The Most Delicious Currency

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

When I was a little kid, my dad told me a cautionary tale: as a younger man, he was once playing finger football with a friend. Using a quarter, they’d take turns flicking the coin up and through a little goalpost, formed by joining their thumbs together and raising their index fingers skyward to form the posts.

Anyway, one day my dad was making the goal post. His mouth was open and his friend “kicked” a field goal over the horizontal bar, between the posts, into my dad’s open mouth, and right down his gullet. The moral of the story was twofold: don’t keep your mouth open like a dummy for no reason, especially if you’re playing quarter games; and don’t eat money because money isn’t food.

In early mesoamerican civilizations—I’m talking Mayas and Aztecs here—this would have been a more complicated lesson. See, both cultures were so big on cacao (i.e., cocoa beans) that not only did they consume it, they used it as currency. But why cacao? Why not vanilla bean, which also originated in Mesoamerica? Why not maize? Why use perishable food as money at all?

The Olmecs—Rubber People Who Ate Bitter Chocolate

The Olmecs were the first big-time civilization in Mesoamerica (Central America and Mexico), from around 1,200 to 400 BCE. Their major claim to fame: latex. They’d refine it from rubber trees, mix it with some vine juice, and bam: rubber. “Olmecatl” was the Nahuatl (that’s the Aztec language) word for “rubber people.”

That’s a cool fact, right? Well, lock it up in your brain archives and give it a think later, because it doesn’t have anything to do with cacao. The reason I bring up the Olmecs is because they were probably the first civilization to harvest cacao seeds, ferment them, roast and grind them, and put the final product in their mouths for fun. 1

The Olmecs used other tradable commodities, like basalt. For example, this massive basalt head sculpture could maybe score you one turkey cock at the market.

These rubber folks were (probably) grinding up cacao to put in drinks or to make cacao gruel as early as 1,500 BCE. We know this because we’ve got some of their old pots, and those pots have traces of theobromine, which is a chemical found in cacao. 2

The Mayas—Ka’kau Kash

The Maya civilization, which was at its height from roughly 250 CE to 950 CE in southern Mexico and northern Central America, is where cacao seeds first saw widespread use as not just a prized commodity, but as a way to buy other commodities. You know, like currency. They also gave us the name we use (sort of) for the seed today: “ka’kau.” 3

As for preparation, the Mayas didn’t really use sweeteners (they were already sweet enough, those Mayas). Sometimes they would add honey, but that was for fermentation. They did, however, add other flavors to their cacao-based food and drinks. Ingredients included chili, magnolia, and—ah, here we go—vanilla. (Full disclosure: I prefer vanilla to chocolate because I’m terrible.) 4

All right, so yeah, chocolate’s edible, even if it’s bitter (and especially if it’s fermented). But why use it as money? Shouldn’t money be something that isn’t perishable or consumable? It just seems like a bad idea: you could have a sh*tty day then binge eat or drink your life savings during a moment of weakness.

Cacao seeds in various states of undress.

Today, we have a modern list of characteristics that make an item fit for use as currency: durability, portability, divisibility, uniformity, limited supply, and acceptability. By these standards, cacao is a bit lacking—mainly, it lacks durability, since it’s perishable. 5

The Mayas clearly had a different set of standards, then. But why cacao? Easy: it was a culture thing. Rendering cacao seeds consumable was a collaborative process. By necessity, it brought people together, meaning cacao had great social importance to the Maya. Humans are very social animals—particularly pre-modern humans who didn’t have smartphones—and anything that consistently brings people together is inherently significant.

Cacao, to the Maya, was like coffee to Arabs, or beer to Northern and Eastern Europeans. It wasn’t just a thing that they liked because it tasted good or gave them a head buzz—it was (and often still is) an intrinsic part of their collective identity. In an economy based on bartering goods, the most easily bartered item is the closest thing you’ve got to a currency. For the Maya, that was cacao. It also happened to tick off a few of the currency characteristics I mentioned above: it was portable, relatively uniform, and widely accepted, given its cultural significance. 6

From the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, a mural of partying Mayas. You can see some opened cacao pods with white seeds in the center of the table.

Given the importance of cacao to the Maya, it’s no surprise that its status as a commodity rose. To a religious society, something as important as cacao eventually becomes sacred, which then makes it even more important. As such, cacao drinks became associated with high-status drinkers and special occasions. Cacao drinks made their way into Maya mythology and artwork, and even images of court proceedings.

Another sign that the Maya treated their cacao seeds like money: researchers have found counterfeit seeds made from clay. 7

The Aztecs and the Spanish

The Aztec civilization flourished in central Mexico from around 1345 to 1521 CE, when the Spanish arrived to spread a bit of conquest, war, and disease. Like the Mayas, the Aztecs used cacao seeds as currency.

It’s worth noting that the height of the Maya civilization ended hundreds of years before the Aztecs rose to prominence. But the Maya were still around when the Aztecs overtook them to become the most advanced civilization in the region. As such, the Aztecs kept the cacao-as-cash thing, as well as the religious and social significance of this unsuspecting, bitter little bean.

