Cocoa bean = currency
We conclude from this that cocoa beans were in their time a precious, indeed rare commodity. In fact, objects, whether or not they are natural, used as a means of exchange were traditionally and also logically rare objects at the time of their use, such as certain shells, gold, copper hatchets (called tajaderas), etc.
According to Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, in around 1530 it cost 10 beans to buy a rabbit, 2 beans for a turkey egg, etc.
On the fresco of Diego Rivera, which represents the history of Mexico, and which is in the National Palace of Mexico City, one can see a pochteca, that is to say an Aztec merchant, selling a dog and being paid in cocoa beans (see illustration).
The Central Bank of Mexico's Internet site has the following information concerning the value of beans:
1535: 1 real = 200 beans
1555: 1 real = 140 beans
1575: 1 real = 100 beans
End of 16th century: 1 real = 80 to 100 beans
1720: 1 real = ± 15 beans
The last piece of information comes from the Museum of San Cristobal de las Casas.
The real has therefore depreciated or the bean has increased in value over the years.
During a recent visit to Mexico I was told that in reality beans were not used as such as money. They were apparently covered with a thin layer of baked clay to protect them. This would be fairly logical because a bean without any protection would tend to become damaged.
We hope that one day we will be able to see an actual example of such money.
Even in those days, the problem of fake money existed. Forgers would crack open the baked clay shell and once they had removed the precious content, i.e. the bean, they would replace it with a mixture of earth and then put it all back together again.