Tag Archives: currency

Drinking Money: Cacao as Currency in Mesoamerica

Nowadays the first thought that comes to mind when we think about cacao is chocolate, the sweet dessert that is easily attainable and can be enjoyed by all. Cacao had a very different meaning in Mesoamerica, it was consumed as a drink by the elite during religious rituals and banquets, it was highly valuable as it was also used for religious offerings and gift exchanges. It’s no surprise that thanks to its connection to the elite and its exclusivity, cacao beans were eventually used as currency throughout Mesoamerica.

Cacao Beans

European encounters

The first European encounter with cacao as currency happened in 1502 when Columbus and his son Ferdinand, during his fourth voyage to the Americas, captured a Maya trading canoe (Coe and Coe 107-108).  This vessel contained a number of goods valuable to the Maya, including what Ferdinand Columbus called “almonds”, he noticed their value but didn’t understand their importance (Leissle 32). He wrote, “They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen” (Coe and Coe 108-109). Cortes on the other hand, was quick to realize cacao’s importance and use it to his advantage “to buy things, and to pay the wages of their native laborers” (Coe and Coe 93).

Aztec man carrying a cacao pod

From Drink to Currency

Cacao wasn’t initially thought of as money, its beans were used to create a frothy drink we call chocolate. This beverage was produced and consumed by both the Mayan and the Aztec elites, becoming a marker for high social status (Baron 211). “The drinking of chocolate was confined to the Aztec elite – to the royal house, to the lords and nobility, to the long-distance merchants and to the warriors” (Coe and Coe 89-90). It was served during marriage ceremonies, religious rituals and feasts, and used as valuable gifts to exchange during feasts, as tributes to form diplomatic alliances and as dowries (Reents-Budet 220). What transitioned cacao’s role as a drink to money was its use as tribute payments demanded by polities from their subordinates, “facilitating their use as a store of value for future transactions” (Baron 214).


A possible Maya lord sits before an individual with a container of frothed chocolate

Cacao as Currency

The cacao bean possessed several qualities that made it possible for it to become money in Mesoamerica: it had great value due to its use by the elite and during religious rituals, it was also “portable, relatively durable, divisible, recognizable, and somewhat difficult to counterfeit” (Gasco 225). Yet cacao beans are perishable, they could be only stored for a year before they spoiled, forcing owners to spend it or drink it before it became devalued, therefore preventing inflation (Baron 219).  

Those who possessed cacao beans could spend them on material and immaterial commodities. They could be used to pay work service, to purchase freedom from forced labor, and to pay taxes or service obligations (Reents-Budet 220). They could also be used to purchase goods, for example: a turkey hen for 100 full cacao beans, a turkey cock for 200 full cacao beans, a hare for 100 cacao beans, an avocado for 3 cacao beans, a tomato for 1 cacao bean, a tamale for 1 cacao bean (Coe and Coe 93-94).


Aztec tribute list demanding 200 loads of cacao beans
Folio 47r of the Codex Mendoza

Even though this money grew on trees, these trees were found only in specific areas within Mesoamerica, so beans were either demanded as tribute by rulers or transported by long-distance merchants to markets.  In the case of the Aztec, long distance merchants were called pochteca, they were part of the elite class since they were considered warriors, “they were often armed, they traveled through very dangerous lands to reach their markets, and often fought pitched battles with hostile foreign groups” (Coe and Coe 92). There were several pochteca guilds whose membership was hereditary, rising in rank within a guild involved hosting a banquet where chocolate made from beans from their storehouses would be served (Coe and Coe 91-92).

The royalty had storehouses where they kept a massive amount of cacao beans they collected as tributes from their people. Famously, Moctezuma’s warehouse stored 960,000,000 beans (Coe and Coe 82). These beans were used to finance war, pay salaries, trade with other empires, and maintain government institutions (Baron 214).  

Pochtecas with their freight,
Illustration from the Florentine Codex

Conclusion

Cacao had a dual purpose in Mesoamerica, a social and an economic one. Cacao beans were used to create a beverage that was consumed during social and religious occasions by the elite. At the same time, it served as currency demanded as tribute and exchanged for goods.

Even though cacao was used as money, it continued to be consumed during social events, which maintained its value and importance. Because of this dualism, we could say that the members of the elite were drinking their own money when consuming chocolate.

