Modern chocolate shaped like Maya glyphs, the written language they used to communicate. 

Arina Habich/Alamy Stock Photo

The Maya civilization used chocolate as money

Your Hershey bar may have been worth its weight in gold in Mayan times. A new study reveals that chocolate became its own form of money at the height of Mayan opulence—and that the loss of this delicacy may have played a role in the downfall of the famed civilization.

The study is on the right track, says David Freidel, an anthropologist and Maya expert at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who was not involved with the work. Chocolate “is a very prestigious food,” he says, “and it [was] almost certainly a currency.”

The ancient Maya never used coins as money. Instead, like many early civilizations, they were thought to mostly barter, trading items such as tobacco, maize, and clothing. Spanish colonial accounts from the 16th century indicate that the Europeans even used cacao beans—the basis for chocolate—to pay workers, but it was unclear whether the substance was a prominent currency before their arrival.

To find out, Joanne Baron, an archaeologist with the Bard Early College Network—a network of schools that focus on college-level teaching for high school–aged students—in Newark, New Jersey, analyzed Mayan artwork. She focused on published research and other available Maya images during the Classic Maya period from about 250 C.E. to about 900 C.E. in the southern Maya lowlands in modern-day Mexico and Central America. The objects—including murals, ceramic paintings, and carvings—depict typical market exchanges and tribute payments to Maya kings.

A scene from the mid-16th century depicts an Indigenous Mexican preparing chocolate. 

Museo de America, Madrid, Spain/Bridgeman Images

Chocolate didn’t pop up much in the earliest art, Baron found, but it became more prevalent by the 8th century C.E. That’s also around the time people seem to be using it as money—that is, an item widely accepted as payment for goods or services rather than a one-off barter. The Maya usually consumed their cacao as a hot drink, a steamy broth served in a clay cup. One of the earliest depictions of it used in exchange dates to the mid-7th century. In a painted mural displayed in a pyramid that may have been a central marketplace near the Guatemalan border, a woman offers a bowl of what looks like frothing hot chocolate to a man in return for dough used for making tamales. This early depiction suggests that although chocolate was being bartered at this point, it may not have been traded as a form of currency, Baron says.

But later evidence shows that chocolate became a little more like coins—in the form of fermented and dried cacao beans. Baron documented about 180 different scenes on ceramics and murals from about 691 C.E. through 900 C.E. which show commodities delivered to Maya leaders as a tribute, or a kind of tax. Goods like tobacco and maize grain are sometimes given as tribute, but the items that pop up most in these scenes are pieces of woven cloth and bags labeled with the quantity of dried cacao beans they contain, she reports in Economic Anthropology.

Baron believes the fact that Maya kings collected cacao and woven cloth as tax shows that both had become a currency at this point. “They are collecting way more cacao than the palace actually consumes,” she says, adding that the surplus was probably used to pay palace workers or to buy things at the marketplace.

Freidel says cacao was almost universally loved by the Maya. But it would have been far more prized than crops like maize because cacao trees are susceptible to crop failure and didn’t grow well near Maya cities.

Some scholars believe drought led to the downfall of the Classic Maya civilization. Baron speculates that the disruption of the cacao supply which fueled political power may have led to an economic breakdown in some cases.

Freidel says the rise in artistic depictions of cacao may not necessarily indicate increased importance as a currency. As the Classic Maya period unfolded, he says, more and more people wrote things down and painted murals or pottery scenes. “Is it actually getting more important or are we just learning more about it?”

He is also skeptical that the loss of cacao contributed to the Maya’s downfall. Cacao beans were not the only type of currency, Freidel notes—woven cloth and other goods like maize grain or certain types of green stone were also possibly used as money. “My guess is that one commodity crashing would not cause the system to crash.”