Tag Archives: chocolate as currency

Precious Thing: Chocolate as Currency and Delicacy in Ancient Mesoamerica

Though many people are aware of the origins of chocolate in ancient Mesoamerica, fewer know that it was valued for more than its flavor: cacao beans, from which chocolate is made, were used as currency across Mesoamerica. Today, the idea of paying for goods and services with food seems foreign to most in the Western world. The practice of eating things that we consider currency, though, is certainly not unheard of: a rising culinary trend has restaurants and companies topping everything from sushi to Kit Kat bars with gold.

Gold leaf on chocolate bar gold donut - forbes
Eating money ostentatiously marks the one eating as wealthy and elite. Though gold leaf is easily available from specialty grocers, eating gold is fairly unusual today, in contrast to the regular consumption of cacao in ancient Mesoamerica. Images: James Cronin/Flickr; Forbes. 

The use of cacao beans as money was unique, even in the context of the barter-based trade economy that spanned the Americas, and reflects the elite status cacao held in Mesoamerican society. Cacao’s role as currency may have had a more important role than previously considered in its transition from the New World to the Old World.

Cacao and the Maya

Cacao had a central place in Maya society, one that is often overshadowed by its importance in the later Aztec Empire. Chocolate was consumed at marriage negotiations and weddings and elaborate feasts of all kinds, and high-status Maya burial chambers often contained vessels filled with chocolate beverages – ostensibly to accompany the deceased on their journey to the afterlife (Coe & Coe 42).

God L with the Hero Twins.jpg
On the far right, a woman prepares a chocolate beverage. The preparation and consumption of cacao beverages was a part of many Mayan rites of passage, as well as Mayan daily life. Image: Francis Robicsek, The Maya Book of the Dead. 

Cacao was an important trade good for the Maya, and a strong cacao trade emerged in the Late Classic period. The use of cacao beans as a quasi-stable currency likely evolved from the regular exchange of cacao for other goods. By the 10th century, the Maya held an important mercantile position in Mesoamerica, exchanging goods between Maya states and with other peoples both north and south (Coe & Coe 53). The centrality of cacao to the Maya economy may have played a role in its emergence as currency.

The use of cacao beans as money, with a fixed rate of exchange with various other goods, may have begun just as early or earlier. It certainly appears in several European accounts from the Colonial period: Francisco Oviedo y Valdés, a chronicler from the 16th-century, did not identify the cacao beans as cacao but noted that about ten of the beans could be exchanged for a rabbit and about a hundred could be exchanged for a slave (Coe & Coe 59).  Cacao beans were in widespread use as currency by the Colonial Period.

Tenochtitlan and the Aztecs

The cacao trade was just as important for the Aztec as the Maya, if not more: the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan did not have a climate that would allow the Aztecs to cultivate cacao on their own (Presilla 17). Aztec merchants traveled far and wide to barter for cacao and bring it back to Tenochtitlan. Emperor Motecuhzoma’s royal coffers were said to contain nearly a billion beans (Coe & Coe 83); the Aztecs certainly worked hard to have access to a great deal of cacao. Like the Maya, the Aztecs used cacao beans to make purchases: Colonial documents report the prices of male and female turkeys (200 and 100 cacao beans, respectively), avocados (three beans), and other foods (Coe & Coe 99).

Codex Mendoza folio 47r.jpg
Among the gifts brought from Xoconochco to the Aztec rulers  in tribute were nearly 24,000 cacao beans. The Aztecs prized cacao, and the royals at Tenochtitlan absorbed cacao from several smaller states through tribute. Image: Codex Mendoza, Wikipedia. 

But though the Aztec trade and currency systems surrounding cacao were similar to those of the Maya, the consumption of cacao (had different rules). The finest chocolate beverages were likely restricted to the Maya elite, but there is still reason to believe that cacao was consumed as well by Maya commoners. This was not the case with the Aztecs: chocolate was consumed only by Aztec royals, nobility, warriors, and merchants (Coe & Coe 95). This may have had roots in the stratified nature of Aztec society, or it may have been influenced more directly by the economic value of cacao. In a society that could not grow its own cacao at the capital, supply would need to be carefully maintained in order to continue to meet royal and noble demand.

European Interest

The early Spanish conquerers were first interested in cacao not for its flavor, but for its economic importance (Presilla 18). Ferdinand Columbus, traveling with his father, observed natives stooping to pick up spilled cacao beans and before even knowing that they were cacao beans, realized that they had value (Coe & Coe 109). If cacao beans hadn’t been used as currency, it is entirely possible that the elite stigma associated with chocolate consumption would have disappeared. Early European accounts did not praise the taste of chocolate: “It seemed more a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity,” Girolamo Benzoni wrote (Coe & Coe 110). Chocolate was first drunk in Europe when presented as a gift to the Spanish royal court by the Kekchi Maya in 1544 (Presilla 25). Without its place at the Maya royal banquets in the New World, it might never have been carried across the ocean at all. 

Without cacao’s dual role as beverage and currency, chocolate as we know it today might never have existed.


Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate, Third Edition. New York: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2013.

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

Studeman, Kristin T. “A 24-Karat Kit Kat Bar?: Why Edible Gold is Back in a Big Way.” Vogue. Condé Nast, 31 Dec. 2015. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

The Rotting Money

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.

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

Chocolate: More than Just Chocolate

What is chocolate? Seriously, what is it? Consider what you know about the commodity. How much do you actually know? Well the fact of the matter is that there are people out there who do not know very much about chocolate, and that may be due to the current situation which has developed in the world, where the historical value of chocolate has diminished due to a variety of factors. Is chocolate still valued with such regard? It appears that these factors have led from chocolate being prestigious to being an average everyday food.

Now on sale!
Now on sale!

