Sunday, May 9, 2021

Wealth is what we say it is.

My father was not a fan of President Franklin Roosevelt. I guess there was a lot he didn't agree with him on, but the thing I remember hearing most often is how FDR should have never taken the United States off the gold standard. That is, between 1879 and 1933, the dollar was backed by gold, the federal supply of which was famously held at Fort Knox in Kentucky. (The country's golden wealth nowadays is held in three locations: Fort Knox, Denver, and West Point, NY.) But in June 1933, Congress abolished the right of creditors to demand payment in gold. Severing the value of the US dollar from the price of gold allowed the Federal Reserve to inflate the money supply more easily, giving it another tool to fight inflation.  

Of course, the price of gold -- like that of any commodity -- is arbitrary. And to take the argument even further, the use of gold as a basis for measuring wealth is also arbitrary. We could have picked some other substance. Silver, maybe. Or something ancient societies used for trade -- like cacao beans.

Several weeks ago, I toured Chaco Culture National Historical Park. To say it's an amazing place is an understatement. The biggest ruin is Pueblo Bonito, which was built of adobe and was four stories high in places. Ancient Chacoans lived there, but most of the rooms were vacant most of the time. Our guide, who is Navajo and Zia Pueblo, suggested it might have been used as an inn, with many of the rooms only used by folks visiting for religious festivals and market days. 

On the cliff wall behind Pueblo Bonito -- just like at many sites around the Southwest -- are ancient pictographs (painted on) and petroglyphs (carved into the rock). Take a look at the petroglyph in the center of this photo -- the one with half-circles on either side of a vertical line: 

copyright Lynne Cantwell 2021
Looks kind of like a bug, right? That's what archaeologists thought it was. 

Well, in 2003, a researcher named Patricia Crown examined a cache of cylindrical pottery vessels found in the 1890s in one of the rooms in Pueblo Bonito. The Chacoan vessels had been dated to around 1100 CE, and it occurred to Crown that they were similar to vessels found at sites built by the ancient Mayans during their Classic period, around 900 CE. The Mayans used these vessels for drinking chocolate -- not hot chocolate as we know it today, but a fermented drink. Alcoholic, in other words. The source of the beverage was the same as our hot chocolate today, though: the cacao bean. Cacao beans grow on trees in pods. And take a look at how they grow:

Eric Freyssinge | Wikimedia Commons | CC4.0
Looks like that petroglyph, doesn't it? 

Crown had some potsherds of Pueblo Bonito vessels tested, and sure enough, traces of cacao turned up. Some ancient Chacoan had liked his fermented chocolate so much that he carved a cacao branch into the wall behind Pueblo Bonito.

It's about 1,200 miles from Chaco to the Mayans' cacao trees. But these two cultures were trading partners, and this happened hundreds of years before horses were introduced to the New World. Moreover, it's obvious that Mayan xocolatl would not have made the trip in its liquid state, so a Mayan must have taught a Chacoan how to grind the beans and make the drink, and then sent him home with a supply of beans -- for a price.

It turns out cacao was important to the Mayans as far back as 2000 BCE. Mayan kings used to pay their debts to one another in cacao beans.

So what valuable currency would the ancient Chacoans have traded for those yummy beans? Turquoise. There's a room in Pueblo Bonito that's referred to as the treasury, where archaeologists found a cache of turquoise beads. And some of the turquoise had been imported -- the closest turquoise mine to Chaco Canyon was in Cerrillos, NM, more than 150 miles away, but Chacoans also possessed turquoise mined in Colorado, Nevada and California.

But getting back to the chocolate: The ancient Mayans had a goddess named Ixcacao. She figures briefly in the Popol Vuh, the Mayan creation myth. (The author of the article at the link calls her Ixcocoa and, later, Ixcacau, but it's the same goddess.). 

The other thing about Mayan xocolotl is this: it's not sweet. Not at all. The Mayans would add chile to the drink to hide the bitter taste. That probably sounds kind of gross, but remember, this stuff was alcoholic. Lots of folks hate American beer because it's bitter, but they still drink it.

Anyway. Ancient Mayans used cacao as money; the ancient Celts used cows; we use paper and coins. Truly, wealth is what a society says it is.


How's your summer reading going? Don't forget about the contest. Here's a link to the reading list and the rules. 


These moments of chocolatey blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Mask up, social distance, and get your vaccine ASAP!

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