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Mexicolore contributor Kathryn Sampeck

Cacao Money

We are sincerely grateful to Dr. Kathryn Sampeck, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Illinois State University (USA) for writing specially for us this highly informative article on the use of cocoa beans as a form of money in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica.

Pic 1: European copy of an Aztec tribute list. Francisco Antonio de Lorenzana (1770) Historia de la Nueva-España, plate 24 after p. 175. México, en la imprenta del Superior Gobierno, del Br. D. Joseph Antonio de Hogal en la Calle de Tiburcio
Pic 1: European copy of an Aztec tribute list. Francisco Antonio de Lorenzana (1770) Historia de la Nueva-España, plate 24 after p. 175. México, en la imprenta del Superior Gobierno, del Br. D. Joseph Antonio de Hogal en la Calle de Tiburcio (Click on image to enlarge)

Why do people use money? Today, people are so comfortable with using money for all kinds of transactions that it seems like people must have always done the same. But money is in fact a very curious thing. Across the broad span of human existence, only some groups at particular times used money. One of these cases occurred not long before Spanish conquistadors first came to Mexico and Central America; Mesoamericans developed a currency system, with cacao as the smallest denomination. Spanish colonization of Mesoamerica was then a meeting of two systems of money - one European, of copper, silver, and gold, the other Mesoamerican, of copper, cloth, and cacao. The Mesoamerican use of cacao for small coin affected more than purchases, as it changed the way people related to each other. In this instance, cacao as money shaped ways Mesoamericans, then Europeans, and even we today think about chocolate.

Pic 2: Theodor de Bry (1595) ‘Americae pars quinta nobilis & admiratione plena Hieronymi Bezoni Mediolanensis secundae setionis Hispanorum...’
Pic 2: Theodor de Bry (1595) ‘Americae pars quinta nobilis & admiratione plena Hieronymi Bezoni Mediolanensis secundae setionis Hispanorum...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

History and archaeology show us that people use money to have a consistent, predictable way to: (1) make payments - a way to take care of debts; (2) have a standard for accounting - calculating amounts using “numerical tags,” countable words or symbols handy for planning and budgeting; and (3) exchange - to make trade of different kinds of things easier by converting cost of goods into prices in money. These different hallmarks of money are true of cacao in Mesoamerica not long before Spaniards arrived.

Pic 3: Carolus Clusius (1582) Caroli Clusii Atreb. aliquot notæ in Garciæ aromatum historiam. eiusdem descriptiones nonnullarum stirpium, & aliarum exoticarum rerum ... p. 29, Antwerp, Ex officina Christophori Plantini
Pic 3: Carolus Clusius (1582) Caroli Clusii Atreb. aliquot notæ in Garciæ aromatum historiam. eiusdem descriptiones nonnullarum stirpium, & aliarum exoticarum rerum ... p. 29, Antwerp, Ex officina Christophori Plantini (Click on image to enlarge)

Objects that work well as money are durable (they can survive some wear and tear), are a convenient size (not too big or too small), and distinctive (they stand out from other everyday objects). Cacao beans have all of these characteristics. Processed, dried cacao seeds do not deteriorate very quickly. With a size a little larger than a coffee bean and a rounded, slightly flattened shape, cacao beans are easy to carry, even by the hundreds, and easy to sort out from potential lookalikes such as common (or garden) kidney, pinto, or red beans.

Pic 4: The Maya creator diety Itzamna, cacao-collecting. From the Dresden Codex: 6c-7c Frame: 2. Image courtesy of Vail, Gabrielle, and Christine Hernández (2013) The Maya Codices Database, Version 4.1
Pic 4: The Maya creator diety Itzamna, cacao-collecting. From the Dresden Codex: 6c-7c Frame: 2. Image courtesy of Vail, Gabrielle, and Christine Hernández (2013) The Maya Codices Database, Version 4.1 (Click on image to enlarge)

Art, inscriptions, pieces of preserved seeds, plant DNA, and residues still on ancient pottery tell us about the long history of where, how, and when people first began growing cacao as a domesticated tree and how they consumed its fruit and seeds. It is clear from all these different kinds of evidence that Mesoamericans used cacao in ceremonies early in Mesoamerican history, as early as 2000 B.C.E., and drinking cacao beverages was widespread in southern Mesoamerica by the Late Formative (400 B.C.E.-A.C.E. 250). During the Postclassic period (1200-1521 A.C.E.), from Yucatan to Oaxaca, celebrants consumed cacao drinks during dynastic ceremonies and to seal important social contracts.