Historically, chocolate has been very significant. The Olmecs are believed to have been the first to create chocolate from cacao beans; however, the popularity of the beans did not increase drastically until much later (Coe&Coe 1996.26). The Dresden Codex, a series of Mayan books, features cacao quite frequently as something consumed by the gods (Martin, Lecture 2/4/15). This is evident of just how important cacao was in the ancient Mayan society. Marriage ceremonies also involved a good amount of cacao as it was used in the form of a dowry as well as to help smoothen proceedings between families looking to become united (Martin, Lecture 2/4/15). Other beliefs held at the time consisted of the cacao tree as being the source of life and very important in linking all of the worlds together. One can begin to realize just how integral cacao was and the level of importance and reverence cacao was treated with in the times of the Mayans, which compared with today’s treatment, seems ridiculous. With the ‘discovery’ of cacao in Latin American communities by explorers seeking new wealth in foreign lands, chocolate made its debut on the world scene. The initial reactions to cacao beans and rituals surrounding them were less than those of reverence or outright acceptance, as the foreigners had never before encountered what they were witnessing in the Latin American villages. One Spaniard, upon observing the natives of the land, described the cacao beans as almonds which were held in such high esteem that in the event of spillage, quick recovery would be mandated (Martin, Lecture 2/11/15). The conquistadors did not immediately realize the value of the beans, save that of when dealing in trade, until much more time had been spent dealing with the natives, and as such hybridization and other cultural mixings had taken place. This change was gradual, with people who would normally abstain from a beverage created from cacao beans eventually shifting to accepting the drink instead of branding it only fit for pigs (Coe&Coe 110). Currently the world holds chocolate as neither something so primitive and distasteful that it is only fit for those of low birth, neither is it held in such high regard that people get together all for the sake of drinking chocolate and making decisions which can have lifelong effects.

A depiction of the importance of the cacao tree in ancient civilization.
A depiction of the importance of the cacao tree in ancient civilization.

Moving forward, as chocolate began to spread throughout the Old World, so too did the controversy associated with it. Indeed, chocolate became such an important topic of discussion for some that letters to the pope were written as well as letters to decide how chocolate should be treated or viewed according to religious faiths and other conservative and regulatory criteria (Martin, Lecture 2/11/15). Although there is currently something about chocolate that may be viewed as sinful or seductive, the qualities of chocolate are not so depraved as to warrant discussion of its moral characteristics. Chocolate began to move throughout Europe much like sugar in the colonial era, and as well it followed the gradual trend of becoming increasingly prominent in the European food experience (Mintz 1985.5). As with sugar, chocolate began as a luxury good due to different factors; however, one of the major factors which made chocolate so valuable was that it was difficult to produce. Modern production would still be incredibly difficult, after all the processes needed have not changed, but we have methods of making production easier which did not exist in the past. The harvesting of cacao is labor intensive and required the involvement of significant manpower to be accomplished successfully (Martin, Lecture 2/18/15). Unlike cane sugar, there were two well-known varieties of cacao: the Criollos and Forasteros varieties. The forasteros have qualities which aid in survival and resistance to disease; however, the criollos are thought to be of higher quality although they require extremely delicate and dedicated care as they are much more susceptible to disease. The already difficult production of chocolate would have been made even more strenuous when cultivating the criollos variety. Tools definitely helped with the cultivation process along with other processes. Early chocolate drinks were made using archaic and labor intensive means, with individuals grinding up the beans and adding them to water with a few other ingredients to create their beverages. These tools, although developed to lessen the burden on those utilizing them, were still far from capable of doing what the machines we have today can do. The call for the necessary labor was answered in a way that today is frowned upon; however, in the past was widely accepted.

Slavery was a means to use cheap labor to produce a highly valuable commodity, but as slavery was introduced, the value of chocolate began to fade due to production becoming easier for the colonial masters at least, since they themselves did not have to go out and get physically involved in production. Slavery was often brutish and slaves were often treated as cargo or goods themselves rather than as human beings. Slaves were even listed as commodities or property in the records of what the masters owned (Satre 2005.9). The production of chocolate from the cacao beans was no easy task and as was stated before involved several processes requiring a large amount of manpower. To produce chocolate, the trees had to first be cultivated and delicately cared for before the pods were harvested and the seeds were removed from the pod and allowed to ferment for some time. After these steps the seeds are dried, roasted and winnowed or de-husked to allow for the nibs to remain (Martin, Lecture 2/25/15). This process would be incredibly difficult for the colonial masters if not for their slaves, and very likely difficult for chocolatiers of today if not for the machines they use. Innovations soon made their way into the chocolate process as new ideas on how to produce chocolate drove men to invent new methods for the production process. One such idea was the hydraulic press invented by Van Houten (Martin, Lecture 2/25/15). This machine was used to apply enormous amounts of pressure to raw ingredients which enabled the separation and compaction of the nibs which had been ground into chocolate liquor as they were introduced into the internal environment of the machine. This invention drastically changed the chocolate making process and made things easier for producers who were able to afford it. The price of chocolate also declined with this technological innovation making production easier and cheaper. As time moved forward more and more changes were made in the chocolate industry which brought the processes at the time, closer to what the processes of today are.

Van Houten's hydraulic press.
Van Houten’s hydraulic press.

Another big development stemming from and expanding the increased demand of chocolate was the creation of the first chocolate bar by Joseph Fry (Martin, Lecture 2/25/15). This creation along with the development of powdered milk by Henri Nestle as well as the milk chocolate bar by Daniel Peter greatly influenced the way chocolate is consumed today. Many stores have isles specifically dedicated to chocolate bars and milk chocolate which can be kept at room temperature without melting for extended periods of time. One of the last and most important inventions of the time was the creation of the conch by Lindt (Martin, Lecture 2/25/15) This device was used to smoothen the chocolate and break down and heat up molecules releasing qualities which improved the overall experience of chocolate. These inventions have had a large influence on chocolate today.

A delicious looking milk chocolate bar.
A delicious looking milk chocolate bar.

The chocolate of today is much cheaper and that is due to a number of different factors. Inventions and innovation have played a key role in advancing the chocolate production process, making production and distribution of chocolate much easier as well as much cheaper than it was in the past.  Previously required physical labor has been done away with since machines can more efficiently take care of tasks which humans would need a much longer amount of time to complete. Something that assisted the implementation of mechanized production was also a shift from the mindset which allowed slave labor. With increased amounts of people being concerned with how the chocolate they consume is produced, companies or chocolate producers who wished to retain some level of transparency were forced to adopt methods which were more socially acceptable, which involved making mechanical adjustments as well as increasing the pay to farmers who grow cacao; however, many farmers still make considerably low income, even though the chocolate industry is worth a lot of money.

Although the chocolate industry is worth billions of dollars, chocolate is mostly relatively inexpensive. This is made possible by historical changes over history in chocolate production including improved methods of production, improved and increased technology and innovation, and shifting mindsets. The combination of all these factors has allowed for not only the price of chocolate to decline, but also the prestige that chocolate gives off. No longer is chocolate a food fit for gods, or necessary in dealings, one cannot even use chocolate to buy other goods like in the past. Chocolate has become just another food, and its importance will continue to decline with more technological advancements, all other things being equal.

Works Cited

Carla D. Martin, “Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods’” February 4, 2015.