Works Cited:

Baron, Joanne P. “Making Money in Mesoamerica: Currency Production and Procurement in the Classic Maya Financial System.” Economic Anthropology, vol. 5, no. 2, 2018, pp. 210–223.

Coe, Sophie D, and Michael D Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Gasco, Janine. “Cacao and Commerce in Late Postclassic Xoconochco.” Rethinking the Aztec Economy, edited by Deborah Nichols, Frances Berdan, Michael Smith, University of Arizona Press, 2017, pp. 221-247.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. 1st ed., Polity, 2018.

Reents-Budet, Doreen. “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking Among the Ancient Maya.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2006, pp. 202-223.

Multimedia Sources

“A Possible Maya Lord Sits before an Individual with a Container of Frothed Chocolate.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mayan_people_and_chocolate.jpg.

“Aztec Man Carrying a Cacao Pod.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aztec._Man_Carrying_a_Cacao_Pod,_1440-1521.jpg.

“Codex Mendoza Folio 47r.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Codex_Mendoza_folio_47r.jpg.

“Illustration from the Florentine Codex, Late 16th Century.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pochtecas_con_su_carga.jpg.

Symens, Isai. “Cacao Beans.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cacao_beans.jpg.

CacaoCoin: Cacao Beans as Currency in Mesoamerica

Motecuhzoma II

Today, people think of chocolate as a delicious dessert. However, in Ancient Mesoamerica, cacao beans had a much greater societal significance. According to Professor Martin, cacao influenced numerous facets of society: religion, culture, art, politics, and the economy. Cacao’s impact on the economy is the primary focus in this blog post. For example, cacao allowed the wealthy to distinguish themselves from the poor. According to anthropologists, the consumption of chocolate “was confined to the Aztec elite – to the royal house, to the lords and nobility, to the long-distance merchants, and to the warriors” (Coe 95). It was commonly served at the end of meal along with tobacco. The ”frothy, stimulating drink” was a common feature at many elite Mesoamerican events such as weddings (Baron 211-212). They also classified it as the “food of the gods”. In addition, the warriors consumed cacao as an energy stimulant before battle to make them feel invincible (Martin 52). Cacao quickly took over alcohol’s spot as the “new marker of social status” (Baron 211). Aztec ruler Motechuzoma II possessed 960,000,000 cacao beans (Martin 72). This incredibly large number of beans cemented his spot as the wealthiest individual in Aztec society. The high value of cacao as a beverage is directly correlated to the value of cacao beans as currency in both the Mayan and Aztec societies.

Most anthropologists acknowledge that cacao beans were one of the most prominent forms of currency in the Aztec World. However, Mayans commonly used cacao in transactions as well. Cacao became a prominent form of currency in the Mayan southern lowlands during the Postclassic period (900-1521 CE) (Baron 211). The flavorful physical properties of cacao certainly increased their value as a commodity. By drying and roasting cacao beans, one can preserve them for months before they are ground up into chocolate. The beans themselves were valued based on their freshness and plumpness. Color was also an important indicator for cacao beans. The ashy colored beans were valued higher than the red colored beans because the ashy colored signified full fermentation. Shriveled, red colored beans were the lowest valued beans. 16th century naturalist Francisco Hernandez also points out that there are four categories of cacao beans: “cuauhcacahuatl (tree cacao), mecacahuatl (string/rope cacao), xochicahuatl (flower cacao), and tlalcahuatl (earth cacao/humble cacao). (Baron 212). The smallest beans (the last few on the list) were most commonly consumed as a beverage and the rest were typically used as currency. Through 7th century murals at Calakmul, archaeologists discovered that cacao beans were commonly exchanged in marketplaces both small and large. The mural depicts individuals from different social classes buying, selling, and exchanging certain goods (maize, tobacco, jewelry, cloth, etc.) One particular image depicts a woman exchanging a bowl of chocolate for a man’s tamale dough. This archaeological excavation reveal the integral role that cacao played in the marketplace as both currency and a tradable good.