So the Aztecs continued the Maya cacao seed tradition and, by the time the Spanish conquistadors took control of the Aztec empire in the mid-16th century, cacao’s value outranked gold dust in Mesoamerica. The new Spanish rulers recognized the cacao seed as currency, and established an exchange rate: one Spanish real could be exchanged for 140 cacao seeds in 1555.

Cacao amazingly retained some value as currency as late as the mid-1850s, when you could still use the seeds as change. 8

Aztec artwork—the Aztec man on the right is holding a cup of frothy cacao brew. The Spaniards didn’t like it.

Currency was about all the use the Spanish conquerors had for cacao at first. The way the Aztecs consumed cacao—often as a frothy drink with spices—was considered unpalatable to the Spaniards. And all of the cultural, social, and religious significance of cacao was foreign to them. But, as they settled and lived in Mesoamerica, and used the cacao seeds as currency, they found ways to make the chocolate drink more to their taste by adding sweeteners and other flavors they were more accustomed to. The result, eventually, was what we now call “chocolate”—likely a combination of the words “chocol” (the Yucatec word for “hot”) and “atl” (the Aztec word for “water”). 9

Nothing Gets Chocolate Out

The reason why cacao was so valuable to the Mayas and Aztecs, aside from all those other reasons I listed, is that it wasn’t easy to cultivate. Mesoamericans had already been making special drinks—early versions of beer and tequila using plants like cactus and maize. These plants were easy to grow. Cacao, meanwhile, needs the right conditions for soil, rainfall, and shade. These challenges limited the amount of cacao that could be harvested, which limited its supply and made it even more valuable. 10

Hernán Cortés, who conquered the Aztec empire. Presumably not a fan of indigenous cacao drinks.

Cacao amazingly retained some value as currency as late as the mid-1850s, when you could still use the seeds as change. 11 That’s all over, of course. You can’t, say, put cacao seeds in a parking meter. Then again, you can’t put pennies in a parking meter, either. The thing about cacao seeds is that you can still use them to make chocolate. Pennies, however, are useless.

It’s strange that cacao instead became popular the world over for its taste, considering that the Aztec brew was so unpalatable to Spanish conquistadors that they couldn’t even drink it. I guess, at the end of the day, the real hero is—and always has been—sugar.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed June 24, 2018). Olmec People. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Olmec
  2. Garthwaite, Josie. (2015, February 12). What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/
  3. Chocolate Class. (2016, February 19). When Money Grew on Trees: Cocoa Beans as Currency in Mayan and Aztec Societies. Retrieved from https://chocolateclass.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/when-money-grew-on-trees-cocoa-beans-as-currency-in-mayan-and-aztec-societies/
  4. Garthwaite, Josie. (2015, February 12). What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/
  5. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. (Accessed June 24, 2018). Functions of Money. Retrieved from https://www.stlouisfed.org/education/economic-lowdown-podcast-series/episode-9-functions-of-money
  6. Garthwaite, Josie. (2015, February 12). What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/
  7. Garthwaite, Josie. (2015, February 12). What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/
  8. Chocolate Class. (2016, February 19). When Money Grew on Trees: Cocoa Beans as Currency in Mayan and Aztec Societies. Retrieved from https://chocolateclass.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/when-money-grew-on-trees-cocoa-beans-as-currency-in-mayan-and-aztec-societies/
  9. How Stuff Works. (Accessed June 24, 2018). The History of Chocolate. Retrieved from https://recipes.howstuffworks.com/food-facts/history-of-chocolate3.htm
  10. Garthwaite, Josie. (2015, February 12). What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/
  11. Chocolate Class. (2016, February 19). When Money Grew on Trees: Cocoa Beans as Currency in Mayan and Aztec Societies. Retrieved from https://chocolateclass.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/when-money-grew-on-trees-cocoa-beans-as-currency-in-mayan-and-aztec-societies/

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Ancient History Encyclopedia. (Accessed June 24, 2018). Mesoamerica Timeline. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/timeline/Mesoamerica/
  • Chocolate Class. (2016, February 19). Chocolate as Currency. Retrieved from https://chocolateclass.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/chocolate-as-currency/
  • Chocolate Class. (2016, February 19). When Money Grew on Trees: Cocoa Beans as Currency in Mayan and Aztec Societies. Retrieved from https://chocolateclass.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/when-money-grew-on-trees-cocoa-beans-as-currency-in-mayan-and-aztec-societies/
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed June 24, 2018). Olmec People. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Olmec
  • Garthwaite, Josie. (2015, February 12). What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/
  • How Stuff Works. (Accessed June 24, 2018). The History of Chocolate. Retrieved from https://recipes.howstuffworks.com/food-facts/history-of-chocolate3.htm
  • The Telegraph. (2009, September 15). Aztecs and cacao: the bittersweet past of chocolate. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/6194447/Aztecs-and-cacao-the-bittersweet-past-of-chocolate.html
  • Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. (Accessed June 24, 2018). Functions of Money. Retrieved from https://www.stlouisfed.org/education/economic-lowdown-podcast-series/episode-9-functions-of-money

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