How the Ancient Mayans Used Chocolate as Money

We've had hundreds and hundreds of years to get used to money in the form of coins and bills, though exactly how long we've used them varies quite a bit from region to region. Of course, some spots on the globe have yet to adopt them at all, as anyone who's heard the much-told story of the Yap islanders and their huge limestone discs knows. But the history of money is, in essence, the history of bartering — trading something you have for something you want — becoming more and more abstract; now, with digital crypto-currencies like Bitcoin, it looks like money will ascend one level of abstraction higher. But to imagine what a truly non-abstract currency looks like, just look at the ancient Mayan civilization, the members of which paid their debts with chocolate.

"The ancient Maya never used coins as money," writes Science's Joshua Rapp Learn. "Instead, like many early civilizations, they were thought to mostly barter, trading items such as tobacco, maize, and clothing." Thanks to the work of archaeologist Joanne Baron, a scholar of murals, ceramic paintings, carvings and other objects depicting life in the Classic Maya period which ran from around 250 BC to 900 AD, we've now begun to learn how chocolate took on a major, money-like role in the Maya's economy.

Some images depict cups of chocolate itself, which the Mayans usually enjoyed in the form of a hot drink, being accepted as payment, and others show chocolate traded in the coin-like form of "fermented and dried cacao beans." In many scenes, Maya leaders receive their tributes (or taxes) most often in the form of "pieces of woven cloth and bags labeled with the quantity of dried cacao beans they contain."

Cacao beans eventually became such a valuable currency "that it was evidently worth the trouble to counterfeit them," writes Smithsonian's Josie Garthwaite in an article about the early history of chocolate (a subject about which you can learn more in the TED-ed video above). "At multiple archaeological sites in Mexico and Guatemala," she quotes anthropologist Joel Palka as saying, "researchers have come across remarkably well-preserved 'cacao beans'" that turn out to be made of clay. "Some scholars believe drought led to the downfall of the Classic Maya civilization," Learn notes, and according to Baron, "the disruption of the cacao supply which fueled political power may have led to an economic breakdown in some cases." That may sound strangely familiar to those of us who — even here in the 21st century, among the many who have gone nearly cashless and may soon not even need a credit card — have breakdowns of our own when we can't get our chocolate.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

MIT Students Solve the Spaghetti Breaking Mystery That Stumped Richard Feynman

Even thirty years after his death, Richard Feynman remains one of the most beloved minds in physics in part because of how much attention he paid to things other than physics: drawing and paintingcracking safes, playing the bongos, breaking spaghetti. But a physics enthusiast might object, and reasonably so, that all those activities actually have a great deal to do with physics, given the physical phenomena they all demonstrate and on which they all depend. In recent years, considerable scientific attention has even gone toward spaghetti-breaking, inspiring as it did Feynman — and computer scientist Danny Hillis, who happened to be in the kitchen with him — to pose a long-unanswerable question: How come it always breaks into a million pieces when you snap it?

Maybe spaghetti doesn't always break into a million pieces, exactly, but it never breaks in two. Discovering the secret to a clean two-part break did require a million of something: a million frames per second, specifically, shot by a camera aimed at a purpose-built spaghetti-breaking device. The results of the research, a project of students Ronald Heisser and Vishal Patil during their time at MIT, came out in a paper co-authored by MIT's Norbert Stoop and Université Aix Marseille's Emmanuel Villermaux, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team found, writes MIT News' Jennifer Chu, "that if a stick [of spaghetti] is twisted past a certain critical degree, then slowly bent in half, it will, against all odds, break in two."

As for why spaghetti breaks into so many pieces without the twist, a question taken on by the Smarter Every Day video just above, French scientists Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch won the Ig Nobel Prize by figuring that out in 2005: "When a stick is bent evenly from both ends, it will break near the center, where it is most curved. This initial break triggers a 'snap-back' effect and a bending wave, or vibration, that further fractures the stick." If you twist the stick first, "the snap-back, in which the stick will spring back in the opposite direction from which it was bent, is weakened in the presence of twist. And, the twist-back, where the stick will essentially unwind to its original straightened configuration, releases energy from the rod, preventing additional fractures."