Codex Mendoza: Aztec taxes in form of cacao beans

In addition to Mayan society, the Aztec Empire had their own form of currency that relied heavily on cacao. From 1430-1531, Aztecs traded cacao beans and offered them as tribute (tax) to Tenochtitlan (Weatherford 19). Aztecs and Mayan rulers received taxes in the forms of cacao sacs. These sacs included the numerical glyph “pik” which represents 8,000 cacao beans (a typical unit of measurement for cacao tributes) (Baron 214). This unit of measurement comes from the Aztec Xiquipilli. A cacao bean’s high market value is also attributed to its common use as a tribute. This example again shows how cacao beans differentiate the wealthy from the poor. In addition to tributes, cacao beans were most frequently involved in a barter system (Weatherford 19). Traders typically used cacao to even out transactions. While cacao beans could be exchanged directly for a particular good (1 cacao bean = 5 green peppers), they were also added on at the end of trades to even out the transaction. For example, if an “Aztec wanted to exchange an iguana for a load of firewood … and if the good did not have precisely the same value, the traders used cacao to even it out” (Weatherford 19). However, cacao beans provide some of the first examples of counterfeiting practices. Individuals would take the shells of cacao beans and fill them with mud to deceive their exchange partners. Despite this disadvantage of an edible currency, Cacao is unique because it is a commodity that one can consume as well as exchange. The cacao beans can be turned into a frothy beverage or traded for an avocado. Paper money and coins do not have this advantage. This differentiation truly makes cacao beans a unique form of currency.

Example of a typical cacao transaction

In order to truly understand cacao’s value in the marketplace, it is necessary to analyze some typical transactions involving cacao beans in the Aztec Empire. Professor Martin’s lecture from February 6th perfectly outlines some of the most common exchanges. According to the Nahuatl document from 1545: a male turkey is worth 200 cacao beans, a small rabbit is worth 30, one turkey egg is worth 3 cacao beans, an avocado is worth 3 cacao beans, one large tomato is worth one cacao bean, a larval salamander (an Aztec delicacy) is worth 4 cacao beans, and fish wrapped in maize is worth 3 cacao beans (Martin 73). These are all examples of typical marketplace transactions that utilized cacao as currency. Even other non-Mesoamerican societies at the time used cacao beans in transactions. For instance. The Nicarao of Nicaragua in the 16th century exchanged 100 cacao beans for a slave and 8 to 10 cacao beans for a prostitute (Coe 58-59). While traders more frequently used cacao in exchange for other foods, textiles, or accessories; it is important to acknowledge that human services were an integral component of the 1500s marketplace. Cacao was a common commodity in the purchase of those services.

Cacao beans played an integral role in both the Aztec and Mayan societies. It was not only considered an elite beverage; it was a prominent form of currency in the Mesoamerican marketplace. With cacao beans, one could purchase a turkey egg, pay their taxes, or buy a slave. People rarely think of food as a form of currency in the modern era. However, in Mesoamerica, food, such as cacao, carried a much greater societal importance.

Works Cited

Baron, Joanne P. “Making money in Mesoamerica: Currency production and procurement in the Classic Maya financial system”. Economic Anthropology: Society for Economic Anthropology. May 10, 2018.

Coe, Sophie D. & Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson Ltd; 4thed. 2013.

Weatherford, Jack. The History of Money. Crown Business; Reprint edition. March 10, 1998.

Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods'”. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.Lecture. February 13th, 2019

Image Citations

Charles River Editors. The Last Emperor of the Aztecs: The Life and Legacy of Montezuma. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. August 23, 2013.

Mursell, Ian. “Beanz Meanz Money”. Maya at Mexicolore. 1994.

Cornell University: Albert R. Mann Library. “When Money Grew on Trees”. Chocolate: Food of the Gods. 2007.

Deceptive Chocolate: Tracing Counterfeit Cacao Culture from Aztec Currency to Modern Production

Paying with a one hundred dollar bill in any store will prompt cashiers to raise their eyebrows. Yet, their skepticism is not unfounded. According to the United States Department of Treasury, approximately $70 million counterfeit dollars currently circulate the market (Wilber). While people remain hyperaware about the current proliferation of counterfeit currency, this practice is not new. One form of imitation currency evolved during the Post Classic Period (1300-1500) in Mesoamerica, a reign known as the Aztec empire. During this time, the Aztecs witnessed the spread of counterfeit currency — their highly prized cacao beans.

