General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 May 2017/6 Jaguar
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Cocoa beans and fine cotton cloaks - Aztec currencies

Beanz meanz money!

Trade lay at the heart of the great Aztec empire. The Spanish were amazed at the sheer size of the main market at Tlatelolco, beside Tenochtitlan, and reported that up to 60,000 people gathered there every major market day; it was open 24/7 all through the year!

20 cocoa beans = 1 trip for a porter
20 cocoa beans = 1 trip for a porter (Click on image to enlarge)

How exactly did the Aztec people buy and sell goods? Most of us know that they bartered, exchanging one item for another; and most of us know that they used cacao (cocoa) beans as a simple rate of exchange. But just how much was a cocoa bean worth? Professor Frances Berdan (one of our ‘Ask the Experts’ panel members) has kindly supplied the following information, for which we all thank her warmly!

30 cocoa beans = 1 small rabbit
30 cocoa beans = 1 small rabbit (Click on image to enlarge)

‘All the information on Aztec exchange rates comes from colonial sources, but the general picture probably wasn’t too different before the Spaniards arrived. The sources indicate generally that cocoa beans could be exchanged for anything, including payment for labor...and also for paying fines (in Yucatan, according to J. Eric Thompson. Thompson further reports the rate of 20 cacao beans/trip for a porter.

1 cocoa bean= 5 long narrow green chiles
1 cocoa bean= 5 long narrow green chiles (Click on image to enlarge)

‘One problem with trying to match like with like is that not all cacao beans were the same - they differed in origin and quality, and therefore their values went up and down. So for example the market prices listed in a 1545 document from Tlaxcala indicate that 200 full cacao beans = 230 shrunken ones. This list of prices also includes examples such as the following (all in cacao beans): one small rabbit = 30, one turkey egg = 3, one turkey cock = 300, one good turkey hen = 100 full cacao beans or 120 shrunken ones, one newly picked avocado = 3, one fully ripe avocado = 1, one large tomato = 1, one cacao bean = 20 small tomatoes, one cacao bean = 5 long narrow green chiles, a large strip of pine bark for kindling = 5... This was in 1545, but the relative idea is there.

1 cocoa bean = 20 small tomatoes
1 cocoa bean = 20 small tomatoes (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Then there is the other common means of exchange, quachtli or large white cotton cloaks. Again, these varied in quality (as did the cacao beans), and were worth 65-300 cacao beans each (Sahagún says in the Florentine Codex that the different grades of quachtli were worth 100, 80 or 65 cacao beans, while the Información de 1554 indicates 240 unspecified cacao beans for one quachtli or 300 Cihuatlan cacao beans for one quachtli. An "ordinary" person’s yearly standard of living was valued at 20 quachtli.

3 cocoa beans = 1 avocado
3 cocoa beans = 1 avocado (Click on image to enlarge)

‘There isn’t a lot of information, and although cacao beans continued to be used as currency in the colonial period, the quachtli rapidly fell out of use (perhaps because of their high relative value, or their closer equivalency to the Spanish tomin (a unit of mass used for precious metals).’

100 ‘full’ cocoa beans = 1 ‘good’ turkey hen
100 ‘full’ cocoa beans = 1 ‘good’ turkey hen (Click on image to enlarge)

Cocoa beans may well have been still in use as a form of currency long after the conquest. Professor Manuel Aguilar-Moreno (also on our Panel of Experts) reports that ‘There is an image of Christ in the cathedral of Mexico City known popularly as the Christ of Cacao; people brought offerings of cacao beans, which can still be seen at the feet of the image.’ (Handbook to Life in the Aztec World’, p. 339.

65 cocoa beans = 1 plain white cotton cape
65 cocoa beans = 1 plain white cotton cape (Click on image to enlarge)

Warwick Bray (another expert on our panel) points out (‘Everyday Life of the Aztecs’, p. 112) that cocoa beans generally formed ‘the every day small change’, and that for expensive items the units of exchange were mantles (cloaks, capes), copper axe-blades, or quills full of gold dust. He adds his own list of the cost in cotton capes of relatively expensive goods:-

1 x dugout canoe = 1 x quachtli

100 sheets of paper = 1 x quachtli

1 x gold lip plug = 25 x quachtli

1 x warrior’s costume and shield = about 64 x quachtli

1 x feather cloak = 100 x quachtli

1 x string of jade beads = 600 x quachtli

Up to 300 fine cocoa beans = 1 finest cotton cape
Up to 300 fine cocoa beans = 1 finest cotton cape (Click on image to enlarge)

Dishonest people were known sometimes to counterfeit (fake) cocoa beans in the market by making copies in wax or amaranth dough - like using a worthless foreign coin in a parking meter! The Florentine Codex includes this description of a bad cacao seller as a trickster who: ‘counterfeits cacao... by making the fresh cacao beans whitish... stirs them into the ashes... with amaranth seed dough, wax, avocado pits [stones] he counterfeits cacao.... Indeed he casts, he throws in with them wild cacao beans to deceive the people.’ (Quoted in ‘Daily Life of the Aztecs’ by David Carrasco, p. 158). Some things never change...

Selling cloaks, Florentine Codex
Selling cloaks, Florentine Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

But we end on a more honest note. The Florentine Codex also includes (Book 10) illustrations of Aztec women selling cotton cloaks, and you can easily see the difference between a simple plain white one and far more elaborately embroidered ones - costing loads more beans...

Picture sources:-

Photos by Ian Mursell, illustrations by Phillip Mursell and Felipe Dávalos

Illustrations from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: As we mention above, cocoa beans were really ‘small change’ compared with the highest forms of currency which were copper axes and - most importantly - fine cotton capes.
Mexicolore replies: Thanks for this positive feedback, Dani, and good luck with your career. Keep in touch!
Mexicolore replies: Cheers, Jenn! It’s feedback like yours that makes our work worthwhile. Do come back and visit the site again...