Cacao and Violence: Consequences of Money in Colonial Guatemala

  • Kathryn E. SampeckEmail author
Original Article


This article investigates the meeting of two monetized economies and how producing a “commodity money” nurtured forms of violence. This case presents an opportunity to rethink why economies monetize and how that relation fits into coercive, violent foundations of an emerging capitalist system. Money is important for understanding early capitalism, as Marx suggested that money is the first form of the appearance of capital. Money masks the social nature of labor, a fiction that not only creates conditions for capitalism, but is violent by wrenching the self from social bonds. Archaeological examples illustrate relationships of money with corporeal and social violence in the Izalcos region of colonial Guatemala, part of today’s western El Salvador. The early colonial market relied on exploiting inequalities as well as the predictability of native production. A stable currency based on cacao as small coin buffered the awkwardness and unpredictability of a volatile economy.


money cacao violence Mesoamerica 


Este artículo investiga el encuentro de dos economías monetizadas y cómo la producción de un “dinero de mercancías” alimentó formas de violencia. Este caso presenta una oportunidad para repensar por qué las economías se monetizan y cómo esa relación se ajusta a los fundamentos coercitivos y violentos de un sistema capitalista emergente. El dinero es importante para entender el capitalismo temprano, ya que Marx sugirió que el dinero es la primera forma de aparición del capital. El dinero enmascara la naturaleza social del trabajo, una ficción que no solo crea condiciones para el capitalismo, sino que también es violenta al arrancar el yo de los vínculos sociales. Los ejemplos arqueológicos ilustran las relaciones del dinero con la violencia corporal y social en la región de Izalcos, en la Guatemala colonial, que forma parte en la actualidad de la zona occidental de El Salvador. El mercado colonial temprano se basaba en la explotación de las desigualdades, así como en la previsibilidad de la producción nativa. Una moneda estable basada en el cacao como moneda pequeña amortiguaba la incomodidad y la imprevisibilidad de una economía volátil.


Cet article explore la rencontre de deux économies monétisées et la manière dont la production d'un « argent de commodité » a nourri certaines formes de violence. Ce cas offre l'opportunité de repenser pourquoi les économies pratiquent la monétisation, et comment cette relation s'intègre au sein de fondations coercitives, violentes d'un système capitaliste émergent. L'argent est important pour comprendre les débuts du capitalisme, car Marx a suggéré que l'argent est la première forme de l'apparition du capital. L'argent masque la nature sociale du travail, il s'agit d'une fiction créant non seulement les conditions en faveur du capitalisme mais qui est également violente car elle entraîne l'arrachement du soi hors des liens sociaux. Des exemples archéologiques illustrent les relations de l'argent avec la violence physique et sociale dans la région Izalcos du Guatemala colonial, située dans la partie ouest actuelle d'El Salvador. Le marché colonial primitif s'appuyait sur une exploitation des inégalités ainsi que sur la prévisibilité de la production native. Une devise stable basée sur le cacao en tant que petite monnaie atténuait le caractère inconfortable et imprévisible d'une économie volatile.



A Tinker Grant through the Roger Thayer Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane University funded the feasibility study for this research. Several seasons of archaeological research were made possible by several grants from the Middle American Research Institute, as well as dissertation-research grants from Fulbright-Hays, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (Grant No. 5919), the Social Science Research Council, and the National Science Foundation (Dissertation Improvement Grant No. 9521749). Further research in El Salvador was supported by a CIES Senior Scholar Fulbright fellowship. I am deeply indebted to E. Wyllys Andrews, Howard Earnest, and William R. Fowler for their insightful comments and tremendous support of my endeavors during these many years. I am deeply grateful to Guido Pezzarossi for organizing the panel at the 48th Annual Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology in 2015 that gathered together all the contributors to this thematic collection for the first time, and for the cogent reflections of the discussants, LuAnn Wurst and Mark Leone. Guido’s intellectual camaraderie and hard work have provided me with important opportunities to develop as a scholar. Any omissions or errors that still persist in this work are my own.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of Interest

The author states that there is no conflict of interest in the publication of this article.


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© Society for Historical Archaeology 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology and AnthropologyIllinois State UniversityNormalU.S.A.

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