The first known domestic use of Cacao, takes us back 5500 years to the lands of the Mayo Chinchipe-Marañón culture, now southern Ecuador.2 Although all the trees that exist today are not so old, there are some trees that trace their genetic lineage to such a historical moment, sharing their DNA 100%.3

Cacao seeds are recalcitrant, therefore they can not be conserved in long-term cold storage for dried and frozen seeds, such as the Global Seed Bank in Svalbard4  and are usually conserved in field gene banks but just for short periods, presenting special problems for ex situ conservation.5

The history of Cacao, and therefore of chocolate, jumps without clarity from the Upper Amazon, to Mesoamerica in times of the Mayas and then the Aztecs. Both used it as an energising drink, medicine, and in specific rituals and ceremonies, endowing Cacao with divine origin. Something preserved later in the scientific name of the tree ‘Theobroma cacao’ being theos/god and broma/ aliment.6 (Sweden 1753, Carl Linnaeus)

On the other hand, the words ‘Cacao’ and ‘Chocolate’ as we know them, arises from the encounter of the Spanish empire with the Aztecs one. Even if the first encounter of Spanish conquerors with Cacao occurs during the fourth voyage of Colón on the island of Guanaja (now Honduras), it was Hernán Cortez who introduced Cacao and the tools to make Chocolate into Spain in 1528.7

Mayas and Aztecs used cocoa beans as currency the exclusive cocoa beans cultivated in land of nobles, high-ranking warriors and merchants, being one of the best examples among the most primitive means of payment. A modality that prevail during the colonial period,8 until the early 20th century in the southeast of Mexico.9

Everything was bought with cocoa beans: clothes, food, slaves, and also the sacred gold,10 which locals dominated in perfection, including it in furniture and jewellery. Despite of its shape or use, gold was looted by conquerors, or exchanged for bagatelles to be reduced to ingots.11  By 1530, ten cocoa beans were enough for buying a rabbit, and four thousand for a slave. In those years, Spaniards founded the first Mint house in America, with 90% of the production destined for exportation.8

Cocoa beans kept circulating and 200 were equivalent to 1 Real, a currency that was depreciating its value to 15 cocoa beans per unit in 1720.12 In 1542 slavery is absolved in the ‘New Spain’ by defining all Indians as vassals of the king of Spain.13 Same year, two copper coins were introduced for minor transactions, but soon removed from circulation, as locals unanimously rejected them, despite threats of fines, flogging and forced labor.14 In 1590 the annual payment of taxes there was 1600 cocoa beans.15 “An Indian slave cost from 300 to 500 cocoa beans according to their sex, age, health and abilities…” and approximately 8 to 10 cocoa beans for an encounter with a prostitute. 16

Counterfeiting of gold in powder and cocoa beans as a payment methods also existed back then, and so they were slowly replaced by metal coins. Prior to the arrival of the conquistadors, gold was used as currency by the Chibcha peoples—in the meeting 0f South America and Central America—and those of northern Ecuador, with a system even more precise in dimensions than the Spanish one.17 Further South, the encounter between the Spanish and the Inca empires was quite different, since the latter based its power on the strongly disciplined collective development, with paths for administrative and military purposes and not for commercial aims. An improved communism, without poverty nor slavery, persuasively expanded without the need for conquest or currency. Agrarian affirmation buried with the mining industry imposed by the Spanish empire in its desire to expatriate the greatest amount of precious metals from America as possible.11 In those trips, Cacao also crossed the ocean and once in Spain, the so believed “aphrodisiac” bitter drink was sweetened and flavoured, and it quickly began its exclusive journey among the power elite. In 1569 Pope Pius V declared that this Cacao drink did not break the fast.18 

Later it entered France (1615), England (1650), and so on. Its fast growing success along the enriched imperialist Europe demanded a greater production. Thus, African slaves were taken to America for Cacao crops, as well as for other products that would end up in Europe. Although by then the slavery of the Indian had ceased, each founder villager could make use of 2 to 4 aborigines, but had to pay each one approx. 100 cocoa beans per labor day.19 In 1668, Sveriges Riksbank was founded in Sweden, being the third bank in the world and the first central bank. Some years after chocolate appeared on the scene in the north (1690), being quite late for a great power, compared to the rest of Europe.20 In 1692 Luis XV attempted to regulate wholesale and retail sales of chocolate, and by 1711 a regulation in Sweden ordered: “whoever uses thé, caffe and chocolate at home, must pay two silver Dalers.” 21 During late 18th century chocolate arrived to North America and the first machine-made chocolate was developed in southern Europe (1756, France) and started being manufactured in Barcelona (1780)20 In 1822 Portugal gave a twist and introduced Cacao for cultivation on Príncipe Island in Africa, bringing Cacao to the land of slaves, instead of slaves to the lands of Cacao.