The number of cacao beans a person possessed during the Aztec empire determined their social status. People used cacao to purchase commodities such as turkey hens, pay employees wages, and host social climbing parties (Coe 99). Since cacao became a difficult commodity to obtain in large amounts and grow quickly, Aztec cacao distributors began faking cacao beans (Coe 100). As cacao galvanized followers across the world over time, major cacao production companies started faking all aspects of cacao from chocolate bar filler ingredients to brand labels.

Despite public denouncement of counterfeit culture throughout history, cacao counterfeit culture has never truly gone away. The idea of counterfeit cacao, which has evolved into counterfeit chocolate, has prevailed in society due to scanty regulation and created more consumer health risks.

The Beginnings of Deception in the Aztec Empire


Cacao was used to trade for various commodities such as food products and animal parts

Pre-Conquest Mesoamericans exalted huge amounts of cacao beans. Instead of calculating cacao value by weight or bulk, merchants assessed cacao value by counting beans (Coe 81). Key leaders such as Texcoco’s Nezahualcoyotl and Tenochtitlan’s Motecuhuzoma adopted this mindset when they stashed millions of beans in their vaults and graves to preserve their wealth (Coe 82). Due to the overwhelming potential of of commodities, the Aztecs began creating and refining fake cacao bean production.

Anthropologist Joel Palka, who investigated archaeological sites in Mexico and Guatemala, unearthed the widespread use of clay cacao beans. (Garthwaite). In an interview with The Smithsonian, Palka suggests that these beans may have passed through the market as a real currency or even substituted for cacao during rituals. As the Aztec’s main currency, billions of cacao beans circulated the market. Most certainly, cacao counterfeit currency reached the wealthy who possessed millions of beans. Since it would be impossible for the wealthy to throw out all fakes among millions of cacao beans, this suggests counterfeit cacao culture existed and proliferated.

Creating a Fake Currency


In a mountain of cacao beans, it becomes difficult to discern real beans from their fake counterparts

Even with billions of cacao beans exchanges, Aztec cacao sellers took great measures to disguise their fake cacao. According to Bernard Sahagun, a Spaniard documenting Aztec lives, cacao sellers processed fakes using hot ashes, chalk, and a generous coating of amaranth dough, wax, or avocado pits (Coe 100). To further camouflage their counterfeit cacao, sellers mixed the fake cacao with pure Theobroma cacao beans. Other cacao deception experts exploited empty shells by filling the insides with mud (De Maré).

The many methods used to deceive buyers presented risks, such as exposure and banishment, but documentation of this practice makes counterfeiting seem universal at the time and for the most part, unchallenged by leadership (De Maré). While people no longer use cacao as a currency, the same counterfeiting ethos has not been lost in society. In fact, this cynical practice of counterfeiting still pervades the chocolate market and can drastically affect consumers’ health. This is now chocolate adulteration.

Counterfeit Cacao Becomes Adulterated Chocolate

In Europe, it is common to see adulteration in the production phase. Since nineteenth century France, producers have replaced cocoa butter with egg yolks or mutton and added alkali to artificially darken chocolate (Coe 243). More recently, the 2005 European government allowed chocolate producers to add any sugar to chocolate along with 40% chocolate filler and still label it chocolate, despite chocolate purists’ outcry (Bolenz). Unsurprisingly, producers then selected cheaper fillers such as lactose Helianthus tuberosus flour, pea and oat fibers, and potato starches (Bolenz).

During a similar time, government leaders accused several companies, including Cadbury and Hershey, of adulterating cacao butter (Squicciarini). Now companies can avoid this public humiliation by rebranding products. Labeling products “chocolate flavored” in order to distract the consumer from the product’s true cacao percentage is considered legal (Bolenz). Since these corporations control a large percentage of the chocolate distribution chain, customers have a limited sense of what chocolate tastes like without additional fillers. The popularity of chocolate adulteration, exemplified by the participation of two big five companies, shows how chocolate fraud endures during modern times.


