Throughout Mesoamerica cacao was held in high esteem and revered for its many uses. Not only was cacao used as food and drink but also it was used as a form of currency in Aztec and Mayan civilizations. Although consuming cacao was generally only found within the elite class, the use of cacao as money was a widely found practice. Found within cacao pods are cacao seeds covered in mucilaginous pulp. Once dried of the pulp, these seeds, called cacao beans, were processed and made into chocolate or used as money. Cacao as currency was a tradition that continued into the Colonial era.
Image: Pictured here are dried cacao beans that have come from inside the cacao pods. Dried cacao beans like these were used as currency in Mesoamerica.
During the Aztec and Mayan Eras, cacao beans were used as currency or ready cash used in daily trades to pay for small items (Coe 60). This currency system was based on cacao bean count, not on the weight of the beans. In an early account of the Aztec civilization during the Spanish conquest, Hernan Cortes writes to Emperor Charles V describing this peculiar use of cacao:
“This fruit they sell ground, and esteem so highly, that it is used instead of money all over the country, and with it everything can be bought in the market place and elsewhere” (Million 150).
Image: Here is an image of a traditional market where cacao beans are being used as currency. In these markets goods would be traded for cacao beans.
The Spanish appreciated the use of cacao as currency and during the Colonial era transactions continued to be conducted with cacao beans (Coe 98). An example of commodity prices taken from a document dated back to 1545 were as follows: a turkey hen was worth 100 cacao beans, a hare was worth 100 cacao beans, a small rabbit was worth 30 cacao beans, a large tomato was worth a single cacao bean, an avocado was worth 3 cacao beans (Coe 98). Cacao beans were also used to pay wages to laborers. Most of these laborers were porters – these were the people relied upon to transport goods and supplies from place to place.
Image: Pictured above is an image taken from the Codex Mendoza of porters carrying goods. The daily wage of a porter was 100 beans, equivalent to the cost of a good turkey hen (Coe 98).
Accounts of cacao beans being used as currency were found even in the 19th century. The States of Central America written by the American Traveler Ephraim Squier in 1858 goes to say, “[cacao is] still used as a medium of exchange in the markets of all the principal towns of Central America, where the absence of a coin of less value than three cents makes it useful in effecting small purchases.” (Coe 181). Cacao still remained a vital part of commerce. Hundreds of years past and yet the cacao beans continued to be used as currency within an economy. Cacao being used as currency is an example of the early use of cacao and how it provided value to the people of present day Central America.
Cacao Beans. Digital image. Flickr. Flickr, n.d. Web. https://c1.staticflickr.com/5/4135/4859216391_d693dc8755_b.jpg.
Cacao Beans in use at Market. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. Web. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a7/Murales_Rivera_-_Markt_in_Tlatelolco_2.jpg.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
Codex Mendoza. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons, n.d. Web. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Transportes_mexicas.jpg.
Millon, René Francis. When Money Grew on Trees: A Study of Cacao in Ancient Mesoamerica. Thesis. 1955. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.