A new study was recently published that shows the Maya civilization once used chocolate as their own unique form of money. Washington University anthropologist David Freidel, while not personally involved in the study, believes that the new research is indeed factually correct, commenting that chocolate is “a very prestigious food and it [was] almost certainly a currency.”
Similar to other earlier civilizations, the Mayans never took to using coins as a type of currency. Instead, it is believed that their preferred method for conducting trade would have been through a barter system. As Science Magazine report, the Spanish left behind records from the 16th century showing that they used cacao beans to pay workers that they employed. However, it was not previously known whether this was a common practice before the arrival of the Europeans.
Archaeologist Joanne Baron of the Bard Early College Network was intrigued by the Mayan civilization’s use of chocolate as a form of money and set about trying to learn more about it by studying published research and artwork from 250 to 900 AD, a time that is known as the Classic Maya period.
While there wasn’t much in the way of chocolate mentioned very early on, by the time Baron hit the 8th century AD, it had become a common theme running through research and art, which would have coincided with the Mayan use of it as money.
Mayans loved their chocolate and would have frequently drunk hot cacao out of a clay mug. One of the earliest instances that shows the Mayans actively bartering with it dates back to around the middle of the 7th century AD. In this particular mural, a woman can be seen offering hot cacao to a man who was selling dough that she would have needed to use for tamales.
While this shows that bartering with chocolate may have been a common practice at this point in time, from 691 to 900 AD there were a whopping 180 different scenes from artwork depicting scenes such as Mayans giving their leaders dried cacao beans as a form of tribute.
It is Joanne Baron’s assertion that the acceptance of cacao beans as a form of tax shows clearly that by this time chocolate had become a form of money for the Mayans.
“They are collecting way more cacao than the palace actually consumes.”
There has been some speculation that droughts may have helped to push the Mayan civilization to the brink of collapse without their precious chocolate, but Friedel has speculated that this is probably not the case as they still had other items they could have used as currency including maize grain.
“My guess is that one commodity crashing would not cause the system to crash.”
The new study on the Mayan civilization using chocolate as money has been published in Economic Anthropology.