Carla D. Martin, “Lecture 3: Chocolate expansion” February 11, 2015.

Carla D. Martin, “Lecture 4: Sugar and Cacao” February 18, 2015.

Carla D. Martin, “Lecture 5: Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal’” February 25, 2015.

Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Satre, Lowell J. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 2005. Print.

“The Sweet Science of Chocolate.” QUEST. Web. 13 May 2015.

“Big Hershey’s Coupon – Cheap Chocolate At Publix!” I Heart Publix. 29 Apr. 2015. Web. 13 May 2015.

“The World of Chocolate.” The World of Chocolate. Web. 13 May 2015.

“Chocolate Shop – Chocolate Bars.” Chocolate Shop – Chocolate Bars. Web. 13 May 2015.

Exploring Cultural Appropriation Through A Chocolate Tasting

Over the course of the semester, I’ve found myself chiefly concerned with the  appropriation of Indigenous cultures within the production of goods for non-Indigenous consumption. To be clear, my concern is not with the sharing of culture, taste, and economies of people across land and oceans. Rather, the dilemma with chocolate exists in the historical institution of slavery and continued poor labor conditions ingrained in its industry, as well as the present appropriation of culture evident specifically in craft or artisanal chocolate and its advertisements. In order to observe how this subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, appropriation of culture interacts with the modern day consumer, I decided to host a chocolate tasting party and record the social and individual responses. I found that, regardless of the individual’s personal connection, chocolate served to highlight the importance of food both as culture and as shared community in their connection to sense memory; additionally, the chocolate tasting also revealed how food reflects the transformation of culture in displaced communities that have experienced forced assimilation and adaptation.

Maya glyphs depicting cacao tree (center of photo)

As this class knows by now, the theobromine cacao tree originates from the equatorial region, primarily within 20 degrees north and south of the equator (Presilla 8), that encapsulates modern-day Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. From this magnificent tree, the Indigenous peoples from the region were able to use cacao from the pods that grew on the theobromine’s trunk to produce chocolate. You might be thinking, “So what? Some Indians figured out how to make chocolate products.” We’re not talking about a discovery of plant use and food product within the last hundred years; we’re talking about the use of a plant to make chocolate products by, at least, 300 B.C., which dates chocolate production and consumption by more than 2,500 years. Anthropologists and researchers have found that the Olmec civilization (1200 B.C. to 300 B.C.), from the southeast coastal area of what is now Mexico, were most likely the first peoples to regularly use cacao for commerce, food, and religion. (Coe and Coe, Fash, Presilla). The Maya, who wielded great influence throughout the region from about 250 A.D. to 900 A.D., learned much about cacao from the Olmecs and continued to rely on it for their commerce, short and long distance trade, ceremony, and food. Their connection to cacao and chocolate is well-documented via burial chambers, pottery (including pottery from Chaco Canyon in the southwest U.S.), glyphs, and stories that survived European invasion and colonialism. (Presilla, Fash)

Chocolate vessels  http://www.maya-archaeology.org/pre-Columbian_Mesoamerican_Mayan_ethnobotany_Mayan_iconography_archaeology_anthropology_research/Theobroma-cacao-beans_trees_plants_cocoa-chocolate_Maya-kakaw-pataxte_Verapaz-Peten-Guatemala-Belize-Honduras-Mexico.php

The Aztecs (more accurately known as the Triple Alliance) who politically and militarily dominated much of present-day Mexico at the time of Spanish arrival, intensified the reliance on cacao as an economy, using it for actual currency and building a highly stratified system wealth around cacao. The evidence is clear: cacao and chocolate predates European contact with the America, and was deeply embedded in the lives of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas for their consumption, economies, and ceremonies.

Maya glyph for cacao

When the Spanish arrived, they quickly gleaned that cacao was highly valued within Indigenous society. Ever interested in political, religious, and economic dominance, Europeans quickly organized to control over the region and, in particular, cacao. In Bernardino de Sahagun’s “Historia general de las cosas de nueva España,” chocolate was observed to be grown at a large scale, used as money, and, under Aztec leadership, was limited for consumption by only nobility and those who were granted permission. (Presilla)

High level officials pictured with drinking chocolate

More accounts would be written and documented: the 1544 presentation of chocolate to Prince Phillip by a delegation of Kekchi Maya nobles; the first large shipment of cacao from Veracruz to Seville in 1585; an English traveler, E. Veryard, and his account of the production of chocolate; and the general, widespread European fascination and inclusion of chocolate across its courts, medicine, art, and social settings. (Coe and Coe) Europeans encountered chocolate in a big way; they fell hard for chocolate and “sought to re-create the Indigenous chocolate experience.” (Norton 1) In fact, Presilla writes that “within fifty or sixty years, the [habit of drinking chocolate] had spread to France, Italy, England, and most parts of Europe.” (24) Of course, this intense spread of chocolate was powered by the trading and brutalization of Indigenous and African peoples in the transatlantic slave trade. (Mintz) Although the chapter on slavery and colonization in chocolate’s history is critical, I have previously written on it and will continue to focus this paper on the exploration of appropriation.

Chocolate, like any other food, is an edible heritage, a tangible thing that we can savor, smell, bond over, learn from, and have deep feelings about. (Mintz) It is a vehicle through which we can remember the past and create a future. People all over the world have tied their well-being, income, and sense of community to it. Today, the craft chocolate industry has seemingly awakened from a long history of unethical practices, and is creating space within the industry to produce goods in a sustainable way and to employ fair labor practices. While this is a welcome shift in paradigm, this ethical or fair trade and organic chocolate movement has brought with it an inclination toward “Aztec” or “Mayan” chocolate making. At best, chocolate makers are paying homage to Indigenous traditions, and, at worst, they are appropriating Indigenous culture for capital, as has been common practice since Europe encountered the Americas. To explore this problem of appropriation, I conducted a chocolate tasting with some friends. The following chocolates were sampled:

Chocolates for the tasting

  • Cadbury’s Royal Dark;
  • Nirvana’s Aztec Chocolate;
  • Hershey’s Milk Chocolate;
  • Ritter Sport Milk Chocolate with Hazelnuts;
  • Chuao’s Spicy Mayan Chocolate;
  • Three Taza Chocolates from their Chocolate Mexicano sampler pack (specifically, Pura Cacao, Cinnamon, and Guajillo Chili).

The four people surveyed covered a range of tastes and habits around the consumption of chocolate:

  • Person 1 stated that they did not care for chocolate;
  • Person 2 said they prefer 80% dark and fair trade chocolates;
  • Person 3 said they love chocolate and crave it often;
  • Person 4 consumes chocolate a few times a week, mostly as the sweetener to their coffee.

