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General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 26 Mar 2017/13 Vulture
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Article suitable for Top Juniors and above

Professor Frances Berdan

Question for January 2014

When did the Aztecs stop using cocoa beans for money? Asked by Thomas’s Prep School (Clapham). Chosen and answered by Professor Frances Berdan.

Pic 1: Display of cacao bean ‘values’ at the Chocolate Museum, Bruges. Notice the copper axe blades on the left...
Pic 1: Display of cacao bean ‘values’ at the Chocolate Museum, Bruges. Notice the copper axe blades on the left... (Click on image to enlarge)

Among the Aztecs and their neighbors (notably the Maya), cacao beans served as a prized beverage and a form of money. Among the different types of money, including large cotton cloaks and thin copper axes, cacao beans had the lowest value... rather like small change. Cacao beans were especially handy when making purchases in the many marketplaces. You wouldn’t be likely to buy a slave with the beans since he or she would cost you at least 2000 cacao beans – a rather bothersome load to carry around. But cacao beans worked perfectly well for smaller daily needs such as tomatoes, chiles, firewood, and the occasional turkey or rabbit.

Pic 2: Bags of cacao beans (top) head this page showing the Spanish taking over the role of tribute/tax ‘masters’ after the Conquest; detail from the Codex Kingsborough, British Museum
Pic 2: Bags of cacao beans (top) head this page showing the Spanish taking over the role of tribute/tax ‘masters’ after the Conquest; detail from the Codex Kingsborough, British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

We don’t know when cacao beans began to be used as money in ancient Mexico, but we do know they were widely used as money in Aztec times. Their use continued with enthusiasm after the Spanish conquest and through the Colonial period. It helped that the indigenous markets also continued to be lively and active after the Spanish conquest as well. In 1545 (24 years after the Spanish conquest), market prices in Tlaxcalla were set in cacao beans: for instance, you could buy a ripe avocado or chopped firewood for 1 cacao bean, a turkey egg for 3 cacao beans (although a chicken egg only cost 2), or a rooster for 20 cacao beans. In 1543, 40 cacao beans were paid daily to workers in maguey fields. This meant that these same workers must have been able to exchange their cacao bean wages in the market for needed goods like those available in the Tlaxcalla market, and also including other goods such as salt, prickly pear cactus fruits (nopales), or a tasty fast-food tamale. Indeed, a buyer with cacao beans in hand could buy pretty much anything in the markets, both before and after the Spanish conquest. The cacao beans must have worked well as money: they were observed still being used as “small-change” money in Central American markets in the mid-1850s.

Pic 3: Silver was far more valuable to the Spanish than cocoa beans...
Pic 3: Silver was far more valuable to the Spanish than cocoa beans...  (Click on image to enlarge)

The use of cacao beans as money throughout the Colonial period (1521-1810) was accompanied by the use of Spanish coins. The Spaniards introduced pesos and tomines (later called reales). Tomines were worth 1/8 of a peso, and in the 1545 Tlaxcallan market, 1 tomin equaled 200 full cacao beans or 230 shrunken cacao beans. Apparently not all cacao beans were equally valuable.

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1 & 2: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Drawing of silver mine: scanned from our copy of Appletons’ Guide to Mexico, Ed. Alfred Ronald Conkling (1884), New York: D. Appleton & Co.

Learn more on this from Professor Berdan...

Professor Frances Berdan has answered 2 questions altogether:

What was the emperor’s house like?

When did the Aztecs stop using cocoa beans for money?

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