When Money Grew on Trees: Cocoa Beans as Currency in Mayan and Aztec Societies

“Oh, blessed money which yieldeth sweete and profitable drinke for mankinde, and preserveth the possessors thereof free from the hellish pestilence of avarice because it cannot be long kept hid underground”

-Peter Martyr, an early observer of the Aztec society

In today’s society, chocolate is regarded as strictly a consumer good – a beloved, but perishable commodity whose value is primarily derived from its rich and indulgent taste. Aside from gold-foil covered chocolate coins enjoyed as festive treats, there are hardly any instances in which chocolate can be thought to resemble a currency. But for ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, chocolate, specifically the cocoa bean, also held commercial value and was widely accepted in barter. The use of cocoa as a store of value and the traction it gained as a currency that persisted even into colonial times truly speaks to the importance of cacao in these early civilizations. The widespread use of cocoa beans as money and its eventual acceptance by the Spanish, who were at first off-put by the bitter cacao taste, show that cacao’s value was widespread, deep-seated and far-reaching in Central America. It had permeated so many levels of these early societies – religiously, culturally, and even economically.

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A Maya glyph of a cloth bag “xiquipilli’ that kept 8,000 cacao beans, a standard measure of unit of currency.

While the Olmecs were the likely the first civilization to consumer cacao, the use of cocoa beans as commodity money began with the Maya (The True History of Chocolate”). Cacao, originating from the Maya word “Ka’kau”, held great religious, commercial, and even medicinal value for the Maya. Unsurprisingly, the valuable commodity would naturally come to be used to barter for other commodities such as food, clothes, gems and even slaves. They were also exchanged for luxury goods and rare items such as jade, obsidian, and ceremonial feathers (“The Maya and the Ka’kau’ (Cacao)”). Maya farmers would strap baskets attached with Mecapal (a type of band for securing basket to forehead), full of cacao beans on their backs or use canoes to transport the beans for trade. Wealthy merchants would travel as far as Teotihuacan with porters, pack animals, and/or wheeled carts (“Maya Trade and Economy”).

mapa_productos

The map above illustrates Mesoamerican commerce routes as well as flow of goods production. The concept of money via the bartering of cacao beans gave rise to a new social class: the merchants. This had tremendous impact on the political structure of the ancient Maya communities as it allowed for wealth and resources to enter the hands of individuals other than the traditional political elites (“Maya Trade and Economy”). In a sense, cacao helped bring about this redistribution of wealth and power.

When the Aztecs became the most advanced nation in Central America and overtook the Maya, they naturally adopted cocoa beans as a currency as well. The use of cacao currency persisted as a widespread form of money beyond the Aztec times through the Spanish Conquest, Colonial period, and far into the 19th century. In fact, by the time of the Spanish Conquest in 1545, cacao beans outranked gold dust as the primary currency in Mesoamerica. Around 24 years after the Spanish Conquest in, cacao beans were used to set market prices in Tlaxcalla (“Aztecs at Mexicolore”). By 1555, a fixed exchange rate was established in a decree, establishing the value of the cocoa beans at a ratio of 140 beans to one Spanish real (“A Tasty Currency: Cocoa”). Even in the mid-1850s, cacao beans were still observed as being used for small-change.

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[Codex Kingsborough, British Museum] This graphic depicts the tribute tax the Spanish collected from the Aztec was in form of bags of cacao beans.

Although cacao beans would certainly not be a practical form of currency today, meeting just some of the 7 modern characteristics of money (durability, portability, divisibility, uniformity, limited supply, and acceptability), it made for an exceptionally well-received form of money during the Mayan and Aztecs empires. The use of cacao beans exemplified how markets in early civilizations flourished using commodity currencies. The widespread recognition of cocoa as a viable form of money in the Aztec empire really speaks to the amount of value they placed on this commodity.

Works Cited

Berdan, Frances. “Aztecs at Mexicolore.” Mexicolore. Web. 19 Feb. 2016. <http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/ask-experts/when-did-the-aztecs-stop-using-cacao-beans-for-money&gt;.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 2007 [1996]. The True History of Chocolate. pp. 1-105

“CHOCOLATE: Food of the Gods.” Albert R. Mann Library. Cornell University. Web. 16 Feb. 2016. http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/moneygrewontrees.php

De Maré, Laurie. “A Tasty Currency: Cocoa.” Www.nbbmuseum.be. Museum of the National Bank of Belgium. Web. 16 Feb. 2016.

“Maya Trade and Economy.” Authentic Maya. Web. 19 Feb. 2016. <http://www.authenticmaya.com/maya_trade_and_economy.htm&gt;.

“The Maya and the Ka’kau’ (Cacao).” Authentic Maya. Web. 19 Feb. 2016. <http://www.authenticmaya.com/cacao.htm&gt;.

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