Golden Ticket: How Chocolate Was Used As A Form of Currency in Ancient Maya

Words: Robyn Samuels

I hate to sound basic, but this one time, while travelling in Thailand, I hitch-hiked a lift to another province. With no immediate cash on my person and no ATM in sight, I only had a box of chocolates to pay for my lift. Now, I don’t normally hitch-hike, or pay people in ‘candy’, but sometimes, “life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get”. It then occurred to me that this wouldn’t have been such a foreign concept centuries ago…

We often use the word ‘rich’ to describe the taste of chocolate, which is pretty apt since in ancient Maya it represented opulence, as chocolate was used as a form of currency.

chocolate used as money

Had it not been for anthropologists who unearthed evidence, we might not have known this. Murals, ceramic paintings and carvings from the 8th century depict cacao beans being used as a form of currency. According to an economic anthropology study, both “cacao beans and cotton textiles were monetised during the Classic Maya period (250–900 CE)”.

Chocolate, or rather cacao beans from which chocolate is made, was one of the more unique forms of edible currency.

It is believed that it was initially used as a symbol of social currency and status before it took on a more complex purpose. But, before we learn about how people walked around with melting balls of Ferrero Rocher in their pockets – just kidding, pockets were only invented around 3300 BCE –  let’s take a look at the mythical and religious symbolism of chocolate and cacao beans.

All Hail Chocolate

The cacao bean was not only revered for its worth in literal gold, but also worshipped as a sacred and holy fruit. Theobroma cacao, the scientific name for the cacao tree, alludes to this – theobroma, meaning ‘food of the gods’ and cacao meaning, well, ‘cacao’.

Hieroglyphics illustrate that cacao crops not only held religious value, but had a spiritual connection to maize crops too. The maize god, known as ‘God L’, apparently descended into the ‘upsidedown’ and his body fertilised the growth of orchard trees – the cacao tree being one of them. He is also depicted as wealthy and surrounded by women in a ceramic painting; one woman is even pictured pouring ‘frothy chocolate’ near him – pretty steamy, huh?

According to Mesoamerica mythology, the same deity is also thought to be a travelling merchant who carried a bag of cacao and other valuable objects. There are varying narratives depending on the region, but these all provide compelling evidence that cacao was in fact used as a form of currency.

Apart from simply being prepared as a bitter beverage, cacao was famously gifted to Maya royalty, and was later used for financial transactions.

The consumption of chocolate was conceptualised by the Maya and Aztec people, circa 1500 B.C. – but it tasted a lot different from the slabs we now have the luxury of buying at convenience stores and chocolatiers. Back then, the Maya used to dry, grind and mix the beans with water and drink the elixir. The Aztec word for chocolate is actually ‘xocolatl’. If we take a look at the history of hot chocolate, chocolate was mostly consumed as a bitter beverage, thankfully it’s a little bit sweeter today.

chocolate used as money

Apart from simply being prepared as a bitter beverage, cacao was famously gifted to Maya royalty, and was later used for financial transactions.

Chocolate as a Currency

Around the first millennium C.E. tobacco, maize and garments were used for bartering in Mesoamerica. While food trade was historically common – salt being the most well-known one, followed by tea, bread, beer and other spices – cacao beans from which chocolate is made, was one of the more unique forms of edible currency.

chocolate used as money

Multiple artworks infer that the Maya kingdom established the trade using cacao beans. If we look at the kingdom’s ‘cacao budget’, approximately 11 million was allotted, with only 2 million used for dietary consumption; the remaining 9 million is thought to be used as money. Additionally, cacao beans were used to compensate warriors, government elected officials, as well as merchants, before cacao was traded at the marketplace in exchange for goods and services.

Interestingly, cacao was also used for bribes and ransoms to overlords to set war captives and royal prisoners free.

It’s also believed that chocolate/cacao beans were used as currency based on the fact that the Maya harvested more than was needed. Four types of cacao beans were used – tree, rope, flower and earth cacao. The smallest cacao bean variety, earth cacao, was used for consumption, whereas the remaining varieties were used as currency.

Cacao trees thrive in moist soil, regions with heavy rainfall and high humidity, these markets did not provide conducive growing conditions.

Murals also provide evidence of the social symbolism and monetisation of cacao. One artwork depicts people perusing a market and trading food textiles for goods – suggesting they had different social statuses based on the quality of clothing and jewellery worn. Another shows a woman offering a man a bowl used for frothing chocolate, in exchange for tamale dough. Interestingly, cacao was also used for bribes and ransoms to overlords to set war captives and royal prisoners free.

A Bitter Ending…

The ‘collapse of Maya civilisation’ is said to have occurred between 800-1000 A.D. It is important to note that there is still a thriving population in Mesoamerica, and it hasn’t been wiped off the face of the earth. Instead, they saw a decline in their political regime and not their society as implied.

chocolate used as money

While many theories debate political influences attached to the downfall of this kingdom’s sweet empire – like the possible phasing out of textiles as money – an amalgam of factors contribute to the devaluation of cacao beans.

The most notable reason being the perishability of cacao beans, meaning chocolate as a form of currency was not sustainable for long-term usage. Now, if we were talking about cheese, it would have been a different story, but the bitter truth is that raw cacao beans are not easily preserved and could only be stored for no more than a year, before forming mould and rotting.

Today, Ghana and the Ivory Coast are the largest exporters of cacao beans – we encourage you to read all about the dark truth about chocolate and ensure that your chocolate is ethically and sustainably sourced. But, in ancient Maya, cacao beans were typically produced in the Tabasco region of southeast Mexico, along the Grijalva River.

food trend impacts

Contrastingly, the largest markets existed in the Calakmul and Tikal regions where cacao was grown in man-made sinkholes and watered during drier periods. Because cacao trees thrive in moist soil, high humidity and regions with heavy rainfall, these markets did not provide conducive growing conditions.

Moreover, climate change and localised drought had adverse effects on cacao crops, eventually leading to a decline in cacao production and distribution. In turn, this resulted in the disruption of marketplace trade and ultimately, the monetisation of cacao, rendering it ‘as useful as a chocolate teapot’.

Become a Chocolatier

‘Chocolate’ may have fallen as a form of currency, but it will always be rich in our opinion. To pay tribute to the Maya people, learn how to make your own chocolate with coconut oil or indulge in these decadent chocolate recipes.

CHocolate Recipe Round Up Header

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