Tag Archives: tribute

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.

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.