Ancient Mayans Used Chocolate for Money

Cacao was used as a currency in Mayan civilization, according to a new study. iStock

The ancient Mayans used cacao beans—the principal ingredient in chocolate—as a currency, according to a study published in the journal Economic Anthropology.

The research suggests that during the Classic Maya period (250-900 CE) cacao was exchanged for goods and services. The Mayans never used coins but are thought to have bartered items such as tobacco, maize and clothing.

Author of the study, Joanne Baron from the Bard Early College Network in New Jersey, said that this period saw the "early monetization of cacao beans and cotton textiles."

"I argue that these products, originally valued for their use in status display, took on monetary functions within a context of expanding marketplaces among rival Maya kingdoms," she wrote in the study.

These products would eventually go on to serve as universal currencies across the different Maya regions and were used to finance state activities, as well as household needs.

By the time the Spanish had arrived in the early 1500s, these products were being used to pay tribute or tax to leaders, to buy and sell goods at the marketplace or pay workers.

"In response, political regimes and their subjects devoted more labor and resources to the acquisition of these products," Baron wrote.

There is evidence to suggest that Europeans used cacao beans to pay workers after their arrival, but Baron wanted to find out whether the product was being used as currency before then. To do this, she examined some 180 pieces of Maya artwork, including murals, ceramics and carvings, which depict cacao.

She found that depictions of cacao did not really appear until around the 8th century, but after this they became more prevalent often showing the bean being used as a medium of exchange. Initially, the beans were likely bartered for other goods, Baron says, but they later became a kind of currency, usually in a dried or fermented form.

In these depictions cacao beans are used to pay for taxes, tribute and various products, such as grain and clothing.

Mesoamerican cultures were the first to make chocolate, with the practice first emerging around 1,500 B.C., although it was consumed as a bitter drink not the sweet bar that we know today. Baron notes that the artwork shows Maya officials collecting far more cacao beans than would be needed to make chocolate, meaning it was likely used for another purpose—in this case, as a currency.

However, David Friedel, an anthropologist and Maya expert at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who was not involved in the research, suggests that the rise in depictions of cacao may not necessarily indicate that it became increasingly important as a currency.

"Is it actually getting more important or are we just learning more about it?" he told Science.