Illegitimate companies pass off their products as reliable but their counterfeit products pose extreme dangers to customers

Counterfeiting becomes especially visible when malicious producers employ flashy brand names to attract consumers. During Lunar New Year in 2017, the French government discovered a Chinese company that plagiarized Ferrero and Mars stickers to pass off their fake chocolate as legitimate (Yu). Unfortunately, many people probably purchased and consumed the counterfeit candies containing chemicals or larvae before then (Yu). While governments may punish counterfeit chocolate, the proliferation of fake chocolate, from fake branding to adulterated ingredients, persists and poses significant risks to consumers.

Evidence of counterfeit cacao dates back to the Aztec empire, but the practice remains rampant today. With the advent of new counterfeiting practices, the consumer now faces potential health risks. Only when more people start learning about cacao and chocolate counterfeiting, demand recipe transparency from companies, and pressure leaders to regulate and dismantle unethical companies will consumers learn to savor the taste of pure, unadulterated chocolate.

Works Cited

Bolenz, S., Amtsberg, K. and Schäpe, R. (2006), The broader usage of sugars and fillers in milk chocolate made possible by the new EC cocoa directive. International Journal of Food Science & Technology, 41: 45-55.

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

De Maré, Laurie. “Museum of the National Bank of Belgium.” A Tasty Currency: Cocoa – Museum of the National Bank of Belgium, 4 Mar. 2013, http://www.nbbmuseum.be/en/2013/03/kakao.htm.

Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/.

Squicciarini, Mara P, and Johan Swinnen. The Economics of Chocolate. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Wilber, Del Quentin. “Fantastic Fakes: Busting a $70 Million Counterfeiting Ring.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 27 Apr. 2016, www.bloomberg.com/features/2016-counterfeit-money/.

Yu, Douglas. “Fake Ferrero and Mars Chocolate Seized in China.” Confectionerynews.com, William Reed Business Media Ltd., 8 Feb. 2017, www.confectionerynews.com/Article/2017/02/08/Fake-Ferrero-and-Mars-chocolate-seized-in-China.

Media Citations

“Chinese Counterfeit Chocolate with Larvae Worms.” YouTube, YouTube, 3 Sept. 2007, www.youtube.com/watch?v=sO9OTPXbXUA.

Ross, Kurt. “Cacao Trading Manual.” Codex Mendoza: Aztec Manuscript. Barcelone, Espagne: Miller Graphics, 1978. Print.

Greenwood-Haigh, David. “Cocao Beans.” Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/users/dghchocolatier-5671698/



Cacao: Then and Now

The influence of chocolate in Mesoamerica was seen in many aspects of Mesoamerican life prior to the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas: it was present in cultural, religious, and economic areas of life in Mayan communities. In Mayan culture, it is clear that they believed that the “gods provided recipes for making cocoa drinks, which gave those drinks high status and political significance”. 1 It is true that many aspects of Mesoamerican life changed after the arrival of Hernan Cortes and the Spanish in what is modern day Mexico and parts of Central America. The strong influence in Mesoamerican culture was one of the aspects of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture that did survive many of the transformations that occurred once the Spanish began to introduce European culture into the way of life of the Mayans. Although chocolate was still a mainstay in Mesoamerican society after the Spanish arrived, there were many aspects of the role of chocolate that did change from the time that chocolate was seen as a sacred item in Mayan society. One clear example is how in “ancient Maya religion cacao was the first food to grow from the body of the maize god.” 2 This shows how cacao was not only used practically in religious rituals, such as during Mayan marriage and baptism rituals 3, but it held a critical role in the sacred texts and stories that served as the foundation of what quotidian Mayan life was like. Similarly, cacao seeds were also seen as important because they were used as currency which you could use to buy food and other items in Mayan society.4 We see traces of the power that had been assigned to chocolate in modern Mesoamerica—which exemplifies the power that the cacao seeds had in Mayan societies since it was able to maintain a role culturally despite the massive cultural changes that were imposed on indigenous people once the colonial period began. The most striking example of how the role of cacao seeds has largely remained unchanged is how it is still used to make chocolate beverages that are still very similar to the recipes that were being used during the colonial period by the indigenous population.5 Although the essence of the chocolate beverage drink has remained the same since the Spanish conquered the Mayan people, there has been a couple of changes to the original chocolate beverage recipe: the indigenous people now use chocolate tablets when they start making the drink instead of starting from scratch with cacao seeds.6 What is most telling of the evolution of this ingredient is the fact that these tablets are usually purchased and they are made in a factory—quite different from the rigorous process of grounding the kernel and beaten with “water, flavorings, and usually maize to make a drink.” 7 Similar to this aforementioned change in chocolate, indigenous people now add sugar to the chocolate beverage recipes—which is different from the classic Maya hot chocolate and a byproduct of the evolution of hot chocolate once there was European influenced involved8, as you can see in the video published by National Geographic (that can be accessed through https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/north-america/guatemala/anitgua-maya-chocolate-making/ ). Yet, if we fast forward to modern day Mesoamerica we do see a more dramatic change in how current-day Mayans use cacao seeds in their culture and in their society. A significant change we can see is that Mayans no longer use cacao seeds as currency as they used to back in Pre-Columbian times since researchers have not been able to find any 20th century ethnographers that have been able to document the use of cacao as money. 9

