Currency in the Place of Reeds

The Place of Reeds is based on this historical city called Teotihuacan. We know nothing about the currency in use in Teotihuacan but we do know something about Aztec “money”.

“MONEY grows on trees”

Spanish chroniclers following the conquistadors to Mexico noted with amazement that in the Aztec world at least money grew on trees (Peniche, 1990).

The Aztec bartered for goods and services but also had standard items of exchange in lieu of coined money (Bray, 1968). Aztec currency included cocoa beans, mantles (large white cotton cloaks or capes called quachtli), copper axe-blades, and quills full of gold dust. Cocoa beans were the ‘the every day small change’ and the other items were reserved for more expensive purchases. Cocoa beans could be exchanged for anything, including payment for labour and paying fines.

The major complication with this system of exchange is that all of these items of exchange varied in quality with a resulting variation in value (Mexicolore Aztecs: Beanz meanz money!). For example in 1545 in Tlaxcala 200 ‘full’ cacao beans = 230 ‘shrunken’ ones. Mantles also varied in quality and were worth 65-300 cacao beans each; Sahagún says in the Florentine Codex that the different grades of quachtli were worth 100, 80 or 65 cacao beans, while the Información de 1554 indicates 240 unspecified cacao beans for one quachtli or 300 Cihuatlan cacao beans for one quachtli.

Cocoa was expensive because of low yields and transport problems (Athena Review: A brief history of Chocolate; Peniche, 1990). There were only three major cocoa producing regions in Mesoamerica: Xoconochco (Soconusco) on the Pacific coast and Chontalpa on the Gulf Coast (both in Mexico), and the Ulua basin in Honduras. The nobles and merchants of the Valley of Mexico and Yucatan tightly controlled the production, circulation and consumption of the precious beans.

A problem specific to cocoa beans is the potential to make fake/counterfeit beans. Counterfeiters made copies in wax or amaranth dough. The Florentine Codex includes this description of a bad cacao seller as a trickster who: ‘counterfeits cacao… by making the fresh cacao beans whitish… stirs them into the ashes… with amaranth seed dough, wax, avocado pits [stones] he counterfeits cacao…. Indeed he casts, he throws in with them wild cacao beans to deceive the people.’ (cited in Carrasco & Sessions, 1998, cited in turn in Mexicolore Aztecs: Beanz meanz money!).

Not surprisingly cocoa beans and mantles were common forms of tribute (Wikipedia: Theobroma Cacao). At one point 980 loads (xiquipil in nahuatl) of cacao arrived in the capital each year. Each load represented 8,000 beans.

Mexicolore Aztecs: Beanz meanz money! cites Professor Frances Berdan for cocoa beans exchange rates. Cites J. Eric Thompson for labour. Bray (1968) provides the exchange rates for mantles. Example exchange rates:

1 cocoa bean = 20 small tomatoes
1 cocoa bean = one large tomato
1 cocoa bean = 5 long narrow green chillies
1 cocoa bean = one fully ripe avocado
3 cocoa beans = one turkey egg
3 cocoa beans = one newly picked avocado
5 cocoa beans = a large strip of pine bark for kindling
20 cocoa beans = one trip for a porter
30 cocoa beans = one small rabbit
65, 80 or 100 cocoa beans = one mantle (presumably 65 beans gave a plain
white cotton mantle)
100 ‘full’ cacao beans or 120 ‘shrunken’ ones = one good turkey hen
300 cocoa beans = one turkey cock
Up to 300 fine cocoa beans = 1 fine cotton mantle

1/20 mantle = loaf-shaped lump of rubber
1 mantle = 1 dugout canoe
1 mantle = 100 sheets of paper
20 mantles = An “ordinary” person’s yearly standard of living
20 or 100 mantles = load of ccochineal
25 mantles = 1 gold lip plug
about 64 mantles = 1 warrior’s costume and shield
100 mantles = 1 feather cloak
600 mantles = 1 string of jade beads

In Yucatan, one mantle was equivalent to 450 hours of work (Peniche, 1990).


Athena Review: A brief history of Chocolate

Bray, W. (1968). Everyday Life of the Aztecs. NY: Dorset Press.

Carrasco, D. and Sessions, S. (1998). Daily Life of the Aztecs: People of the Sun and Earth. Greenwood Press.

Peniche Rivero, P. (Jan 1990). When cocoa was used as currency – pre-Columbian America – The Fortunes of Money. UNESCO Courier. [Available on-line;col1]

Wikipedia: Theobroma Cacao

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