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Professor Cecilia Rossell

Question for October 2005

Why were cocoa beans so valuable? Asked by Turnfurlong Junior School. Chosen and answered by Professor Cecilia Rossell.

Traditional chocolate making
Traditional chocolate making (Click on image to enlarge)

English:Cocoa beans, or ‘kakawa’ in Maya, were cultivated in the jungles of southern Mexico and transported by Maya merchants to markets all over Mesoamerica, where their rich taste ensured they were always in popular demand. And as everybody wanted them, products of all kinds began to be exchanged for cocoa beans, till before long they had become a unit of currency (money). To this end, 8,000 cocoa beans were kept as a standard measure in a cloth bag (called ‘xiquipilli’ in Náhuatl), and eventually the symbol of this bag ended up representing the number 8,000 in the counting system of the Aztecs, who adapted the term ‘cacahuitl’ from the Maya to refer to the beans themselves. Cocoa beans used as currency were poorer in quality to the others – the best being kept to prepare the drink known as ‘cacahuaatl’, made with water (‘atl’) and ground cocoa beans. All drinks prepared with the fruits [‘xoco(tl)’] of trees like the cacao and mixed with water were called ‘xocoatl’ – a word that the Spanish changed into ‘chocolate’. They liked it so much that they took it back to Europe... Why were cocoa beans so valuable? For the same reason as today – their wicked taste!

‘Xiquipilli’ glyph for 8,000
‘Xiquipilli’ glyph for 8,000

Español:Los granos de cacao o “kakawa” en maya, se producían en las selvas al sur de México, y eran llevados por los mercaderes Mayas a todos los mercados de Mesoamérica, donde se vendían muy bien ya que eran muy apreciados por su rico sabor. Y como todos los querían, empezaron a cambiar sus productos por granos de cacao, hasta que acabó por convertirse en una moneda. Para ello, se guardaban 8,000 granos dentro de una bolsa de tela llamada “xiquipilli” en nahuatl, y con el tiempo, la imagen de esta bolsa acabó representando al número 8,000 en el sistema numeral de los Aztecas, quienes adaptaron el término maya como “cacahuatl” para estos granos. Los que se usaban como moneda eran de calidad inferior, ya que los mejores eran usados para elaborar la bebida llamada “cacahuaatl” que se hacía con agua “atl” y granos de cacao molidos, también se le decía “xocoatl” a las que se hacían con los frutos “xoco(tl)” de algún árbol, como el del cacao, mezclados con agua, y que los Españoles cambiaron a “chocolate”, a los que les gustó tanto que lo llevaron a Europa. Por que eran tan valiosos? Por lo mismo que ahora, por ser tan sabrosos!

Can you spot the cup of precious chocolate? Codex Zouche-Nuttall
Can you spot the cup of precious chocolate? Codex Zouche-Nuttall (Click on image to enlarge)
Professor Cecilia Rossell has answered 7 questions altogether:

Which was the most precious colour for the Aztecs and why?

Why were cocoa beans so valuable?

Did the Aztecs use make-up?

How did the hearts actually get to the gods?

Did they take feathers equally from male and female quetzal birds?

Have traces of real blood been found on the sacrifice knife blades?

How old was the oldest codex?

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