Each person saw the chocolate and the packaging before sampling. As they ate, I asked them to be cognizant of the feel or snap of the chocolate, the smell, the texture, the taste, and after taste of the chocolates.

Though they had clear instructions to analyze the flavors, textures, and smells they experienced, my tasters were more eager to talk about how the chocolate made them feel. Amidst all of the mmm’s and ew’s, one of the more interesting responses was from a Native American female from White Earth, Minnesota, whose favorite chocolates were the Ritter Sport and the Nirvana. Here is her response:

“[The Ritter Sport] reminds me of home, and growing up on my father’s reservation, harvesting hazelnuts.  I didn’t realize how expensive they were until I arrived here [Cambridge] and had to buy them for the first time. They grow naturally in White Earth, and in where I went to high school on the Lac du Flambeau reservation. Every August, usually in the second week, the hazelnut trees (which look more like overgrown bushes) start getting ready to drop the clusters. That’s when you want to grab them, when the leaves covering them have turned from green to brown, but before they drop to the ground. My father and I would take these giant burlap sacs and go and fill them up; my favorite spot by the refuge has almost an entire acre of them. It’s a hassle to harvest them, and most of the time we leave them raw in their shells in order to savor them until next year’s harvest.

I also liked the Mayan chocolate for much the same reason–I grew up with the flavors. My mom is a spice nut, so if something isn’t spicy it’s not in our house. She says it’s from going to boarding school in New Mexico and having to learn how to cook with what you’re given out there. We still have relatives who live in the Southwest and ship us ingredients on the regular.”

When prompted to comment on the fact that the spicy Mayan chocolates were not, in fact, made by Mayans, a chorus of “UGH” ensued. One Native American male commented that hearing that didn’t surprise him and that the clothing industry appropriates Native American culture often. Another taster, a Mexican-Native American female said, “I love the flavor of this chocolate, and that I can go buy this whenever I’m in the mood for spicy chocolate, but I do wish that it was actually Mayan chocolate.” I mentioned that Taza chocolates are also not Mexican made and that the factory is right down the street. The fourth taster responded, “It doesn’t bother me that they are White-owned, but I do wish they gave back to community that they got this product, or method of chocolate making, from. Like, don’t appropriate, please. Native people are still around.

While I didn’t observe the overwhelming negative reactions to instances of appropriation as I expected, I did observe how ingrained issues of identity are in our every lives. They may not be explicit in their connection, from a broader perspective, but these instances reveal some of the long-standing effects of interactions between communities and their cultures. For instance, the woman from White Earth preferred, over all others, the chocolate with hazelnuts, as it took her home, in her mind, to a place that is deeply involved with long-standing traditions around harvesting nuts. Maybe my findings point more to issues of being directly involved with one’s culture versus being a product of a multicultural environment. Or perhaps at this day and age, we’ve become so comfortable with cross-cultural exchange that we are not always mindful of which products are Indigenous modeled instead of Indigenous made. We might also be so inundated with examples of cultural appropriation, that having to identify whether or not our foods are examples of appropriation would make it impossible to feel comfortable or at ease in our own neighborhoods. Either way, in my ideal world, the craft chocolate or bean-to-bar companies would do more to serve the Indigenous communities that remain connected to this delectable food and culture that we seem to love.

Author’s note: If I were to do this again, I would want to shift perspective and explore the preconceptions and misconceptions of chocolate in connection to Indigenous roots and Latin-American usage. I would also use more than just chocolate bars, and incorporate foods like traditionally made mole and pozol!

Works Cited

Fash, William. Entry on the Maya. Moctezuma’s Mexico: Then and Now Course Reader.

Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Kindle Version

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics” American Historical Review: The Oxford Journal, 2006. Online. Accessed March 17, 2014

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised: A cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print


Cacao vessels: http://www.maya-archaeology.org/pre-Columbian_Mesoamerican_Mayan_ethnobotany_Mayan_iconography_archaeology_anthropology_research/Theobroma-cacao-beans_trees_plants_cocoa-chocolate_Maya-kakaw-pataxte_Verapaz-Peten-Guatemala-Belize-Honduras-Mexico.php

Cacao glyphs: http://ajourneythroughguatemala.blogspot.com/2010/05/chocolate-food-for-gods-speciality-of.html

Making cacao in the traditional way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vC4dq69rqE&feature=youtu.be

Product websites






Nirvana not longer sells their chocolate on their website, but you can find their online site here: http://nirvanachocolates.businesscatalyst.com/index.html#organic

Sharing the Visual Appetite: Marzipan Hedgehogs, Cupcake Wars, and Chocolate Food Porn

There is a common chef’s maxim that states: people first eat with their eyes. The visual aspects of experiencing, tasting, and consuming food have been an important consideration of food culture for centuries. Within this landscape, chocolate and desserts have played a significant role in the evolution of the visualization of indulgence. From the laborious construction of marzipan hedgehogs and elaborate sugar structures of the 16th century to the highly technical making of contemporary chocolate commercials, the emphasis on the importance of visual perfection has remained constant, though motivations and meanings have evolved and expanded alongside technology.

Today, the term “food porn” has emerged as a way to describe the pervasiveness of images of food in media and the fascination with capturing images of what we eat. The Urban Dictionary entry for “food porn,” created in April 2005 defines the term as: “Close-up images of delicious, juicy food in advertisements” (Urban Dictionary). The term, first coined in feminist writer Rosalind Cowards’s 1984 book Female Desire, was vastly ignored until the early 2000s when it exploded in the media with Flickr’s “Food Porn” category in September of 2004 (Atlantic). Since then, food blogs, Pinterest boards, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages have more frequently been including pictures of food. Within these pages, chocolate and chocolate desserts capture special attention as objects of indulgence that play on historical associations with lust, sex, and romance (Robertson, 30). Even the very name, “food porn,” has obvious connotations and references to the satisfaction of one’s desires through a visual outlet. But why do people enjoy viewing and sharing mere images of food? Do these mouthwatering images induce cravings or, rather, act as a substitute for the actual experience of eating?

