Evidence #263 | November 1, 2021

Metal Money

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Scripture Central


The Book of Mormon discusses pieces of gold and silver that were used as part of the Nephite monetary system. Several forms of metal money were also known and used in pre-Columbian times.

Money in the Book of Mormon

The account of Alma in the Book of Mormon describes a system of money during the Nephite reign of the judges (Alma 11:3–19). The text describes “the different pieces of their gold, and of their silver, according to their value” which were used at the time (Alma 11:4).1 Readers sometimes assume that metal money was completely unknown before the arrival of Europeans. Historical, archaeological, and linguistic evidence, however, provide support for the existence of pre-Columbian metal currencies.

Pre-Columbian Money

Various commodities were used as currencies in pre-Columbian times.2 According to historian James Lockhart, among the Aztecs pieces of cloth known as quachtli were gathered into bundles of varying sizes and used for exchanges including the purchase of slaves. Cacao beans were commonly gathered into bags of standardized amounts for purchases of different values.”3 Following the Conquest, the Spanish monetary system was adopted by indigenous peoples. “The transition to money occurred with great speed in all parts of the area, and there is no evidence that the Nahuas had any difficulty comprehending money’s significance; prices seem rational, and money was prized and sought after by all.”4

Cocoa beans. Image via newsweek.com. 

Metal Money

The Aztecs used grains of gold as money in their markets. These were “contained in goose-quills, which by being transparent, showed the precious metal which filled them, and in proportion to their size were of greater or lesser value.”5 Some scholars have argued that Aztec merchants (the pochteca) may have used copper or gold pieces as well as others commodities when engaging in trade.6 Cortes recorded that the native people of Mexico sometimes used small pieces of tin as money.7 According to sixteenth Century Spanish chronicler Gasper Antonio Chi, the Maya used copper bells as money and “they were valued according to their quantity or size.”8

Mixtec copper bells. Image via liveauctioneers.com

Ax Money

Another form of pre-Columbian currency known in both Mesoamerica and South America was what is frequently described as axe-money.9 These were not really axes, but flat T-shaped or mushroom-shaped pieces of copper or copper alloy. According to Dorothy Hosler, axe-monies “often appear in packets and caches. They are found almost exclusively in the region encompassing eastern Morelos, Guererro, Oaxaca, and Chiapas.”10 This particular form of metal money appears to have been introduced from South America into Mesoamerica around 1200 AD after which they began to be reproduced by local metallurgists there.11

Aztec copper axe money. Image via worthpoint.com.

Like Cacao beans, they were used as a medium of exchange in various parts of pre-Columbian Mexico during the Post-Classic period. They had a standardized form and material, although we do not yet understand how they related to other forms of exchange in Mesoamerica. They not only served as a form of money but were also a tribute item.

Axe money from Mexico. Image via Wikimedia Commons. 

Hosler, Lechtman, and Holm observe that axe-monies “not only had exchange value in relation to other market goods, but they themselves were a marketable commodity, ‘purchased’ at the same markets to satisfy the tribute quotas.”12 According to the Relacion Geografica from Tetiquiapa, Oaxaca, a native account from Central Mexico, “the copper axes they rendered as tribute were money and the axes were sold in the markets held in all the villages.”13 Copper axe monies are also shown as a tribute item in the Mendoza Codex.14

Linguistic Evidence for Metal Money

As understood by most scholars today, metallurgy was not introduced into Mesoamerica until centuries after the time of the Book of Mormon. For Latter-day Saints, references to metal money during the Nephite Reign of the Judges suggests that this picture of pre-Columbian metallurgy may be incomplete. While no examples of metal money have been identified from pre-Classic times, there was a word for “money” in Proto-Mixtecan by 1000 BC, which also meant “precious metal”15 or “bright, shining.”16 It is related to words meaning “copper-colored” and “yellow.”17 This points to the knowledge and use of metal money during the time of the Book of Mormon.


Pre-Columbian peoples, including those in Mesoamerica, understood the concept of money. Various kinds of money were known and used, including some standardized currencies of metal. While archaeological examples of metal money have not been identified during the time of the Book of Mormon, linguistic evidence provides intriguing, although tentative evidence for its existence, providing preliminary support for descriptions of metal money in the Nephite record.

