Mesoamerica's Chocolate Economy

The dollar sign is synonymous for wealth, trade, success, and money. All around the world people trade bills of green, red, blue, pink, and yellow to exchange for goods and services. Before modern currency people traded precious metals and stones like gold and silver coins, and precious gems. Gold and silver were valuable for their rarity, beauty, and possibly for their non-corrosive properties. However there was an even more interesting form of currency in Mesoamerica. In the Americas where gold abound, at one point the Ancient Maya and Aztec prized cacao even more.


To the Maya and Aztec, in their respective religions, believed that cacao was a gift from the gods. It was already a revered food in a spiritual sense. However there was a powerful economic value to cacao as well. The beans would be fermented, dried, and roasted and then used as a currency. Goods and services could be purchased in exchange for cacao beans. BYU students found in a study that Mayan trade routes were believed to have periodic sink holes where cacao was being produced and stored as an economic resource for trade.


The Mayans weren't known to utilize coins for money, but traded other goods like maize and other crops and textile. Cacao beans however were a form of currency in which the people would barter with. Some evidence even suggests Mayan rulers collected cacao beans as a tax filling their estates with storages of cacao.


The Aztecs similarly saw the cacao bean as more valuable than gold. They also traded it like currency for goods and services. Some records relate that Cortez's conquistadors, when raiding Emperor Montezuma's palace in 1519, they found more cacao than gold or silver. There were massive reserves of cacao, which were later taken back to Spain.


All this is because cacao was a prized, sacred, and coveted drink among these societies. The consumption of cacao was enjoyed by the elites as a hot frothy drink often flavored with honey, vanilla, and other flowers, chilies, and spices. It was also consumed during sacred spiritual ceremonies and even had a part to play in human sacrifices.


So next time you take a sip of Téo or bite into a rich piece of chocolate, just think, you could have been rich!

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