The interest for taking more out of the precious cocoa beans arrived to the creation of a machine that divides Cacao butter from soluble Cacao powder (Amsterdam 1828, van Houten), then diluted in warm water—or hot milk as the British did from the previous century. In Switzerland chocolate is mixed with hazelnuts for the first time (1830, Charles-Amédée Kohler), while in England the first chocolate bar is marketed (1847, Fry & Son) and in France the soluble powder of Cacao is massively commercialised for consumption by children and families (1848, Poulain). Milk flour is created (1868, Nestlé) and Swiss milk chocolate start its history (1875, Daniel Peter), and soon the first chocolate that melts on the tongue is produced (1879 Rudolphe Lindt). Between 1870 to 1879 global consumption of Cocoa had grown by 800%.7 In 1879 Cacao was introduced on the British Gold Coast, nowadays Ghana, and rapidly twisted from a product of elites to a product of mass consumption in Europe. Although the international community had banned slavery in the 1870s, it continues during the Scramble for Africatimes when the French colonies join the mass production of Cacao—and through the 20th century to the present day. During the civil war in USA, and between the two world wars, the price of Cacao was at its lowest, as well as in this 21st century.

By 1920s candy companies in eastern USA start selling small chocolate discs wrapped in golden paper for the jewish tradition of giving coins to children during the festival of Lights.21 Chocolate coins were also used in Belgium and Netherlands for a similar tradition but related to St Nicholas, and so, chocolate coins became a symbol of both Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations, where both can discuss the uncertain origin of the chocolate coin, currently on sale throughout the whole year in diverse designs.22 Just so you know, one cacao seed is enough for making a chocolate coin of 3 grams and 28 mm diameter.27 During Nazi period of WWII, Nestlé subsidiary Maggi, employed thousands of war prisoners and Jewish slave labourers in Germany near the Swiss border, and as if that was not enough, German saboteurs designed a chocolate covered, sleek, steel bomb intended to explode seven seconds after breaking a piece of it.23 In the mid 20th century plant breeding is recognised for the improvement of the production of Cacao. Also from that time until present day, Cacao price trend is falling, stock and consumption is growing and global warming is unprecedented, due to anthropogenic forcings and not to natural causes.24 Thus, pro-genetic intervention media articles as “chocolate is on the road to extinction in 40 years” are appearing periodically.24 Although it seems that the small producers of Cacao are the ones on the way to extinction. If we add the daily wage of a farmer of each of the main exporters of the world—Ghana and Ivory Coast— we barely surpass 1 € (extreme poverty line defined by the World Bank).26 In a general calculation with prices of 2017, on a 100 grams tablet of milk chocolate with a value of 1 €, just 0.04 € goes to a cacao producer of the Ivory Coast and 0.066 € is the cost of cacao.27 Today more than 90% of world cacao production is harvested on small farms, and the 65% of the world’s grinding capacity is in the hands of only three companies25 with sources still not fully certified. Same for the biggest producers of chocolate.26

In 2001, the director of the Save the children Found in Mali told the BBC that slave children, marketed at 30 US dollars according to the article, carry bags of cacao of precisely 6kg. of weight.28
In the same year the association of chocolate manufacturers including the biggest ones, signed a protocol stating that child labour, and trafficking of children are prohibited in the cacao industry after 2008. But two years after, a child from Burkina Faso placed in a farm of Côte d’Ivoire for indefinite use, cost 230 € including transportation.28 Although the efforts of various individuals and organisations advance—as well as promises from big companies promoted by the mass media industry,30 assistance programs from charitable foundations and the “green” marketing—slave trafficking, forced and child labor, as well as extreme poverty, illiteracy of producers, violence and gender inequality continue taking part of the bitter history of Cacao.

Speaking of history and coins, the collection of this form of money will surely begin together with the history of coins in Greece and Lydia, about 2600 years ago. During the Renaissance in Europe, this activity began to be recognised as “The hobby of the kings” for being an activity proper of the royalty and other elites of power. Today it is an activity developed by countries, diverse private and public organisations as well as individuals, both professionals and amateurs. In other hand, numismatics as a science of the study of money in all its forms emerged in the nineteenth century and covers much more than mere collecting.