Book of Mormon Central, “Why You Should Care About the Nephite Weights and Measures System (Alma 11:7),” KnoWhy 322 (June 5, 2017).

Matthew Roper, “Coins or Money? Why It Matters,” Ether’s Cave, October 15, 2013, online at etherscave.blogsot.com.

Alma 11:3–19Alma 11:4

Alma 11:3–19

Alma 11:4

  • 1 Notably, the text does not refer to “coins” but to pieces of metal money. See Matthew Roper, “Coins or Money? Why It Matters,” Ether’s Cave, October 15, 2013, online at etherscave.blogsot.com. The earliest published reference in Latter-day Saint literature to coins in this chapter appeared in a reference index which accompanied the 1841 edition of the Book of Mormon.
  • 2 See Rafael Anronio Rivera Solorzano, “Money Before Coinage: History of Pre-Columbian Currency,” Procesos de Mercada: Revista Europea Economia Politica 13, no. 2 (2016): 411–427; David A Friedel, Marilyn A. Masson, Michelle Rich, “Imagining a Complex Maya Political Economy: Counting Tokens and Currencies in Image, Text and the Archaeological Record,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 27, no. 1 (2017): 29–54.
  • 3 James Lockhart, The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries (Stanford, CA: Standford University Press, 1992), 177.
  • 4 Lockhart, The Nahuas After the Conquest, 178.
  • 5 Franceso Saverio Clavigero, The History of Mexico, 3 vols., trans. Charles Cullen (Philadelphia, PA: Budd and Bartram, 1804), 2:191.
  • 6 Alberto Francisco Pradeau, Numimatic History of Mexico from the Pre-Columbian Epoch to 1823 (Los Angeles, CA: Western printing Company, 1938), 17, 20; J. W. Bastow, “On the Commerce, Money, and Exchange of the Ancient Peoples of Mexico,” Actas de la Undecima Reunion del Congreso Internacional de Americanisticas, Mexico, 1895 (Mexico: Agencia Tipografica de F. Diaz de Leon, 1897), 53–54.
  • 7 “I discovered certain small pieces of it being used as coins among the natives of a province of Tazco. Proceeding further in my search I found that in both this province and in others it was commonly used as money.” Hernando Cortes: Five Letters 1519–1526, trans. J. Bayard Morris (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1969), 274.
  • 8 Gasper Antonio Chi, Relacion, in Landa’s Relacion de Las Cosas de Yucatan, ed., and trans. Alfred M. Tozzer (Cambridge, MA: The Museum, 1941), 231.
  • 9 Dorothy Hosler, “Metal Production,” in The Post-Classic Mesoamerican World, ed. Michael E. Smith and Frances Berdan (Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 2010), 167–169; Dorothy Hosler, The Sounds and Colors of Power: The Sacred Metallurgical Technology of Ancient West Mexico (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), 131–132, 156, 166–168, 171–173; Dorothy Hosler, Heather Lechtman, Olaf Holm, Axe-Monies and Their Relatives (Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1990); Dudley T. Easby, Jr., Earle R. Caley, Khosrow Moazed, “Axe-Money: Facts and Speculation,” Revista Mexicana de Estudios Antropologicos 21 (1967): 107–148.
  • 10 Hosler, “Metal Production,” 169.
  • 11 Hosler, The Sounds and Colors of Power: The Sacred Metallurgical Technology of Ancient West Mexico, 171.
  • 12 Hosler, Lechtman, Holm, Axe-Monies and Their Relatives, 40.
  • 13 Hosler, “Metal production,” 169.
  • 14 Hosler, Lechtman, Holm, Axe-Monies and Their Relatives, 39; Kurt Ross, Codex Mendoza: Aztec Manuscript (London: Miller Graphics, 1978), 53, figures C and F.
  • 15 Michael Durr, “A Preliminary Reconstruction of the Proto-Mixtec Tonal System, “ Indiana 11 (1987): 44, 52–54.
  • 16 Robert Longacre, “Pro-Mixtecan,” International Journal of American Linguistics 24, no. 4 (October 1957): 119; Calvin Rensch, Comparative Otomanguean Phonology (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1976): 266–267.
  • 17 Rensch, Comparative Otomanguean Phonology, 266–267.
Weights and Measures
Metal Money
Book of Mormon

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