Unfortunately, when one looks to science for an explanation of this visual phenomenon, the research can be contradicting. Some studies, such as this one published in 2012, found that just looking at images of food could be enough to trigger an increase in the hunger-hormone ghrelin (Schussler et al., 2012). Other studies, including this 2013 study out of Nature Neuroscience, suggest the brain’s reward centers may not respond as much to visual “food cues” when the brain signals the stomach is full (Labouebe et al., 2013). Clearly, more research needs to be done in this complex arena to fully understand the visual, psychological, and neurological underpinnings of taste and food. Thus, in my opinion, a more interesting and ripe avenue for analysis lies in the social and historical influences that have shaped the pursuit of food’s visual perfection. By first tracing the history of displaying lavish desserts as a marker of social status and power through the contemporary phenomenon of televised, dessert-centered competitions, food blogs dedicated to chocolate, and finally the influence of social media, I hope to illustrate a common thread of food as an important part of the culture of social currency, as well as an evolving motivation for the visual perception of food as whole through the lens of chocolate and other examples of indulgence.

Today, we can share food with the snap of an iPhone and a few clicks. However, food sharing and the pursuit of visual perfection was historically a much more physical undertaking motivated by the desire to exhibit class, wealth, and power. In the introductory chapters of Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz describes the connection between food and sociality as, “food and eating have not lost their affective significance, though as a means for validating existing social relations their importance and their form are almost unrecognizably different” (Mintz, 5). However, a historical analysis confirms a great amount of care has always been paid to the visual perception of food.

For example, Mintz identifies several examples of significant effort put into perfecting the visual appeal of desserts. During the height of the 17th century, marzipan confections were meant to be admired before eaten and often molded into animal-like forms to adorn the tables of the wealthy (Mintz, 93). Cookbooks from the eighteenth century included instructions for elaborate displays, “graced with as many as ten different dessert items,” to transform sweet delicacies into a form of bourgeois entertainment (Mintz, 94). The video below illustrates how elaborate structures of sugar, spices, and even gold were transformed into symbols of power and privilege. In the nineteenth century, however, these grand confections lost their association with the high-class, because sugar as a commodity had permeated to the lower classes. While these examples may seem extreme, the historical motivations of food sharing and the importance of visual perfection serve to illustrate the origin of more contemporary meanings, and can help explain why the way food looks remains a primary concern in contemporary culture.

Fast-forward to recent years and the obsession over making indulgences appeal to a visual appetite has evolved. However, the cultural capital and social currency that is gained through the exhibition of visually astounding sweets remains. For example, the spirit of competition is embodied in the various cooking competitions aired on television that are for dessert commodities. Ace of Cakes, Baker’s Dozen, Chocolate with Jacques Torres, Cupcake Wars, DC Cupcakes, Dessert First, The Dessert Show, Kid in a Candy Store, Last Cake Standing, Passion for Dessert, Sugar Rush, and Sweet Genius, are a handful of The Food Network’s television offerings, and all of them are exclusively focused on desserts or sweets. Even Top Chef has created its own sweet division, Top Chef: Just Desserts. Clearly, America enjoys visually indulging. Sugar, chocolate, and even buttercream frosting are ingredients available to the vast majority of Americans; thus the thrill of watching these competitions focuses more so on the talent and attention to detail exhibited through the construction of such elaborate desserts. Though the on screen judges obviously taste the desserts prior to voting on the winner, I would argue that the visual perception and attractiveness of the desserts is much more important, as the show is designed primarily for the distant audience at home. They must be able to “taste” with their eyes.

Another example of conveying taste through visualization is illustrated in the design and production of commercials for chocolate and other desserts. Gü Puds is a British brand of desserts introduced in the early 2000s, and they sell a wide variety of chocolate and fruit desserts in small, single-serving “puds.” The video above details the highly technical labor that goes into the making of their commercials and illustrates the importance of creating exactly the right visual effect. The directors and producers used a Photron BC2 High Speed camera recording at nearly 2000 frames per second in high definition to capture the slow motion image. The time, resources, manpower, and technology involved in the creation of this commercial (lasting less than a minute!) clearly exemplify the importance of the visual identity of foods, and more specifically, desserts. When customers feed their cravings to indulge, they value the visual appeal as an insight to how the product may taste, and therefore marketing campaigns use this association to their advantage.

In addition to commercialized exploitations of the visual appetite with profit and sales in mind, food blogs have also become an interesting component of food culture from a different sector of the popular. Rather than relying on the published food critics in the New York Times, people looking for an excellent dining experience can check one of a plethora of blogs online. This article illustrates how the restaurant experience is being shaped by these food bloggers, armed with iPhones and not afraid to kneel on the ground to find the best angle from which to snap a shot of an orange infused chocolate soufflé. Mark Jahnke, who, along with his wife, started the food and wine blog, F. Scott and Zelda says, “A lot of our friends are foodies, and we just wanted to let people know what we had tried over the weekend and whether it was good” (La Gorce, 2010). While food is typically the highlight, the restaurant atmosphere is often communicated through the images, and illustrates the importance of context within food blogs. In addition to restaurant recommendations, most food and dessert blogs also highlight recipes and at-home suggests via posted images. For example, the Tumblr “Mostly About Chocolate” features recipes, restaurant recommendations, and newsworthy links to articles about chocolate related topics. While scrolling through the blog one can find two adjacent entries, one of an image of a freshly baked dessert and the other of a freshly purchased chocolate croissant (images below). This comparison illustrates the value of both types of visual representations and social currency that can be gained by sharing images of our food. On one hand, the blogger has asserted his or her culinary expertise, and on the other, a well-rounded knowledge of the best bakeries.

This clearly “homemade” dessert (Curly Wurly brownies) reflects the talent and ability of the baker. The blogger also noted she needed to “let them cool down before cutting then I’ll take proper pictures that look decent.” 

In this post, the blogger gave a shout out to a local bakery. Compared to the homemade dessert, this image represents a refined taste and a well-traveled consumer offering expert selections from only the best.

Beyond televised cooking shows, visual marketing campaigns, and structured food blogs however, the culture of the visual appetite has permeated even deeper into the facets of society through a contemporary culture centered on technology used for every day tasks, especially through social media. Because social media is a ubiquitous platform for sharing content, the meaning of sharing food has drastically expanded to encompass the casual sharing and the capacity to do so extends to anyone with an iPhone. Most individuals have the technological capacity to snap a photo of a mouthwatering chocolate torte and share it via Instagram, Pinterest, or simple as a picture message to a friend. Rather than physically sharing a meal over a table, people can share their thoughts and experiences regarding food to anyone in the world, in seconds. This brings a new dimension of the capacity of food to unite people.