An explanation for why people may no longer use cacao as currency is because the new generation of indigenous people in Mexico see a tie between chocolate and poverty since it is so laborious to cultivate and not financially sustainable.10 As mentioned in the video below.

Additionally, there are examples of how much more localized the use of cacao has become in modern Mayan societies. Indigenous communities in Guatemala and Honduras have a cacao market where trade is restricted within the “Maya and Ladino communities in which it is produced or between closely associated areas.” This is in contrast to the use of cacao and cacao-based feasts during feasts that were intended to create sociopolitical alliances between different tribes and different Mayan factions.11 All in all, the connection between cacao and Mayan culture has evolved and/or disappeared, but there are also many characteristics of Mayan culture that have remained the same throughout the years and throughout all of the political and cultural changes that started happening during the Colonia Period. However, it is certain that ever since 1900 BCE12 —the earliest record of cacao seeds, cacao has been a critical part of Mesoamerican culture that has transformed and evolved from the chocolate beverages that the Mayans prepared in Pre-Columbian times to the chocolate bars that indigenous people now use to help emulate the chocolate drinks that their ancestors drank. This is eloquently explained in the video below by Ted-ed.


1 Kristy Leissle, Cocoa (Cambridge: Polity, 2018), 21
2 Cameron L. McNeil, “Introduction,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 14.
3 Ibid, 18.
4 Mary Ann Mahony, review of Chocolate in Mesoamerica, by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009. Review page 175
5 Cameron L. McNeil, “Traditional Cacao Use in Modern Mesoamerica,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 346.
6 Ibid, 348.
7 Terrence Kaufman and Justeson, “The History of the Word for ‘Cacao’ and Related Terms in Ancient Meso-America,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 117.
8 Gulnaz Khan, “Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate-Making,” National Geographic, September 11, 2017, Accessed March 14, 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/north-america/guatemala/anitgua-maya-chocolate-making/.
9 Cameron L. McNeil, “Traditional Cacao Use in Modern Mesoamerica,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 356.
10 The Perennial Plate, “An Act of Resistance,” Filmed [February 2014], Vimeo video, 04:03. Posted [February 2014], https://vimeo.com/85727477.
11 Dorie Reents-Budet, “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking among the Ancient Maya,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 209.
12 Ted-ed, “The history of chocolate,” Filmed [March 2017], YouTube video, 04:40. Posted [March 2017], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibjUpk9Iagk.

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 Role of Cacao in Aztec Customs

Introduction to Aztecs

The Aztecs were the people of the fifth sun who lived in Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City) and spoke the Nahuatl language. From the 14th-16th centuries they dominated much of Mesoamerica, however, history remembers them as cruel, volatile and sadistic people. This stereotype arose because it benefited the Spaniards to paint the Aztec people in a bad light. The quote, “history is written by the victors” illuminates this point. What we study and remember about historical events comes from the eye of those who are able to live and tell the story. The fact of the matter is that we will never know everything about the Aztec culture but one thing we know for sure is that the cacao bean was incredibly significant in their everyday lives.

 

Making of Chocolate

choco_pour2
Figure 1. This image shows the care and time it takes to make the chocolate drink. In this picture the women is moving the chocolate from one basin to another in order to create a layer of foam.

