When Money Grew on Trees

Codex Mendoza
Illustration from "The Essential Codex Mendoza," by Frances Berdan and Patricia Anawalt (Berkeley: University of California Press)

This facsimile from the Codex Mendoza (c. 1541) shows tribute that the Aztecs extracted twice a year from the cacao-growing region of Soconusco in southern Mexico. Next to the jaguar skins are two loads of cacao beans, which were used as currency as well as the drink of the elite. Each is surmounted by five flag-like symbols, each of which equals 20; therefore, 200 loads were required. The objects below are two different styles of stone or ceramic bowls for drinking cacao, 400 of each.

A 1545 list of commodity prices in Tlaxcala gives an idea of the purchasing value of cacao:

1 good turkey hen=100 cacao beans

1 turkey egg=3 cacao beans

1 fully ripe avocado=1 cacao bean

1 large tomato=1 cacao bean