So now we know. But the fruits of what might strike some as an obsessive and pointless quest could well further the science of fracturing, which Patil describes to the Washington Post as an outwardly “chaotic and random” process. This research could lead, as Chu writes, to a better "understanding of crack formation and how to control fractures in other rod-like materials such as multifiber structures, engineered nanotubes, or even microtubules in cells." That's all a long way from the kitchen, certainly, but even the most revolutionary advancements of knowledge grow out of simple curiosity, an impulse felt even in the most mundane or frivolous situations. Richard Feynman understood that better than most, hence subsequent generations of scientists' desire to pick up whatever piqued his interest — even broken bits of Barilla No. 5.

via MIT News

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A Free Course from MIT Teaches You How to Speak Italian & Cook Italian Food All at Once

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Free Course from MIT Teaches You How to Speak Italian & Cook Italian Food All at Once

At MIT, Dr. Paola Rebusco usually teaches physics to freshmen. But, on behalf of the MIT Experimental Study Group, Rebusco has devised an appealing course -- Speak Italian with Your Mouth Full -- where she combines teaching two things many people love: learning to speak Italian and cooking Italian food. The course summary reads:

The participants in this seminar will dive into learning basic conversational Italian, Italian culture, and the Mediterranean diet. Each class is based on the preparation of a delicious dish and on the bite-sized acquisition of parts of the Italian language and culture. A good diet is not based on recipes only, it is also rooted in healthy habits and in culture. At the end of the seminar the participants will be able to cook some healthy and tasty recipes and to understand and speak basic Italian.

As Rebusco explains in a short video, this course has the advantage of making the language lessons a little less abstract. It gives students a chance to apply what they've learned (new vocabulary words, pronunciations, etc.) in a fun, practical context.

Above, we start you off with the first language lesson in the seminar. It begins where all basic courses start -- with how to say your name. Below, you can watch the class learn to cook fresh pasta. Along the way, the course also teaches students how to make espressorisottohomemade pizzabruschetta, and biscotti. Lectures for the course can be found on the MIT web site, YouTube and iTunesSpeak Italian with Your Mouth Full also appears in our collection of Free Foreign Language Lessons and 1200 Free Courses Online. Buon Appetito!

Ingredients & Cooking Instruction:

Food Preparation

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site way back in 2012.

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What It Would Look Like If Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino & Other Directors Filmed Cooking Videos

I usually chafe when director Wes Anderson is labelled “twee,” but as an enthusiastic, sticky-fingered gobbler of bark and ash encrusted campfire s’mores, I did enjoy a rather rowdy laugh at his expense while watching the above video.

Each entry in filmmaker David Ma’s #FoodFilms series starts with a hypothesis that pairs a simple, familiar dish with a director whose visual style is well established.

What if Wes Anderson made S’mores? 

Ma’s early marination in the realms of food styling and advertising is a recipe for success here.

Anderson’s beloved God shot has become a staple of online cooking videos, but Ma’s attention to subtler details would pass muster with a Cordon Bleu chef.

The formally engraved card! The ribbon motif! The costumes!

The look is more Grand Budapest Hotel than the camp-themed Moonrise Kingdom, but no matter. That more obvious pairing started tasting a tad over-chewed around the time of the Moonrise Kingdom-inspired wedding photo shoot.

Ma’s homage to Quentin Tarantino is a butch and bloody take on spaghetti and meatballs.

To paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard, "It's not blood. It’s red sauce.

The soundtrack suggests that Ma’s ear is just as keen as his eye.

45 seconds in, there's a Part 2, as an extra treat for QT fans.

Big budget action king Michael Bay and a Gravity-centric Alfonso Cuarón round out #FoodFilms’ four-course tasting menu.

However satisfied viewers may feel with these hijinks, their appetite for the project is far from satiated. Sequel requests are piling up:

What if Kubrick made Toast?