Today, the meaning of sharing visual representations of food has clearly expanded. Rather than an indication of class and power exclusively, as was common in earlier centuries, visual representations of food now represent a social currency of taste in many forms. From Food Network episodes, to million-dollar Super Bowl commercials that make our mouths water, to the picture posted on Facebook of the chocolate birthday cake baked for a friend, capturing and consuming images of food marks us as highly visual consumers and illustrates the importance food has beyond simply feeding our bodies, that of cultural connections and multi-faceted social currency.

Multimedia Sources

1) King’s Confectionary Video


2) Top Chef: Just Desserts Video Clip


3) Gu Puds Website


4) The Making of a Gü Chocolate Ad


5) Comparative Blog Posts



Scholarly and Other Sources

La Gorce, Tammy. 2010. “A Vibrant Culture of Food Blogging.” The New York Times. url: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/nyregion/07dinenj.html?_r=0

Labouebe, et al. 2013. “Insulin induces long-term depression of ventral tegmental area dophamine neurons via endocannabinoids.” Nature Neuroscience. 16 200-208.

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power. Penguin Group: New York. 1985.

Romm, Cari. 2015. “What ‘Food Porn’ Does to the Brain.” The Atlantic. url: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/04/what-food-porn-does-to-the-brain/390849/

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women, and Empire. Manchester: New York. 2009.

Schussler, P et al. 2012. “Ghrelin levels increase after picture showing food.” Obesity. Jun: 20(6) 1212-7.

How cacao influences culture and lives of people in Latin America and Africa

Theobroma cacao is the botanical name of cacao tree. It is best to be harvested in tropical regions, such as in Central, South Americas or South Africa. Therefore, the plant is most harvested among small farms located in Africa nations, such as Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria and Burkina Faso: on the other side of South Atlantic Ocean, in Latin America region, cacao trees can be easily found in around mostly in Mexico areas, fe among of plants are harvested in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile. They were lands for Andean and Inca Empires thousands of hundred years ago. Mexico was land for Classic Maya and Aztecs.

The three powerful local empires were built upon the highly developed of particular areas. For example, the earliest empire was built within the three was Maya, in which the empire began building in around 2600 BC. This civilization was best known for agriculture, mathmastics, calendar making, pottery and hieroglyph writing, it in stores a rich amount of architectures and symbolic artworks for discovery after they were conquered by Spanish in the latest 1697 AD.

Aztec empire was built in what is today central Mexico, this prospective civilization only last for less than five hundred years, when people state a military-central city, Tenochtitlán in 1325, however a highly developed kingdom was destroyed by Spanish in 1521 under their desire of god and treatures. Aztecs were best known for aggressively soldiers and intensively military training system where parents would sent their boys in ages like 8 or 9 to military school training for future battles, just as what Sparta does in ancient Greek. This civilization was also famous in its cruel rituals with devoting flesh human hearts to their Sun Gods, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc, and Chalchiuhtlicue, since Aztecs firmly believe the very flesh human bloods from their heart could happy Gods, so they would have a fruitful new year with plants and trees grown wildly, so to feed the exhausted soldiers whom brought victories from the last battle. Therefore, the empire would have more courageous solider with a dream to enlarge the empire’s map before every battles began, then they would possibility had the greatest lottery to win over small tribes. One research shows that the cruel human sacrifice rituals activity among Aztecs’ become an important part of their culture life and even famous for future reputation, one necessary reason is the common use of cacao. They use cacao both as drink and currency. Unlike with Classic Mayas, whom use cacao as aliment. In Aztecs, they make different toes of cacao products. One kind that is very similar to today’s hot chocolate is chacau haa. There are other special types of drinks making with normal materials, such as tune, making it with cacao, maize and sapote seeds and also saca, making it with cooked maize, water and cacao.

Even thought, Aztec lasted the shortest time among all Pre-Columbian cultures, but it was the Greatest power in Mesoamerica with the recognition of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians. I guess some of the reasons that why Aztec is judged as the greatest kingdom in Mesoamerica is that they plant cacao tree, they use cacao seeds wisely and wildly in every expect of the culture community.
Bibliography :
The Rise of Aztec Empire http://www.houstonculture.org/mexico/aztecs.html
Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. 1996, 2007, 2013; The True History of Chocolate
Google Map of Latin America and Africa

The Uniqueness of Cacao Bean Currency

It is relatively well known that Chocolate and its derivative, cacao beans, were of crucial importance to the Mesoamerican civilizations. Not as well-known though is the role cacao beans played as a form of currency in the Aztec Empire. Cacao was a rarer commodity in Aztec than it had been in the Mayan Empire as its tree did not readily cultivate in the region.

Map of where Cacao is grown in Central and South America
Map of the Aztec (red), Maya (green), and Inca (yellow) Empires

As shown in the above maps, the main areas in which cacao was grown fails to overlap with the Aztec Empire. Accordingly, the cacao bean was rare enough to be used as a currency. However, cacao beans played a different role than a typical currency. Due to several key differences between cacao beans and a more standard currency, the usage of cacao beans encouraged different actions in the market than otherwise would have been expected.

Cacao beans are unique as a currency in their short lifespan. Most currencies used over a long period of time have the ability for a single unit of it to stay in circulation for a decent length of time. However, cacao beans fail to have this quality. Instead cacao beans are both fragile when compared to silver, gold, or paper currency, and also fragile as a currency in that they had a tendency to be consumed rather than saved. Following from this, cacao beans encouraged different behavior than other currencies.1  Specifically, this encouraged the drive for more turn around on transactions. In essence, as cacao beans would be consumed rather than hoarded for later use.1  Coupling this, with cacao beans being the least expensive currency used, as compared to cloth or bullion. For example, an entire turkey was worth about 100 cacao beans.3

The relative prices of each item is shown by the number of cacao beans adjacent.
The relative prices of each item is shown by the number of cacao beans adjacent.

The above image reveals the relative costs of various items in cacao beans. The rabbit is worth about ten beans while the egg about three. This meant that for cacao beans to be acceptable for remitting payment it must have been demanding a greater push for profit and growth in trade.2 This varies from normal currency where, when possible, it is considered proper to save money for a future time of need. Thus, the uniqueness of cacao beans as a currency encouraged a different style market place, especially when focusing on the less expensive options.