Pic 5: Dresden Codex Maya Hieroglyphic Text of Almanac: 25 - 28 Frame: 1, showing an opossum Mam carrying the rain god Chaak or the god of sustenance K’awil in a carrying frame on his back. Image courtesy of The Maya Codices Database, Version 4.1
Pic 5: Dresden Codex Maya Hieroglyphic Text of Almanac: 25 - 28 Frame: 1, showing an opossum Mam carrying the rain god Chaak or the god of sustenance K’awil in a carrying frame on his back. Image courtesy of The Maya Codices Database, Version 4.1 (Click on image to enlarge)

An early Spanish account by Diego García de Palacio, the oidor (circuit court judge) of what became colonial Guatemala (which includes today’s El Salvador, Guatemala, and much of Honduras), described how cacao was part of a fertility ritual and that war captives destined to be sacrificial victims wore necklaces of cacao seeds. Cacao was a proper offering in healing rituals, to seal marriage alliances, and to ensure successful travel. These ritual uses show how cacao had a complex role in daily life that included associations with fertility, death, and rebirth through sacrifice.

Pic 6: Drawing of a cacao tree in Samuel de Champlain (1602) ‘Brief discours des choses plus remarquables que Samuel Champlain de Brouage á reconneues aux Indes occidentales’
Pic 6: Drawing of a cacao tree in Samuel de Champlain (1602) ‘Brief discours des choses plus remarquables que Samuel Champlain de Brouage á reconneues aux Indes occidentales’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Several different kinds of evidence indicate that the long-term history and trends in uses of cacao shifted over time. Mesoamerican people traded cacao over long distances. By the Late Postclassic, however, the exchange uses of cacao took on the characteristics of money, becoming a medium of exchange, a way to make payments, and affiliated with notational “tags”.
García de Palacio noted that cacao beans served as small money and change for indigenous people living in Central America and Mexico, a practice that Ephraim G. Squier reported occurring in El Salvador into the late nineteenth century.

Pic 7: Scene of Native Americans of Mexico carrying goods to market. By Door Pieter Vander Aa (1707) ‘Naaukeurige versameling der gedenk-waardigste zee en land-reysen na Oost en West-Indiën ... zedert het jaar 1519 tot 1521’
Pic 7: Scene of Native Americans of Mexico carrying goods to market. By Door Pieter Vander Aa (1707) ‘Naaukeurige versameling der gedenk-waardigste zee en land-reysen na Oost en West-Indiën ... zedert het jaar 1519 tot 1521’ (Click on image to enlarge)

While it might be tempting to think that cacao money was a Spanish innovation, the wonder Europeans expressed about cacao first as money rather than as something to eat or drink suggests that the idea did not come from them. In the sixteenth through mid-seventeenth century, the first mention of cacao in European texts was usually as money. One of the first European accounts of the Americas, de Orbe Novo (The New World), written Peter Martyr in the sixteenth century, described cacao as a superior form of money:-

Pic 8: Map of the world by Pietro Martire Anghiera (1587) De orbe nouo Petri Martyris Anglerii Mediolanensis, Protonotarij, & Caroli quinti Senatoris Decades octo...
Pic 8: Map of the world by Pietro Martire Anghiera (1587) De orbe nouo Petri Martyris Anglerii Mediolanensis, Protonotarij, & Caroli quinti Senatoris Decades octo... (Click on image to enlarge)