The value of a collection item lies in the information about it, as well as in the value of its material and other historical and symbolic values. Numismatists recommends new collectors to buy the books before the coins.31 The physical condition of the currency will also affect its value. Comparing two coins minted at the same time, the one with less circulation surely has a higher value than a much used one. Thus, there are adjectives to describe the characteristics of currencies and also numerical scales with guarantor organisations for a more impartial evaluation of every single coin.

antipodes café 2018.04


2 Valdez, F 2014 El Gran Cacao Video Ecuador
3 Toth, J 2015 Nacional Cacao Conservation Blog Ecuador
4 Qvenild, MG 2012 Svaldbard Global Seed Vault p303, The Research Council Norway
5  Hawkes, JG; Maxted, N & Ford-Lloyd, BV 2000

Field Gene Banks, Botanic Gardens, In Vitro, DNA and Pollen Conservation

p 92 The Ex Situ Conservation of Plant Genetic Resources, Springer, Dordrecht Netherlands
6 Linnaeus, C 1753 Species Plantarum Laurentius Salvius Sweden
7 Villacís, F; Tobar, J & Jaramillo, E 2013 Cacao The Fine Aroma of Our Identity

p12, 2nd Edition, Proyecto de Reactivación de Café y Cacao Nacional Fino de Aroma, Historical Archive of Guayas, Heritage Ministry Coordination

Quito, Ecuador
8 Aranda Kilian, L 2005 El uso de cacao como moneda en la época prehispánica y su pervivencia en la época colonial Ministerio de Cultura Spain
9 Historia de la moneda y del billete en México Banco de México México
10 De las Casas, B 1821-1856 Historia general de las indias Vol.II p36, Ginesta Madrid, Spain
11 Fosalba, R 1941 La riqueza circulante, las especies monetizadas y los signos monetales en el comercio de la América precolombina. Revista Numismática, 1980 Montevideo, Uruguay
12 De Herrera, A 1601-1616 Historia general de los hechos de los castellanos en las islas i Tierra firme del mar océano Década IV, libro VIII, capítulo IX Madrid, Spain
13 1542 Leyes y ordenanzas nuevamente hechas por su Majestad para la gobernación de las Indias y buen tratamiento y conservación de los Indios Madrid, Spain
14 Torquemada, J 1723-1735 De los veinte y un libros rituales Monarchia Indiana Tomo XIII p68 Madrid, Spain
15 Orozco y Berra, M 1880 Diccionario universal de historia y geografía p914 México
16 Medina, JT 1919 Las monedas coloniales hispano-americanas p3 Santiago de Chile, Chile
17 Muisca Pueblos Originarios (website)
18 The story of Chocolate University of Pennsylvania USA
19 Portillo JL & Weber 1935 Conquista de Nueva Galicia Tomo 1 p319 México
20 Chokladsajten Choklad Historia (website) Sweden
21 Koenig, L & The forward 2009 The gelt chronicles Haaretz Apartheid State of Israel
22 Prinz, DR 2015 December Dilemmas Melt Into Chocolate Huffpost USA
23 Prinz, DR 2015 On the Chocolate Trail. A delicious adventure connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao Jewish Lights Publishing USA
24 Ribes, A; Zwiers, FW & Azaïs, JM 2017 A new statistical approach to climate change detection and attribution (website)
25 Brodwin, E 2018 Chocolate is on track to go extinct in 40 years. Business insider, The independent (link) London, UK
26 Hütz-Adams, F 2015 Cocoa Barometer 2015 Report, Institut Süd Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire
27 Hütz-Adams, F & Huber, C 2015 Renforcer la compétitivité de la production de cacao et augmenter le revenu des producteurs de cacao en Afrique de l’Ouest et en Afrique centrale PPP CCC Presentation workshop prix revenue decent Abidjan Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire
28 Hawksley, H 2001 Mali’s children in chocolate slavery Article, BBC Mali
29 Mistrati, M &  Romano RU 2010 The Dark side of Chocolate (Chokladens frånsida) Documentary Denmark
30 Quest R 2014 Cocoa-nomics (conclusion) Freedom project, CNN USA
31 Learning About Coins Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (website)