Another stark difference between cacao beans as a currency as compared to others at the time was the utter lack of access to them within the Aztec Empire itself. This led to strategies being developed by the Aztecs to garner cacao beans. Two main strategies were used. Firstly, Aztecs demanded that conquered territories pay tribute in the form of cacao beans.4 This allowed for a supply of beans to be added to the coffers already held by the Aztecan elite. Secondly, the Aztecs created a class of “travelling merchants”, pochteca, whose main job was to travel the long distances necessary to trade for cacao beans and then bring their load back to the empire on foot.5 The first strategy encouraged a greater amount of wealth to be distributed solely to the ruler and top class; however, the second further created a more active cacao trade. As a pochteca would only have cacao beans from their lifestyle, it would be entirely necessary to trade for everything they needed in life. Thus, by forcing trades that otherwise would not be necessary, cacao beans as a currency yielded a more active and profit driven market place.

Image of two pochteca in their travels
Image of two pochteca in their travels

Cacao beans were extremely important to the Mesoamerican peoples. For the Aztecs, it was a rare commodity that was hard to come by. Still, or even because of this, it became an integral part of their currency and market. Due to its unique characteristics as a currency of being more fragile and not internally found, the cacao bean encouraged a more active and profit focused market.

Image Sources (in order of appearance):
1. http://www.thestoryofchocolate.com/Where/tropics.cfm?ItemNumber=3300
2. https://www.classzone.com/net_explorations/U4/U4_article1.cfm
3. http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/ask-experts/when-did-the-aztecs-stop-using-cacao-beans-for-money
4. http://www.chocolatemonthclub.com/chocolate-history.htm

References Cited:
1. http://www.nbbmuseum.be/2013/03/kakao.htm
2. http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/ask-experts/when-did-the-aztecs-stop-using-cacao-beans-for-money
3. http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/moneygrewontrees.php
5. Coe Michael & Coe Sophia, The True History of Chocolate, pgs. 72-75, 3rd Edition.


Commercialization of Cacao Beans in the Aztec Empire

Image from Bernardino de Sahagún’s Florentine Codex, as published in Coe & Coe, 2013
Image from Bernardino de Sahagún’s Florentine Codex, as published in Coe & Coe, 2013

A group of merchants, the pochteca, played a prominent role in the commercialization and commoditization of cacao within the Aztec empire. As the pochteca made cacao more available to the Aztec empire, cacao emerged as not only something of intrinsic value, but also of tradable value, permeating through various aspects of Aztec market life. Since farmers could not grow cacao within the Aztec empire due to the unsuitability of climate around the major cities, the only way cacao could appear in Aztec cities was through import. The pochteca served an economic function connecting buyers of cacao, often times Aztec nobility, with sellers, those who could indigenously grow the product. It is in this way that they served as intermediaries in the market for goods, particularly luxury goods, such as cacao.

The pochteca specialized in long-distance trade from foreign markets such as Xicallanco and Xoconocho to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. Often times they also served as warriors repelling attacks on their trade routes and as spies obtaining knowledge for the Aztec royalty, given that they developed fluency in various local languages through trade. As Coe & Coe mention, the pochteca were different from ordinary market traders. They were part of age-old guilds having their own god, Yacatecuhtli, responsible for commerce (Coe & Coe, 2013, pg. 74 & Van Tuerenhout, 2005, pg. 101). The hereditary nature of the guilds created a barrier of entry for commoners seeking to enter this trade business, thusly giving the pochteca a monopoly over long-distance trade of luxury goods. Furthermore, given that the pochteca were transporting luxury goods for royalty and nobility, they had high status in Aztec society, just below the noblemen themselves. They were granted their own court and laws and were allowed to wear the same type of clothing as the noblemen (Van Tuerenhout, 2005, pg. 100-101).

The image above documents the pochteca as illustrated by artists in Bernardino de Sahagún’s Florentine Codex, a comprehensive research project conducted in Mesoamerica in the mid to late 1500s. The image shows the pochteca en route with hunched over backs, indicating the labor-intensity and long-haul toil required to bring valuable goods to the Aztec empire. They are seen carrying woven sacks of tradable goods. Using a legend of tradable merchandise from a page of another compilation, the Mendoza Codex, in the image below, we see next to the tiger skins that the sacks the pochteca are carrying in fact contain cacao (Berdan & Anawalt, 1997). Furthermore, the footprints on the road in the image above indicate that the merchants are following some sort of pre-determined path, possibly a trade route to the imperial city centers. The road has been traversed before and illuminates the key role the pochteca played in transporting valuable tradable items, such as cacao, and in connecting the Aztec Empire to foreign lands.

Image from the Codex Mendoza, Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University
Image from the Codex Mendoza, Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University

Through the pochteca, cacao began to take on value as an exchangeable good in addition to the existing religious and fundamental value the Aztecs held for cacao. The Aztecs fundamentally revered cacao for its religious significance. The cacao tree represented the joining of earth to heaven and a gift from the God of Wisdom, Quetzalcoatl. Mothers would give cacao drinks to their children so they could gain wisdom. This religious backing, together with the tastes and preferences for the cacao product itself served as the primary source of value of cacao for the Aztecs and the primary driver of the cacao trade. However, given the long, arduous journeys of the pochteca, it became costly to obtain cacao and thus was reserved for the nobility. Cacao was thus limited in supply, began to be used in exchange, and thus developed practical value as people could use cacao beans in local exchange as currency. For example, to buy a canoe full of water or a turkey one would have to pay 100 cacao beans. The use of cacao as currency emerged as the pochteca took a percentage of the cacao they brought as a fee (Van Tuerenhout, 2005, pg. 100). As the volume of the cacao trade increased, cacao inventories of the pochteca and the royalty increased, paving the way for its use in exchange. This gave the product tradable value.

With respect to this tradeable value, cacao shared three characteristics economists today typically associate with money or currency. Firstly, within the Aztec empire, it served as a medium of exchange, used by vendors in big city markets like the one in Tenochtitlan. Secondly, records indicate that cacao had a good shelf and storage life, making it a store of value. Thirdly, it was a unit of account, since various producers and retailers used cacao to measure the cost of their product and compare product value, simply by looking at how much cacao one would have to give up to get one item over another. In this sense, cacao served many of the key functions of modern-day currency.

The pochtecas’ role as a market-maker, bringing cacao from the outside to the inside, also became prominent locally, where the nobility would ask them to sell surplus tribute they received from taxation of goods. In this sense, the proliferation of cacao’s significance as exchangeable value comes from the pochtecas’ trading and distribution of the good. Observing the cacao prices of various goods in past records allow historians to glean a perspective how the Aztec society relatively valued different goods based on their cost in cacao beans. In this way, the pochteca served a critical role in bringing cacao to the center of commercialized Aztec market life. Today, we see the longevity of the association of currency with cacao, through artistic representations with chocolate, such as in Hanukkah gelt!

