Chocolate was used as money in the ancient Maya civilization?

Scotty Hendricks reviews a research paper on usage of cacao beans as money in Mayan civilization:

In a paper published in Economic Anthropology by Joanne Baron of the Bard Early College Network, the argument is made that depictions of cacao beans in Mayan artwork gradually shift from treating it as food with some value in bartering to treating it as money used both to shop and pay taxes.

The Maya, like every other culture, depicted everyday lives in their art. While the earliest artwork didn’t show very many cacao beans, by the 8th century it was depicted on everything. While many of the early images show it being used as food, later images show it being offered as a tribute to the nobility or used in trade.

Nearly 200 pieces of artwork depict cacao beans being used to pay tribute and taxes, which Baron argues made them a functioning currency, as there was little chance the nobility could use that many beans as anything other than money. One cited study suggests that of the 11 million beans paid as taxes per year only two million were consumed. There isn’t much else to do with nine million beans you won’t eat unless you’re using them as cash.

It is possible that the Maya just started to depict cacao beans more often in their art without having made them officially money. However, the later recorded use of cacao beans as currency by the Aztecs supports the idea that the Maya did the same.


So could money grow on trees? Not really as only some ind of soil was good to grow beans. This kept circulation in check:

Since the cocoa tree is rather finicky—it likes to grow in soil that is constantly moist and demands 90% humidity—people couldn’t just grow money in their backyards. Only certain areas of the Maya homeland could produce the beans in large amounts. These areas were heavily cultivated for this purpose. The need to import the beans from these regions would make the beans more challenging to acquire. Which couldn’t have hurt their value.

Did disruption in money supply lead to downfall of the empire:

Baron suggests a disruption of the bean supply might have helped contribute to the fall of the Maya civilization by causing an acute economic shock. Others, such as David Freidel of the Washington University anthropology department are less sure, suggesting that a single commodity of moderate value being in short supply would be unlikely to bring down a civilization.

Money only really needs to do a few things: be easy to exchange, store value well, be widely accepted, and be easily compared to other goods and services. Anything that can do those four things well makes for a decent currency. While gold and silver coins have been the go-to for most civilizations, the above examples show a little creativity can make anything money. While chocolate might not make for the best money supply, it does have an intrinsic value that many of us can appreciate.  

Superb bit..


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