When Chocolate Was The Money That Grew On Trees
Image Credit: iStock

This post is published as part of our daily newsletter Just One ThingSign up here to have a copy delivered into your mailbox through the week!


THE rich, compelling history of chocolate is one we're learning more about every day. Chocolate is made by fermenting, drying, roasting and grinding the seeds of a small, tropical tree of the genus Theobroma. Most chocolate sold today is made from the species Theobroma cacao, but Indigenous peoples in South America, Central America and Mexico make food, drink and medicine with many other Theobroma species.

Cacao was domesticated at least 4,000 years ago, first in the Amazon basin and then in Central America. The oldest archaeological evidence of cacao, possibly as old as 3,500 BCE, comes from Ecuador. In Mexico and Central America, vessels with cacao residues date to as early as 1,900 BCE.

Cacao is the name in many languages of Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America) for both the tree, the seed and the preparations that come from it; people who use this word give a nod to that ancient, Indigenous past. Cacao is a convenient catch-all term, the way “bread” in English describes a baked food made of flour, water and yeast.

For thousands of years, Mesoamericans used cacao for many purposes: as a ritual offering, a medicine, and a key ingredient in both special occasion and everyday food and drink – each of which had different names. One of these special, local cacao concoctions was called “chocolat”.

Colonialists & Currency

How did chocolate take off like wildfire when its birthplace has been long neglected? The most popular initial use of cacao in the 16th century, by colonists from Europe and Africa in Latin America, was as currency rather than something to eat or drink.

Research into cacao as money shows its steady development in the crucial role of small coin, as one of several commodity monies in pre-Colombian Mesoamerica. The Rio Ceniza valley in what is now western El Salvador was an extraordinary producer, among only four high-volume farming centres that greatly expanded the cacao money supply in the 13th century.


Spanish colonists quickly made the convenient and reliable cacao money legal tender for all kinds of transactions. However, they were initially dubious about ingesting the substance, debating its health effects and flavour. The Rio Ceniza valley, known then by the Indigenous name Izalcos, became famous as the place where money grew on trees and newly arrived colonists could make a fortune. Their local, unique cacao drink was “chocolat”.

Crossing The World

Despite a hesitant start, chocolate had become hugely popular in Europe by the late 16th century. Among a host of new flavours from the Americas, chocolate was especially captivating. Most importantly, drinking chocolate became a way to socialise.

It also became increasingly associated with luxury and indulgence, to the point of sinfulness, as well as healthful properties that particularly enhanced beauty and fertility. By the 1600s, Europeans were using the word chocolate to describe cacao-flavoured sweets, drinks and sauces.

Chocolate soon began to change the way people did things. As Spanish literature scholar Carolyn Nadeau points out: “Prior to chocolate, breakfast was not a communal event as lunch and dinner were.” As chocolate became increasingly popular in Spain, so too did breakfast. It was also fashionable as a mid-afternoon or late-night snack, taken with bread rolls or even fried bread – the ancestor of today’s breakfast-time churros.

Kathryn Sampeck is global professor in Historical Archaeology at the University of Reading. This article originally appeared on The Conversation and has been republished under the Creative Commons Licence.