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.
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 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.
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):
5. Coe Michael & Coe Sophia, The True History of Chocolate, pgs. 72-75, 3rd Edition.