian definition of money, cacao beans as used in pre-Columbian Central America fall well short of the oft-ascribed label of a currency or money. To illustrate this shortcoming, we test the four conditions in turn upon cacao bean application in Ancient Mesoamerican.

chocolate maya ruler
Mayan elite with chocolate drink

The intrinsic value of cacao beans is the easiest, and most palatable, condition to satisfy. As a well-documented food, cacao beans provided a source of nourishment in Mesoamerica. The bean was a staple from the governing elites to the poorest farmers, reflecting its universally accepted value beyond that of a currency (Presilla, 12-13). Further, in 1502, Ferdinand Columbus (son of Christopher) remarked on the odd reverence with which an indigenous person bent to collect a dropped bean, saying they stooped to pick it up “as if an eye had fallen”(Coe & Coe, 109).

The portability of the cacao bean is another evident property. Each cacao pod produces
“30-40 almond-shaped seeds” which, after fermentation and roasting, lend themselves well to travel and trade (Coe & Coe, 21). Cacao beans fulfilled this role of money to such extent that Aztec rulers included 200 loads of the seeds as part of their bi-annual tax collection, as illustrated in the sixteenth-century Codice Medoza record below.

Codice Medoza, illustrating bi-annual taxes due

Regarding the third property of currency, divisibility, cacao beans begin to stray from Aristotle’s definition. This property deals primarily with the orderly fractional and multiplicative qualities of a currency, such that one nickel can be broken into 5 pennies and 5 pennies can be exchanged for another nickel. While cacao beans are quite easily broken apart and formed into nibs, the edible portion, they are nearly impossible to reform (Coe & Coe, 22).

The final Aristotelian property of money, durability, is where cacao beans lose historians’ claim of a viable currency. Durability implies a reasonable longevity of the traded object. Aristotle described this attribute of money “as a guarantor of exchange for the future” (Karimzadi, 206). Good money allows its holder to forego present consumption for the implicit promise of higher consumption at a later date. Because cacao beans have a shelf life of six to nine months (depending on storage), they lose their nutritional value rapidly over time, along with their extended economic value (Paretts). It would be rather unwise to attempt to build wealth by amassing cacao beans. Therefore cacao beans, at best, only temporarily satisfy the durability requirement.

Ignoring the literal “farming out” of coinage (a role typically closely managed by the central state) necessary when using an organic substance as a unit of exchange, cacao beans do not satisfy the Aristotelian definition of money or currency. Therefore, anthropologists should consider modifying their claims of its use as such, instead referring to cacao bean exchange as, at times, “like money” or “as a means of exchange.” Having only fully satisfied two of the four conditions necessary, this adjustment is a minor correction that can satisfy all tastes.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print. 33, 98-99

Del Mar, Alexander. The History of Money in America; from the Earliest times to the Establishment of the Constitution. New York: B. Franklin, 1899. Print. 45

Karimzadi, Shahzavar. Money and Its Origins. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print. 206

Millon, René Francis. When Money Grew on Trees a Study of Cacao in Ancient Mesoamerica. 1955. Print.

“Money Definition | Investopedia.” Investopedia. Investopedia, LLC, 24 Nov. 2003. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

“Money Supply Definition | Investopedia.” Investopedia. Investopedia, LLC, 24 Nov. 2003. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Paretts, Susan. “Storage & Shelf Life of Raw Cacao Beans.” EHow. Demand Media, Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2009. Print. 17


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