Skip to main content

Cacao bean use as money traced

Chocolates are made to mimic coins. Some of us have even tried to collect them. Good luck. They eventually decay or get eaten.


Chocolate began as a delicacy. It was challenging to grow and was susceptible to droughts, making it sufficiently scarce that early societies used it as primitive money within economic systems using barter that preceded coins.

The cacao bean from which chocolate is made was used as a form of money in Central and South America prior to and during the early part of the Spanish and Portuguese occupation of the region.

In a Nov. 10, 1525, petition from Mexico City representatives to the king of Spain requesting a mint be established, the petition reads: “For the Indians themselves, it [coined money] will be a great relief and mercy, because the money they currently use is blankets, cacao, maize and such.”

Prior to 1544 and at least through 1545, 200 beans were valued at one Spanish colonial Mexican silver real. This diminished to 40 beans to the real by 1560. It is recorded that on June 30, 1555, either a single ear of corn or two cacao beans were to be given as a voluntary contribution from commoners for the celebrations of Corpus Christi. In 1561, nobles were required to pay an entertainment tax consisting of one turkey and 20 cacao.

All items used as barter in Central and South America were eventually replaced with coins, but the question now being addressed regards when cacao first became popular as a form of primitive money.

Joanne Baron is an archaeologist at the Bard Early College Network in Newark, N.J. This network of schools focuses on using college-level teaching for high-school age students. Baron didn’t make some new discovery at a dig site. She used surviving artwork of the Mayan civilization to learn when it appears cacao first began to be used as a monetary object.

Baron focused on the Classic Maya period of about 250 to 900 C.E. in what was then the southern Maya lowlands. This is the period of sculpted monuments, stucco facades and city states linked by trade. Trade included ceramics, copper bells and axes, food and drink, obsidian, textiles, and cacao. Cacao was sufficiently popular that, according to Lynn Foster in her book Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, cacao was counterfeited by replacing the flesh in the pod with dirt or with avocado rind.

Baron studied carvings, ceramic paintings, and murals that depict typical market transactions or tribute being paid to Mayan kings. Divine kings acted as mediators between mortals and the supernatural during this period. Baron concluded cacao became more prevalent by the 8th century. This is about the time a single item became more widely accepted as payment for goods and services rather than one-on-one object bartering.

According to Baron, cacao was consumed as a steamy broth in a clay cup. A mid-7th century mural in a pyramid near what is now the border of Guatemala shows a woman offering this drink to a man in return for tamale dough, suggesting the cacao was a form of currency. She documented commodities as tribute or taxes on about 180 scenes on ceramics and murals between 691 and 900. Tribute included tobacco and maize; however, most scenes included woven cloth and bags labeled with the quantity of dried cacao beans in them.

Baron said, “They [Mayan kings] are collecting way more cacao than the palace actually consumes,” adding the surplus likely was used to pay palace employees or make purchases in the marketplace.

David Freidel is an anthropologist and Maya expert at Washington University in St. Louis. Addressing Baron’s study, Freidel said chocolate “is a very prestigious food ... and it almost certainly [was] a currency.”

There is a theory that the Mayan civilization collapsed due to a drought that, among other things, would have decimated the cacao crop. Freidel said, “My guess is that one commodity crashing would not cause the system to crash.”

While Freidel is supportive of Baron’s study, he pointed out an increase in depictions of cacao doesn’t necessarily reflect an increase in its importance as a currency.

Should we as collectors be seeking dried cacao beans, foil-covered chocolates, or Mayan ceramics on which this currency is depicted?

This article was originally printed in World Coin News. >> Subscribe today.

More Collecting Resources

• The Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1601-1700 is your guide to images, prices and information on coins from so long ago.

• Start becoming a coin collector today with this popular course, Coin Collecting 101.