Tag Archives: currency

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.


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.


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.

History of Cacao

Now-a-days chocolate is an every day thing that’s accessible almost anywhere. History shows that chocolate wasn’t always such a common product in the household. In fact, chocolate was used as a luxury item for only the elites in their respected eras and communities. If chocolate is made from Theobroma cacao then, and still made out of the same key ingredients now, what made the perception of chocolate change so much? Being more specific, how and why did the luxury status change from a delicacy to such common snack? Just as modernization has changed many things, it’s not the actual product that has changed rather it’s the ideologies and open-minded approach that has caused such a drastic change in its status. The answer behind the change has everything to do with the addition of sugars to the process.

            The Olmec civilization arguably was the first to introduce the use of cacao. Looking geographically where cacao is primarily grown, areas such as Chiapas, Guatemala, and the Yucatan previously had evidence of previous occupants who used cacao. Not much else is really known in detail about their usage of cacao but it definitely paved the way for the Maya civilization.


            The Maya civilization thrived from 250 to 900 CE. During this time, they used cacao beans throughout Mesoamerica as currency. Using something as currency obviously shows that the value of the item has an importance. The artifacts found from the Maya civilization prove that there were other reasons and usage for cacao beans. The consumption of chocolate was primarily for society’s elite. The tombs of Maya nobility contained pottery vessels that had hieroglyphs of cacao depicting the process of its preparation. The Mayan’s left traces of using chocolate as a drink rather than a solid. A key reason why it probably remained such a delicacy is because they never really added sugar. Sugar is addictive and could have changed the use of cacao if the Maya civilization went in that direction. Mayan’s culture and beliefs allowed chocolate to remain a luxury item on into the rise of the Aztec’s.

Cacao Glyph

            The Aztec’s took majority of the 14th century and created other ways of using chocolate. They adopted the use of cacao beans as currency and as a beverage from the Mayan’s. They actually created a currency system for the cacao.

An Aztec document containing a list of price equivalents designated the value of a tomato as one cacao bean, while an avocado was worth three, and a “good turkey hen” was worth 100 “full” or 120 “shrunken” cacao beans.


             It was also a popular drink among the upper class and those who could afford it. The Aztec’s served it after a feast in a special cup call xicalli. Just as the Mayan’s, the Aztec’s also had their own methods and flavorings to concoct their chocolate drink.  They used ingrediants such as chillis, hueinacaztli, achiote, vanilla, allspice, and honey in the preparation process of their luxurious drink. The Aztecs also used chocolate for their warriors. Along side the chocolate drink, they also made cacao wafers, issuing them to soldiers in order to fortify and energize them during marches and battles.

            Once the 16th century came around, the Europeans changed the preparation of chocolate to be more pleasurable. The black, bitter and spicy nature of chocolate wasn’t acceptable to them. They wanted to change some things to make the delicacy more enjoyable. The Spanish began to routinely add cane sugar and switched dark spices for the more modern and tastier vanilla and cinnamon. This led way for different medical uses for future users. This also opened the lenses to not only the elite, but also the common folk who began to seek out this tasty delicacy. Sugar is addictive but also beneficial to the body so it only makes sense that something tasting this good changed from a delicacy to an every day snack.

Work Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013[1996].

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986[1985].

Image 1: http://www.d.umn.edu/cla/faculty/troufs/anthfood/afchocolate.html

Image 2: http://albanykid.com/2011/12/11/hot-chocolate-hot-cocoa-and-xocoatl/

Image 3: http://europeforvisitors.com/paris/articles/choco-story-museum-photos.htm

Chocolate & Luxury

Cacao beans, and the products that descend from them, were all highly valued in the early societies of Mesoamerica.  The beans were considered so precious that even Ferdinand Columbus, viewing with his foreign eyes how reverently they were treated, was able to understand their importance on some level.  He explained in a written account that cacao beans, which he referred to as “almonds,” were so valuable to the Maya people he was observing that “when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen” (Coe & Coe 109).

A person holding cacao beans, which were precious to Maya and Aztec peoples as both a currency and as the source of chocolate

The diligence he observed in the Maya people’s behavior was likely due in large part to their use of cacao beans as currency – though just an “almond” with mysterious value to Columbus, the beans had great extrinsic value in Mayan society.  Beyond their implication of wealth when accumulated as currency, cacao beans had an even greater implication of wealth in the luxury and status symbol that was one of their products: chocolate.  “The common folk, the needy did not drink it” (Coe & Coe 101); rather, its consumption was limited to that of the elite classes of both Mayan and Aztec society.  It was a very rare occasion when those outside of the elite minority were able to enjoy chocolate drinks – one such rarity was when “Aztec sacrifice victims who felt too melancholy to join in ritual dancing before their death” were given chocolate lightly flavored with blood of preceding victims (“A Brief History of Chocolate”).  Later in Aztec history, chocolate was even referenced as a symbol of luxury in the poetry and songs the royalty and nobility devoted themselves to creating (Coe & Coe 104).

Chocolate was also a luxury item when first introduced to Europe.  Initially, the good was available only to Europe’s upper classes, prompting the creation of luxury items like the Spanish mancerina and the French chocolatiere to facilitate the consumption of the nobility.  The mancerina was used to prevent spillage of chocolate drink at royal and noble parties, where it was often consumed, and the chocolatiere, typically made from precious materials like silver, facilitated the process of making chocolate beverages with its frothing mechanism.  Chocolate was often served at public functions of Louis XIV at Versailles (Coe & Coe 156), considered by history to be one of the most extravagant rulers of European history living in one of the most extravagant of places to exist even to this day.

Over time, the extravagance and luxury that chocolate and other products of the cacao plant represented faded into a commonplace tradition of the masses.  Cheaper than tea after the advent of mass production of chocolate, hot chocolate was often served alongside coffee in places like England.

An English coffeehouse where chocolate drinks were likely sold alongside coffee, and where British politicians would chat about the politics of the day

As the two Mesoamerican societies progressed, chocolate and cacao beans became much more accessible to the average Mayan or Aztec, giving rise to the popular tradition of making chocolate drinks like champurrado that have persisted in popularity into modern day Mexican culture.

Though the exclusivity of access once associated with the products of the cacao plant changed, what didn’t was the luxurious feeling of consuming it: from Europe to Mesoamerica, chocolate maintained its classification as a special consumption good.  Embodied first in exclusivity and then later in tradition, the special, luxurious feeling associated with chocolate has yet to fade.


Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1996. Print.

Benson, Amanda. “A Brief History of Chocolate.”Smithsonian Magazine. 1 Mar 2008: n. page. Print. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-chocolate-21860917/?page=1&gt;.