What if Tim Burton made a grilled cheese sandwich?

What if Woody Allen made pizza?

What if Steven Spielberg made cupcakes?

What if Kurosawa made scrambled eggs?

What if Guy Ritchie did a Full English Fry-Up?

Gives me a hankering to see what Sofia Coppola would do with my grandmother’s favorite layered Jell-o salad.

While we’re waiting for Ma to serve up his next dish we can tide ourselves over with some of his other highly stylized recipe videos, like the Incredible Hulk’s Smashed Potatoes.

Readers, what director-dish pairing would you order up? Let us know in the comments.

via W Magazine

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How to Make the Oldest Recipe in the World: A Recipe for Nettle Pudding Dating Back 6,000 BC

Attention culinary historians, survivalists, wildcrafters, and gonzo eaters!

Nettle pudding, Britain’s—and quite possibly the world’s—oldest recipe, looks like a good bet in the event of a zombie invasion, or some other catastrophe.

The ingredients—sorrel, watercress, dandelions, nettles—are the sort of thing you can find in a ditch or public park.

If you’re worried about pulling an Into the Wild, book a prophylactic tour with naturalist Wildman Steve Brill.

Should barley flour prove in short supply, don’t worry about it! Grind some acorns, like that kid in My Side of the Mountain. 

You think early man sweated substitutions?

No way! Improvisation was the name of the game.

Rigid adherence to published ingredients will have no place in the zombie invasion! As Cardiff Metropolitan University’s home economist Dr. Ruth Fairchild told The Daily Mail:

You have to think how much more is wasted now than then.

Food waste today is huge. A third of the food in our fridges is thrown away every week without being eaten.

But they wouldn't have wasted anything, even hooves would have been used for something.

They had to eat what was grown within a few miles, because it would have taken so long to collect everything, and even collecting water would have been a bit of a trial.

Yet today, so many people don't want to cook because they think of it as a chore.

Stop thinking of nettle pudding as a chore! Start practicing for the zombie invasion with Antiquity Now’s step-by-step recipe and let us know how it tastes.

NETTLE PUDDING (an 8000 year old recipe!)


1 bunch of sorrel

1 bunch of watercress

1 bunch of dandelion leaves

2 bunches of young nettle leaves

Some chives

1 cup of barley flour

1 teaspoon of salt



Chop the herbs finely and mix in the barley flour and salt.

Add enough water to bind it together and place in the center of a linen or muslin cloth.

Tie the cloth securely and add to a pot of simmering venison or wild boar (a pork joint will do just as well). Make sure the string is long enough to pull the pudding from the pot.

Cook the pudding until the meat is done (at least two hours).

Leave the pudding to cool slightly, remove the muslin, then cut the pudding into thick slices with a knife.

Serve the pudding with chunks of barley bread.

(Be mindful that fire may attract zombies. Keep a shovel beside you at all times. Good luck!)

You can read more about the discovery of Nettle Pudding at the BBC and The Telegraph.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch a 4000-Year Old Babylonian Recipe for Stew, Found on a Cuneiform Tablet, Get Cooked by Researchers from Yale & Harvard

Walk like an Egyptian, but eat like an ancient Babylonian.

While cookbooks containing Mesopotamian fare do exist, to be really authentic, take your recipes from a clay tablet, densely inscribed in cuneiform.

Sadly, there are only four of them, and they reside in a display case at Yale. (Understandable given that they’re over 4000 years old.)

When Agnete Lassen, associate curator of Yale’s Babylonian Collection, and colleague Chelsea Alene Graham, a digital imaging specialist, were invited to participate in a culinary event hosted by New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, they wisely chose to travel with a 3D-printed facsimile of one of the precious tablets.

T’would have been a shame to knock the original off the counter while reaching for a bunch of leeks.

