By the time of Spanish conquest, cacao was widely used as a medium of transaction in pan-Mesoamerica (Coe et al. 60). While cacao beans were consumable commodities, the way in which goods were exchanged with cacao beans more exhibits a behavior of currency rather than that of bartering. For instance, in a facsimile from the Codex Mendoza, the prices of jaguar skins and stone bowls are given in terms of numbers of cacao beans (“CHOCOLATE”).
Use of cacao was not restricted to such large purchases, and “Ovieda, whose history was published in 1526 states that in Nicaragua: everything is bought with cacao, however expensive or cheap, such as gold, slaves, clothing, things to eat and everything else” (Wood et al. 2). These sources show how cacao beans were used for both large and small daily transactions, and how they were eligible to be called a currency.
One of the reasons that cacao was able to function as a currency is that they were relatively rare and valuable. It “refuses to bear fruit outside a band of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the Equator. Nor is it happy within this band of the tropics if the altitude is so high as to result in temperatures that fall below 60F or 16C”, which makes it one of the most labor intensive crops even today (Coe et al. 19).
One interesting difference of cacao beans from more common commodity money such as gold or silver is that they rot and decay over time. Even in modern conditions, stored with much care, cacao beans will last edible only up to nine months (Paretts). With regards to this property of cacao as a currency, Peter Maytr, one of the earlier observers of the Aztec community commented “Oh, blessed money which … preserveth the possessors thereof free from the hellish pestilence of avarice because it cannot be long kept hid underground”(“Encyclopedia of Money”). Aztec people were forced to spend the money that they earned for consumption or investment, which naturally would have boosted the economy growth, in addition to being free from the sin of avarice as Maytr puts it. It goes without saying that the Mesoamerican civilizations had an active economy and market, and this unique characteristic of cacao beans as a midpoint between deteriorating commodity and standardized currency may have been a major contributor of this.
I cannot help but compare this phenomena with the development of capitalism in Northern Europe as described in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Weber. He suggests that because the Protestant ethics condemned greed and unnecessary accumulation of wealth, the spread of this religion encouraged the emergence of capitalism. Despite numerous major differences between the two societies, it is intriguing to see that both had mechanisms that deterred the accumulation of wealth, and an active market economy.
As possible next steps, it would be interesting to look into market activity throughout time and space in the Mesoamerican region, and correlate it with the spread of cacao as a commodity and currency. Further, we could compare this with how the spread of more classical fiat money like gold and sliver affects the economy.
Works / Reference Cited
“Encyclopedia of Money.” : Cocoa Bean Currency. Accessed February 19, 2016. http://encyclopedia-of-money.blogspot.com/2010/01/cocoa-bean-currency.html.
“CHOCOLATE.” : Food of the Gods. Accessed February 19, 2016. http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/moneygrewontrees.php.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Paretts, Susan. “Storage & Shelf Life of Raw Cacao Beans.” EHow. Accessed February 19, 2016. http://www.ehow.com/info_8359516_storage-life-raw-cacao-beans.html.
Wood, G. A. R., and R. A. Lass. Cocoa. Oxford: Blackwell Science, 2001. https://books.google.com.vc/books?id=urs9QCMKOw4C&lpg=PA1&ots=3JyPgDM7EV&dq=cocoa currency history&lr&pg=PA2#v=onepage&q=cocoa currency history&f=true.