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.
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(Photo: Modern chocolate shaped like Maya glyphs, the written language they used to communicate. ARINA HABICH/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)