I haue heretofore said that their currant money is of fruits of certain trees, like our almonds, which they call Cachoas. The vtility and benefit therof is twofould: for this almond supplieth the vse of monie, and is fit, to make drink... O blussed money, which yeeldeth sweete, and profitable drinke for mankind, and preferueth the possessors thereof free from the hellish pestilence of auarice, because it cannot be long kept, or hid vnder grounde... There are Kings, whose rents, and reuenues are only the fruits of those trees. By exchange and barter thereof they buy them necessary things, as slaues, and garments, and whatsoeuer maketh for ornament, or other vses. Marchantes bring in diuers wares and commodities vnto them, and carry out plenty of those fruites, which the rest of the prouinces vvse.

Pic 9: Giovanni Francesco Gemelli Careri (1719) ‘Voyage du tour du monde ...’ Tome sixieme
Pic 9: Giovanni Francesco Gemelli Careri (1719) ‘Voyage du tour du monde ...’ Tome sixieme (Click on image to enlarge)

Martyr praised the usefulness of cacao as money not because it was due to the influence of Europeans, but because people of the New World were already using a highly practical form of currency when the Spanish arrived.
Francisco de Bobadilla, a Mercedarian friar in the Nicarao area (what is today Nicaragua), provided other evidence of cacao as money for calculating prices of goods and services. In 1528, Bobadilla interviewed Nicarao caciques (political leaders), elders, and young men regarding their beliefs and practices. Bobadilla marveled at the relative values of the goods, such as 10 cacao beans for a rabbit and 100 for a slave. The early date for these records precedes the rise of cacao as an important Spanish colonial commodity for food or drink.

Pic 10: Pages from ‘Recordación Florida’ of Antonio Fuentes y Guzmán (1933) that show symbols for counting cacao money
Pic 10: Pages from ‘Recordación Florida’ of Antonio Fuentes y Guzmán (1933) that show symbols for counting cacao money (Click on image to enlarge)

The accounting system characteristic of money, the denominations and special ways of counting, also show up for cacao in very early colonial documents. The Spanish official García de Palacio assessed tribute for the Izalcos in the 1570s, noting that the units of contle (zontle) of 400 cacao beans, xiquipil (20 zontle or 8000 beans), and cargas (three xiquipil or 24,000 beans). Spaniards also counted cacao in these units rather than converting to a European system of counting, even in official registers of imperial income. Spaniards recognized this indigenous system because it made all kinds of transactions much easier; the power of money helped preserve native practices.

Pic 11: Detail of folio page 196 recto from the account book of the Real Caja in Verapaz, Guatemala for 1606, Manuscript in the Edward E. Ayer Collection of the Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois
Pic 11: Detail of folio page 196 recto from the account book of the Real Caja in Verapaz, Guatemala for 1606, Manuscript in the Edward E. Ayer Collection of the Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois (Click on image to enlarge)

Cacao, just like any other currency, could be converted to other kinds of money, including Spanish gold and silver coins such as the real. According to García de Palacio, 200 cacao beans were worth one Spanish real, and eight reals were worth one peso. A carga of 24,000 beans would then be worth 15 pesos.
Other, more circumstantial lines of evidence about cacao as a pre-Columbian money show some of the social consequences of switching to a money economy. Small change is for everyday sorts of purchases of common items or payments, which implies wide access and ideally consistent and abundant supply.

Pic 12: Google Earth image of Mesoamerica with main cacao production areas marked
Pic 12: Google Earth image of Mesoamerica with main cacao production areas marked (Click on image to enlarge)

Did everyone have a money tree? Yes and no. Cacao grows in many tropical environments in Mesoamerica. Cacao, however, is a very finicky plant, requiring just the right amount of shade, water, and rich soils to produce large amounts of fruit and seeds. A bountiful harvest was the result of a great degree of skill and knowledge. It was also a calculated decision. Cacao trees do not begin bearing fruit until they are several years old. People had to invest a lot of labor without a quick payoff. So, even though cacao grew in many places, just a few were famous for producing large amounts of cacao: Soconusco, along the Pacific coast, in the region of the Guatemala-Mexico border; the Gulf Coast near the Tabasco-Campeche region, Suchitepéquez, in Pacific coastal Guatemala, and the Izalcos region of today’s western El Salvador. Of all of these places, the Izalcos polity of the Pipil in the Río Ceniza Valley was the smallest region, but produced as much or more than any of the other major cacao regions.