Image from Flickr Creative Commons LInk:
Image from Flickr Creative Commons

Works Cited

Albert R. Mann Library. (2007). When Money Grew on Trees. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University.

Berdan, Frances and Patricia Anawalt. (1997). The Essential Codex Mendoza (1541). Berkeley.

< http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/moneygrewontrees.php&gt;.

Coe, Sophie D. & Michael D. Coe. (2013). The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Flickr. (Accessed February 19, 2015). Creative Commons.

< https://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/104661075/in/photolist-afq6i-qwszeJ-dm6KE2-c3Ur-hSNY1o-hSNZhS-989mvL-986e1V-boRP7J-7HwoMW-7HssuT-7Hwovm-7HssjV-7HssdD-bJpM-5cU9t-dnocyt-dnsmaC-9TZ1nU-4ccn9V-c3TY-xAPK9-4f2vYU-qhGsR7-5MFBNE-cskvoy-beUSnX-hSNyck-4f2vVf-dnNV7X-hSP1SW-bCamfw-7rqUTM-i3PqmY-douzA6-dm3vGf-azd53P-aZodic-8K7aRM-7nH3uo-aWNE78-8tsTkc-bCep1f-94jDeL-d29wq5-azd5c4-7que8U-bSiv5H-d356gQ-8PE5TJ&gt;.

Van Tuerenhout, Dirk R. (2005). The Aztecs: New Perspectives. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc.

Westernizing Ancient Traditions

The early Europeans had comparably duplicated the early Mesoamerican use of cacao and chocolate documented in the Mayan book of the Popol Vuh (Book of Counsel) into five main categories:

  1. Trade
  2. Medicinal
  3. Cultural
  4. Social
  5. Religious

The first encounter of Europeans with the cacao product can be traced back to August 15th, 1502 when Christopher Columbus’s son, Ferinand Columbus, captured a Mayan trading canoe belonging to the Chontal-Mayal-speaking Putun. This encounter is significant in regards to how Europeans perceived and witnessed Mayan’s use cacao for trade. Ferinand noted that the group, held what he thought were “almonds” as he termed it but was in reality cacao, as a currency traded at great value.[1]

Pictured here are cacao beans covered with a gold rim to symbolize the value of the beans.                               cacaogold

On the other hand, Italian colonist Girolamo Benzoni wrote in his book History of the New World published in 1575 that the chocolate drink made from cacao that the Mesoamericans used for spiritual, social, medicinal, trade, and casual purposes was only meant for pigs but nevertheless, it was worthy to him due to its monetary value. (Coe & Coe 110) Therefore, the colonists were bound to use cacao as a currency in their stay in Mesoamerica.

The journey of cacao and chocolate should be described as it is relevant to how the products were used in Europe, not just by Europeans in Mesoamerica. Through hybridization of the Spanish and Mesoamerican culture, a new generation of “Spanish Creoles” were born in a region that was previously known as the Aztec Empire. It was in this context of hybridization that chocolate was taken to New Spain and then transported to the rest of Old Spain as well as Europe as they saw the product had values. (Coe & Coe 113) Spanish chronicler Lopez de Velazco had documented the first shipment of cacao products from La Guaira to Colombia which was a hub for trade with Spain, and then shipped directly to Spain which is important as various Latin American states came into contact with the product.[1] The product which would be a topic of controversy and pleasure of Europe had arrived in Europe.

Cacao and its byproducts had more serious uses as well. Chocolate was used for medicinal purposes by Europeans just as Mesoamericans. It was a Greek born physician who discovered a theory that for diseases which caused a “hot” fever, you needed a “cold” drug and vice-versa. Although the Spanish preferred their chocolate drinks “hot, Spanish Royal Physician Francisco Hernandez discovered that a “cool” chocolate drink would cure a fever and published in 1591; a treatise on New World foods by Juan de Cardenas found that certain chocolate such as “green” chocolate can have negative health effects harming the heart, causing fevers, etc but if toasted and mixed with atole gruel; digestion is strong. (Coe & Coe 121-123) Thus, the European use of chocolate for medical purposes was similar to the Mesoamerican use and more uses for the chocolate. We usually do not think of chocolate as a medicinal pharmaceutical or drug but this video might change your mind, courtesy of Ichan Medical School.


Chocolate soon spread to the British Isles via monks and eventually found its role in Royal Families — where the trend back in the day. (Coe & Coe 115) Chocolate beverages used in the French Royal Courts in the wedding between King Louis XIII to the Spanish Princess of Austria 1615.[3] As it was given the royal honors of being a product of the elite, the common people of Europe started to socially drink chocolate, including in countries such as the mentioned Spain and France but also, Greece, Italy, and Britain. In fact, chocolate became so custom in Britain that there were chocolate coffee shops opened in London during the mid-18th century![4] Chocolate is indeed sweet and as Sidney W. Mintz writes; “Indeed, all (or at least nearly all) mammals like sweetness.”[5] While there were initial doubts on cacao and chocolate as a fashionable product, this changed later as proven through the European customs of the product in cultural traditions such as weddings of Royal Families as well as casual usage in various forms.

Pictured here is a Chocolate Coffee Shop in London.


The question of the use of chocolate made its entrance into the ecclesiastical sphere related to the religious culture of Europe as well. There were debates among Spanish Catholic Churches if chocolate counted as a food and if it could be consumed during fasts. The end result of this internal debate amount the ecclesiastical community was that chocolate could indeed be consumed as decreed by His Holiness Pope Pious V who was a drinker of the product himself.[6] This decision had a great effect on the religious society of Europe as since it was justified by Catholic religious doctrine, more became comfortable with taking it including religious authorities.

Therefore, the early European use of cacao and chocolate very much resembles what the 5 customs Mesoamericans used it for.

[1] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. 108-09. Print.

[2] Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. 28. Print.

[3] “Chocolate and Polyphenols in the Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease.” YouTube, 18 Nov. 2014. Web. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5OPDAYRvMg&gt;.

[4] “The History of Chocolate | Blog – ZChocolat.” ZChocolat. N.p., 20 Oct. 2012. Web. <http://www.zchocolat.com/en/the_history_of_chocolate.asp&gt;.

[5] Green, Matthew. “The Surprising History of London’s Lost Chocolate Houses.” The Telegraph, 13 Dec. 2013. Web. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/uk/london/10515620/The-surprising-history-of-Londons-lost-chocolate-houses.html&gt;.

[6] Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. 16. Print.

[7] “History of Chocolate.” Spanish Food, n.d. Web. <http://www.spanish-food.org/spanish-food-history-chocolate.html&gt;.