When we think of chocolate today we think of a sweet, brown block of food that is enjoyed as a desert or a sugary snack. This chocolate is derived from the theobroma cacao bean. The Aztecs used these theobroma cacao beans in a very different way. A man known as the Anonymous Conqueror, a gentleman of Hernan Cortez, described the way chocolate was prepared in Tenochtitlan. The seeds of cacao were ground and made into a powder that was put into basins and mixed with water. After mixing for an extended period of time they change it from one basin to another in order to create a layer of foam. When completed, the delicacy is to be served cold as a drink. (Coe and Coe, 87) “The conqueror describes this drink as the healthiest thing and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else.”(Coe and Coe, 87) Chocolate in the Aztec culture was not a sweet drink for everyone to enjoy; it had an intense bitter taste and was reserved for the Aztec elite.

 

 

Chocolate Drinking, A Royal Pleasure

The drinking of chocolate was primarily for the Royal house, the lords and nobility. The only commoners who had the privilege of drinking chocolate were the soldiers as it was thought to rejuvenate warriors before they entered battle. Chocolate was a delicacy that was not available to everyone in the Aztec culture. The drinking of chocolate was also a civil and ritualized process. According to Fray Bartolome de las Casas, who was one of the first Dominicans in the Americas, royalty drank chocolate out of calabash cups called xicalli in Nahuatl that were painted inside and out. Chocolate was also never drank during the meals rather it was sipped after the meal was over. “It was an ambrosia from the rich and exotic lands of Anahuac, not something to wash down one’s food.”(Coe and Coe, 94)

 

 

Role of Chocolate as Currency

The other interesting aspect of cacao that signified its importance in the Aztec culture was how it was used as a form of currency. According to the Codice Mendoza, cacao beans had taken on the status of legal money. “The cacao beans of Soconusco were particularly valued as records indicate an annual tribute of 200 hundred loads of 24,00 beans each to the capital.” (Presilla, 17) Another historical record of the importance of cacao was from Christopher Colombus’ son Ferdinand who recounted in a letter; “they dropped some nuts and immediately stooped to rescue any that dropped as if an eye had fallen from their heads” (Presilla, 17). Ferdinand was referring to the cacao beans when he said ‘nuts’ but the reaction of the Aztec people shows the importance of these beans and is testimony that they may have carried monetary value in addition to their intrinsic value.

 

chocolate-2-1az3lcd
Figure 2: The exchange of cacao beans between gods. Cacao was used in many ways and was also used as a form of currency.

 

Chocolate in Aztec Rituals

 

 

aztecs40

Figure 3. This image is a depiction of the heart extraction ritual that was performed once every year by the Aztec people. The use of chocolate in this ritual signifies its importance in the Aztec culture.

Chocolate was engrained in the culture and rituals of the Aztec people. When members of Aztec royalty and nobility hosted guests they would often invite them to partake in the drinking of chocolate. This gesture was meant as a great honor to the guest who received the chocolate. (Presilla, 19) Another specialized ritual that occurred every year among the Aztecs was the sacred heart extraction in Tenochtitlan. One slave would be chosen to dress up and impersonate the great god Quetzalcoatl for 40 days. When the 40 days came to an end the slave would be required to sacrifice himself to the gods. Throughout the process the slave had to act and dance joyously as if he was lucky to be honored as the one chosen to sacrifice himself to the gods. It is said that if the individual became melancholy he would be given a gourd of chocolate to drink. The slave would immediately forget the situation he was in and would return to his usual cheerfulness. (Coe and Coe, 102) The use of chocolate in these types of rituals shows how highly the Aztecs viewed chocolate and how important it was in their culture.

 

 

  

Conclusion

It is clear that the Aztec people viewed cacao as more than just a food or drink. Cacao was reserved for the elite of Aztec society and carried cultural and monetary significance that made it so important and so valuable to the Aztec people.

 

 

Works Cited:

  1. Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2009. Print.
  2. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

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”).

money

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.

Chocolate as Currency

 

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.

 

4859216391_d693dc8755_b

 

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).

 

Murales_Rivera_-_Markt_in_Tlatelolco_2

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.

 

Transportes_mexicas

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.

 

Works/References Cited

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.

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
4. 
http://www.chocolatemonthclub.com/chocolate-history.htm
5. Coe Michael & Coe Sophia, The True History of Chocolate, pgs. 72-75, 3rd Edition.