Pic 13: Map of Mesoamerica showing the location of the Río Ceniza Valley, the heartland of the Izalcos Pipil
Pic 13: Map of Mesoamerica showing the location of the Río Ceniza Valley, the heartland of the Izalcos Pipil (Click on image to enlarge)

The Izalcos Pipil spoke Nahua, in the same language family as Nahuatl of the Mexica (Aztecs). They arrived in western El Salvador in the Late Postclassic, probably around 1200 A.C.E. García de Palacio stated that the Izalcos provided the principal supply of cacao for all of New Spain (colonial Mexico). So, Mesoamerica had fairly stable and abundant sources for cacao from a few key places, and the Izalcos was a superproducer in the money supply.

Pic 14: Market scenes in the 1575-77 Florentine Codex. The uppermost image shows women preparing cacao beverages
Pic 14: Market scenes in the 1575-77 Florentine Codex. The uppermost image shows women preparing cacao beverages (Click on image to enlarge)

Shifting to a money economy opened the door for better integration of local, regional, and long-distance markets as well as more effective political administration, yet it also made a special, potent, and precious good available more widely than ever before. The use of cacao on a regular basis and in this new manner as money by increasingly larger numbers of people brought together far-flung regions in novel ways. Regions were bound together economically despite ethnic and political differences; money can unite people and make connections created through exchange easier. The danger, however, is that money can alter the balance among social groups. Money offered the potential for commoners to accumulate cacao and ascend in status. To paraphrase the anthropologist Sidney Mintz, cacao as money in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica must have become a kingly luxury of commoners and a spurious leveler of status.

Pic 15: This scene from the Maya Madrid Codex: 52c-52c Frame: 1 may depict a marriage between a blue-painted creator diety Itzamna and the youthful earth deity Ix Kab’
Pic 15: This scene from the Maya Madrid Codex: 52c-52c Frame: 1 may depict a marriage between a blue-painted creator diety Itzamna and the youthful earth deity Ix Kab’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Several kinds of evidence exist of this challenge to the social hierarchy. Mesoamericans not subject to the Aztec empire still adopted Nahua cultural elements that had to do with social rank: mural art, polychrome pottery, deities, architectural style, and names for noble families, political offices, and religious titles. For example, the Itzá Maya political title Ach Kat is a Mayanized form of the Nahuatl title achcauhtli, “elder brother,” military chiefs or commanders of medium- to large-sized divisions within polities. In the highlands, the K’iche’ Maya made use of Nahua styles in objects and practices that showed elite status and power, such as cremation burials, pottery, mural paintings, titles, and names. Many of the names of early ruling lines for the K’iche’ were Nahua (Axcopil, Istayul, Cipac, Tepepul). Nahua words appear in Late Classic Maya hieroglyphic writing, with such borrowing happening with increasing frequency around the time of conquest.

Pic 16: The Palace of Motecuhzoma, showing the ruler seated in the uppermost chamber and his council is in the lower right chamber. From the Codex Mendoza, f. 69r
Pic 16: The Palace of Motecuhzoma, showing the ruler seated in the uppermost chamber and his council is in the lower right chamber. From the Codex Mendoza, f. 69r (Click on image to enlarge)

Mayas borrowed Nahua cultural practices to increase power during a time of social competition and political factionalism, but the reasons for this instability are not well explained. A consistent, widespread reason for ambiguity in social hierarchy across Mesoamerica in the Late Postclassic could well have been the expansion of the use of cacao as money and its associated greater supply and wider access. The use of cacao as money and astounding cacao production in the Izalcos region were related and mutually reinforcing. The intensive production of the Izalcos, however, also fed the dilemma of undermining elite power precisely because it fostered economic opportunity. The object of emulation for many Mesoamericans was also the source of instability: a new money economy and the Nahua people who supplied it.

