Cacao Currency: Ancient Civilizations Used Chocolate as Cash

In Ancient Mesoamerica, money really did grow on trees. Although people mostly bartered goods, the use of cacao stood out from the others. While cacao beans were consumable commodities, the ways ancient peoples used them exhibited the attributes of the use of currency. The civilizations at the time, such as the Mayans and Aztecs, valued cacao as money. Records remain of societies assigning amounts of cacao beans that could be used to purchase specific items. For example, using 200 cacao beans could secure someone a male turkey.  

Aztec tribute list from the Codex Mendoza (c. 1541). The image depicts the tribute that the Aztecs took twice a year from cacao-growing regions in southern Mexico. Next to the jaguar skins are bags filled with cacao beans. Above each bag are by five flags, each of which equals 20 beans.

Ancient Mayans and Chocolate

The prominence of literature and research of the Aztec use of cacao often overshadows the central place the beans had in Mayan society. Yet the Maya had used cacao as a foundational item in their lives as well. The Maya used the beans in many important ceremonial rituals as it was believed cacao was a gift from the gods. Per this reverence, the Maya participated in sacred ceremonies that celebrated cacao. Archaeologists believe that ancient peoples used these ceremonies to open the mind to the spirit world. Cacao beans and chocolate beverage preparations also played an important role in special occasions throughout a person’s life. Anthropological research has shown that cacao was used as a form of dowry in wedding ceremonies. Cacao was also used to ceremonially introduce a child to the world shortly after birth. The Mayan would anoint the heads of babies with a chocolate mixture made up of cacao, flowers, and water. The Mayans were also convinced of the healing power of cacao and the drinks prepared with them and often used them for medicinal purposes. Finally, as cacao played an essential role throughout people’s lives, it was necessary for the end of their lives as well. Cacao beans played crucial roles in burial rights for the Mayan people. Cacao mixtures were often buried with people to give them a boost of energy to aid them on the journey to the afterlife.

Paintings from the ancient Maya depicting the preparation and drinking of cacao. Image courtesy of National Geographic Image Collection, photograph by Kenneth Garret

From this massive reverence and dependence on cacao, a strong cacao trade emerged. The consistent use of cacao as a source of inherent value contributed to the beans becoming a secure form of currency for the people. A system in which one could pay fixed rates for goods with cacao beans emerged. Additionally, varying scenes on paintings and ceramics from the time show commodities delivered to Maya leaders as a tribute. Often shown in these depictions are woven bags labeled with the number of cacao beans they contain, thus exhibiting that the Mayans may have used cacao as a way to pay their taxes.[1]

Aztecs and their Cacao Use

Aztecs highly valued cacao and used it as a form of currency as well. They used the beans in similar manners compared to the Mayans. They utilized the beans mainly for ceremonial measures and relevant circumstances mentioned above, such as in weddings and death rights. For example, the Aztecs revered the cacao as a gift from their god of wisdom, Quetzalcoatl. They viewed the cacao tree as the joining of the earth to heaven.

Pochteca depicted in the Florentine Codex. The image portrays how pochteca may have carries cacao over vast distances.

Yet beans were much harder to obtain as the ideal climate for growing cacao did not overlap with the regions of the Aztec empire. Therefore, the consumption of the beans was different compared to the Mayans. In Mayan culture, the use of cacao was considered to be for everyone, not just for the Maya elite. Commoners were to indulge in this gift from the gods as well.

Meanwhile, in the Aztec empire, the chocolate beverages were only to be consumed by elite royals, warriors, noblemen, and merchants.[2] The primary source of beans for the Aztecs was through importation. The famed cacao importers in the Aztec empire were the pochteca, who had to travel great distances to acquire cacao. They connected the buyers of cacao, which was mostly made up of Aztec nobility, with the sellers in other regions. In addition to its religious and inherent value, the pochteca added value to the cacao beans as an exchangeable good. 

Cacao beans were so valuable that people began to produce counterfeit seeds to pass as the currency. Sometimes they would hollow out the interior of the beans and re-filled them with substitutes such as rocks or sand.[3] In an account by Bernardino de Sahagun, the counterfeiters would use items such as “amaranth seed dough, wax, (and) avocado pits” to falsify cacao beans. They would also make “fresh cacao beans whitish” to give them a dried look by “stirring them into the ashes”.[4] The value perceived in cacao is evident through these counterfeit activities, as merchants risked their livelihoods and lives to manufacture additional beans.

[1] LearnJun. 27, Joshua Rapp, 2018, and 11:45 Am. 2018. “The Maya Civilization Used Chocolate as Money.” Science | AAAS. June 27, 2018.

[2] Coe, Sophie Dobzhansky, and Michael D. Coe. 2007. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson.

[3] Millon, René. 2003. When Money Grew on Trees: A Study of Cacao in Ancient Mesoamerica. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Dissertation Services.

[4] Carrasco, Davíd, and Scott Sessions. 2011. Daily Life of the Aztecs. ABC-CLIO.

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