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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Mar­velous Health Ben­e­fits of Choco­late: A Curi­ous Med­ical Essay from 1631

Mak­ing Choco­late the Tra­di­tion­al Way, From Bean to Bar: A Short French Film

The Ups & Downs of Ancient Rome’s Economy–All 1,900 Years of It–Get Doc­u­ment­ed by Pol­lu­tion Traces Found in Greenland’s Ice

Mod­ern Artists Show How the Ancient Greeks & Romans Made Coins, Vas­es & Arti­sanal Glass

Bit­coin, the New Decen­tral­ized Dig­i­tal Cur­ren­cy, Demys­ti­fied in a Three Minute Video

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.

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