While other presenters prepared such delicacies as Fish Sauces at the Roman Table, Buddhist vegetarian dishes from the Song Dynasty, and a post-modern squid-ink spin on Medieval Blancmange, the Yale team joined chef Nawal Nasrallah and a crew from Harvard to recreate three one-pot dishes detailed on one of the ancient artifacts.

Judging by the above video, the clear winner was Tuh’i, a beet and lamb stew which Lassen describes as a “proto-borscht.”

The vegetarian Unwinding Stew’s name proved unnecessarily vexing, while the milk-based Broth of Lamb was unappetizing to the eye (as well as the palate, according to Graham). Perhaps they should have substituted animal blood—another favorite Babylonian thickener.

As one of Lassen’s predecessors, Professor William W. Hallo, told The New York Times in 1988, it’s unlikely the average Mesopotamian would have had the opportunity to tuck into any of these dishes. The vast quantities of speciality ingredients and the elaborate instructions suggest a festive meal for the elite.

In addition to the dishes served at NYU’s Appetite for the Past conference, the tablets include recipes for stag, gazelle, kid, mutton, squab, and a bird that’s referred to as “tarru."

Next time, perhaps.

And not to quibble with the Bulldogs, but the BBC reports that researchers from the University of Wales Institute are claiming a pudding made from nettles, ground barley, and water is actually the world’s oldest recipe, clocking in at 6000 BC. (Serve it with roast hedgehog and fish gut sauce…)

While the Yale team has yet to share its recipes in a language other than cuneiform, The Silk Road Gourmet has a good guide to various Mesopotamian spices and staples.

via Kottke/Yale

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Thursday June 28 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Life Lessons from Anthony Bourdain: How He Developed His Iron Professionalism, Achieved Creative Freedom & Learned from Failure

Anthony Bourdain was not a particularly good chef. That statement comes not as a cheap shot at the recently departed, but a quote from the departed himself. Bourdain freely admitted it over a couple of Tiger beers with a Fast Company interviewer last year. "I was very deservedly fired on a number of occasions," he adds for good measure, referencing his decades of dirty work and drug abuse before he rose to prominence in the worlds of food- and travel-centric books and television. But in more than one way, those decades prepared him to ride the kind of success he would eventually achieve into a body of work that could have arisen from no other life or personality.

"Most of the people I've met who've been in the television industry for a long time, their greatest fear is that they will not be in the television industry next year," Bourdain says. "That they'll say something or do something or make a decision that will be so unpopular that they'll lose their gig and won't end up back on television again. I don't have that fear." He knew, surely better than anyone who has publicly remarked on it, that he may not have shown the genius in the kitchen to attain star-chef status. But he also knew he had something ultimately more important: the skills to turn out meal after flawless meal, day in and day out. "If I have to," he says, "I'm pretty sure I can keep up on an omelet station."

Many remembrances of Bourdain have highlighted his iron professionalism. "He is controlled to the point of neurosis: clean, organized, disciplined, courteous, systematic," wrote the New Yorker's Patrick Radden Keefe in a profile published last year. "He is Apollo in drag as Dionysus.” Bourdain credited that to his lean years in the kitchen: "Everything important I ever learned, I learned as dishwasher and as a cook: you show up on time, you stay organized, you clean up after yourself, you think about the people you work with, you respect the people you work with. You do the best you can." This went for matters personal as well as professional: "If I say to you I'm going to meet you tomorrow at twelve minutes after five to see John Wick 7, I will be there at 5:02."

He would also, he adds, be "hanging out across the street, discreetly observing to see what time you show up. And I'll be making some very important decisions based on your arrival time." Bourdain's exacting standards, for himself and others, allowed him to achieve an unusual degree of freedom for a major media personality. "I detest competent, workmanlike storytelling," he says of his and his collaborators' penchant for creative risk. "A powerful reaction, in one way or the other, is infinitely preferable to me than pleasing everybody." Yet despite taking books and television shows ostensibly about food in new and unpredictable aesthetic and intellectual directions, in the kitchen he remained a traditionalist to the end. "You put chicken in a carbonara? You lost me. It's an unforgivable sin against God."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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