The ancient Maya civilization used chocolate as money

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The ancient Maya civilization used chocolate as money

Read the fascinating history of chocolate as a tool of commerce in the Maya civilization

The Maya empire was one of the most dominant indigenous societies from Mesoamerica–Mexico and Central America before the 16th century Spanish conquest. They excelled at agriculture, mathematics, hieroglyph writing, calendar-making, and their astronomical system. The ancient Maya never used coins as money. Like many other early civilizations, they mostly bartered, trading items such as maize, clothing, and tobacco. In an article published in Economic Anthropology, it is argued that chocolate became its own form of money.

Like many other cultures, the Maya depicted everyday life in their art. While their earliest work didn't show many cacao beans, by the 8th century it was depicted on mostly everything. 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 to shop and pay taxes. Around 200 pieces of art depict cacao beans to pay tribute. Joanne Baron, of the Bard Early College Network, argues that because the nobility was receiving around 11 million beans paid as taxes per year, and only two million were consumed, the surplus was probably used to pay palace workers or buy things at the marketplace. 

David Freidel, an anthropologist and Maya expert at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri believes that the rise in artistic depictions of cacao may not necessarily indicate increased importance as a currency. “Is it actually getting more important or are we just learning more about it?” he asked. Friedel is also skeptical about the theories that loss of cacao contributed to the Maya's downfall, given that chocolate was not the only type of currency they used.

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