Pic 17: European man grinds cacao Native American style. From Chez Thomas Amaulry, 1687, Le bon usage du thé, du caffé, et du chocolat pour la preservation & pour la guerison des maladies, Lyon, ruë Merciere, au Mercure Galant
Pic 17: European man grinds cacao Native American style. From Chez Thomas Amaulry, 1687, Le bon usage du thé, du caffé, et du chocolat pour la preservation & pour la guerison des maladies, Lyon, ruë Merciere, au Mercure Galant (Click on image to enlarge)

Spanish colonization perpetuated the fervor for cacao as money, and early colonial writings promoted the Izalcos as the place where money grew on trees. The role of the Izalcos in colonial wealth brings us to the popularity of chocolate. Have you ever thought about why a food is called “rich”? The term does not refer only to one taste. In the case of cacao, the term probably stuck because it was actually wealth - cacao made a lot of people rich, and it was money itself. But we use the word “chocolate” rather than cacao to refer to cacao-laced foods and drinks. Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans made many different recipes for cacao drinks, and they were regional specialties - different places had distinctive tastes in cacao drinks, and these different drinks had different names.

Pic 18: Section on chocolate in ‘Traitez nouveaux & curieux du café, du thé et du chocolate’ by Philippe Sylvestre Dufour, The Hague, 1693 - a classic early European work on the history of chocolate and its rich properties
Pic 18: Section on chocolate in ‘Traitez nouveaux & curieux du café, du thé et du chocolate’ by Philippe Sylvestre Dufour, The Hague, 1693 - a classic early European work on the history of chocolate and its rich properties (Click on image to enlarge)

The drink “chocolat” came from colonial Guatemala and was a mix of cacao with achiote, which made it a deep, dark red. The name chocolat does not appear in colonial records in Mexico until 1580, but earlier in colonial Guatemala. What happened in 1580? The Izalcos, in colonial Guatemala, was the premier cacao producer, on the order of billions of beans exported through one port alone, just at the time the price of cacao reached an all-time high. The Izalcos was synonymous with fantastic wealth, and the name for their regional drink became synonymous not just with richness, but cacao itself. Chocolate pointed toward where wealth came from; chocolate was the taste of money, and we still think of it today as rich.

Picture Notes and Sources:-
• Pic 1: Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University
• Pic 2: Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University
• Pic 3: Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University
• Pic 4: For the Maya Codices Database a website and database are available at http://www.mayacodices.org
• Pic 5: The opossum Mam wears an incense bag around his neck, a distinctive headdress marked by paper strips, and a skirt that also appears to consist of paper. The text reads “käkäw u kan” (Cacao is his offering). For the Maya Codices Database a website and database are available at http://www.mayacodices.org
• Pic 6: Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University
• Pic 7: Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University
• Pic 8: Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University
• Pic 9: Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University
• Pic 11: The entry records a payment of fees for a highland Maya community in cacao from Soconusco. Photograph by the author, courtesy of the Newberry Library
• Pic 14: The manuscript can be viewed via the World Digital Library http://www.wdl.org/en/item/10096/
• Pic 15: Each deity holds what appears to be honeycomb in their outstretched hands. Below them is a tripod vessel with a rattlesnake at its base. The vessel is marked with two T25 (ka) glyphs, suggesting that it contains cacao, and the two gourd-shaped objects atop the vessel and above the honeycomb may be cacao pods. Image courtesy of Vail, Gabrielle, and Christine Hernández (2013 The Maya Codices Database, Version 4.1. A website and database available at http://www.mayacodices.org/
• Pic 16: Image scanned from our own copy of the 1938 James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London
• Pic 17: Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
• Pic 18: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Nov 30th 2015

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