 

The money that grew on trees

In the time of the Aztecs, the use of cacao beans as currency, tribute to the emperor, and wages, along with the extensive counterfeiting trade that occurred, demonstrate the value the Aztecs placed on the chocolate beverage.

In the Aztec empire, a thriving trade developed around the cacao bean as currency. It was known as the coin of the realm. Cacao served this economic purpose during both the conquest and colonial eras, but historians have much more information about exchange rates from the latter time period (Coe, 90). A list of some known exchange rates from a Nahuatl document from Tlaxcala in 1545 demonstrates the peoples’ ability to exchange the beans for various food products. However, according to Presilla, cacao beans could be exchanged for anything from a turkey to sex (Presilla, 14).

A turkey hen for 100 full beans or 120 shrunken beans

A turkey cock for 200 beans

A hare for 100 beans

A small rabbit for 30

A turkey egg for 3 cacao beans

An avocado for 3 beans

A large tomato for 1 bean

A large sapote fruit for 1 bean

A tamale for 1 bean

A fish in maize husks for3 beans

The monetary value of cacao fluctuated with respect to its availability (Coe, 90). It is not unlikely the price of a common item, such as a turkey, fluctuated widely from region to region and season to season. Additionally, as the exchange rates were transcribed and translated, they could have been misinterpreted. Because of this, it is not uncommon to find a wide variety of cacao prices. This video indicates that a cacao bean could be traded for twenty small tomatoes, while the document above indicated that one bean would buy one large tomato. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=poGz61oegPM 

Cacao beans were also used to pay salaries, such as wages for soldiers or even other laborers (Coe, 98). According to one source, the daily wage of a porter in central Mexico was 100 cacao beans (Coe, 90). In addition to wages, the cacao beans were used to pay tribute to the emperor. For one cacao-growing region in the Aztec world, 200 loads of cacao beans and 400 drinking bowls were expected, as is indicated by the ten flag-like symbols attached to cacao beans in this picture.

http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/images/content_img/Money_small.jpg

The tributes paid to the Aztec emperor included Jaquoire skins and cacao beans.

What defined a load of cacao? Cacao was counted in base 20, so a tzontli of cacao was 400 cacao beans, and a xiquipilli was 8000 beans (Coe 82). A normal load of cacao was three xiquipillis, or 24,000 beans (Coe 82).

In order for something to be used as currency, it had to be sufficiently valuable and rare. It seems that cacao fit those standards in Aztec society. The fact that the people were willing to transform something they could use to pay a necessary tribute into something they could exchange for everyday items only increases its value. Indeed it seems that cacao’s purpose as a food source for the elite was secondary in importance to its use as a payment method for any and all persons in the kingdom.

The value the Aztecs placed on cacao was evident not only from its conversion from food source to currency, but also from the enormous stores of cacao that the emperor required. According to some sources, the king needed four xiquipillis for his daily needs, including making payments and drinking chocolate for the elite (Coe, 82). His warehouse probably held around 40,000 loads of cacao.

The Spanish, always keen on anything that seemed to hold monetary value, made moves to gain access to the rich cacao beans as soon as they realized their societal value. The Spanish began to export cacao back from the New World after acquiring it in various ways. One story even told of a midnight heist of cacao from the emperor that the Spanish carried out with the help of 300 soldiers (Coe, 82). The relationship between the Spanish and Cacao can be further explored at this link http://www.nbbmuseum.be/2013/03/kakao.htm.

The thriving counterfeiting process also demonstrates the value of cacao beans in Aztec society. Many methods developed to supplement existing stores of beans with similar-looking fakes. Some were made of wax, avocado pit, or dough (Coe, 91). These fake cacao beans were then tossed in with a supply of normal beans to augment the stock. The labor-intensive process of creating fake cacao beans indicates the valuable reward that the beans could attain.

Cacao was extremely valuable to all the people in the Aztec empire, despite the restriction of consumption to only the wealthy elite. Its conversion to currency, the massive stocks cultivated by the empire, and the counterfeiting process that developed all indicate the extreme importance of this natural resource. As Peter Martyr (the same old-world chronicler who coined the phrase “The New World”) indicated, it seems that for the Aztec, money truly did grow on trees (Coe, 98).

Works Cited
Coe, Sophie. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.