zontle [Mexican Spanish]

In Mexico, various units all concerned with the number 400. From the Nahuatl root tzontli, one meaning of which was “400”. In the Aztec's base-20 (vigesimal) counting system, 20 × 20 played a role similar to the one 10 × 10 plays in our base-10 (decimal) system.

1

A unit of count, pre-Columbian to present, describing 400 of whatever item was being counted. Originally applied principally to a quantity of 400 cocoa beans.

A government publication¹ of 1891 shows the zontle being used in Veracruz in trade in platano, zapote mamey, chayote, oranges, limas, mango, anona, jinicuil, chicozapote, guayola and limes.

The zontle's relationship to larger units, where counting is obviously impossible, is illustrated in the case of almonds:

       

tercio

     

carga

3

   

xiquipil

3

9

 

zontle

20

60

180

number of almonds

400

~8000

~24,000

~72,000

The larger units were represented by baskets and bags of standardized dimensions.

1. Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Secretaría de Fomento—Seccion 4.
Informes y Documentos relativos á Comercio Interior y Exterior Agricultura é Industrias.
Numero 69, Mes de Marzo, 1891.
México: Oficina Tip. de la Secretaria de Fomento, 1891.
Pages 83, 84, 86.

2

For maize, in the 19th century the zontle appears to have been standardized at 5 arrobas, at least in Tabasco.

Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Secretaría de Fomento—Seccion 4.
Informes y Documentos relativos á Comercio Interior y Exterior Agricultura é Industrias.
Numero 69, Mes de Marzo, 1891.
México: Oficina Tip. de la Secretaria de Fomento, 1891.
Pages 141 and 256.

sources

1

The fifth of these classes of money was cacao; it was probably more extensively used as money and for larger transactions in commerce than any of the substances mentioned; it passed current as silver or copper at the present day; this was not, as some persons suppose, the cacao called tlaleacahaatl or small cacao with which they made their drinks and with which our chocolate is made, but a more common specie known as patlachte and less apt to serve as an aliment; it is seldom used except in mercantile transactions. Of this kind of money all writers on the history of Mexico make mention, as much to the Spaniards as native writers. According to the numerical system of the Mexicans, the base upon which cacao was counted was the number twenty; thus four hundred grains, twenty by twenty, makes one zontle, which means to say in Mexican four hundred; until the present day it is the custom among some of the Indians, and even others, in the city of Mexico to sell firewood by zontles of four hundred pieces. Twenty zontles, or eigth [sic] thousand make one xiquipilli, and three xiquipillis arc equal to a carga or load, the which has twenty four thousand grains of cacao. To evade the trouble of counting so many when the merchandize was of considerable value, sacks of certain dimensions were used.

J. W. Bastow.
in
Congreso Internacional de Americanistas.
Actas de la Undécima Reunion. México. – 1895
México: Agencia Tipográfica de F. Diaz de Leon, 1897.
Pages 51 and 52.

2

Forty large baskets of cacao ground with corn flour, which was called cacahuapinol (not chimpinoli as mentioned by Bancroft) each basket was of the dimension to contain sixteen hundred beans or grains of cacao.

Edward King, Viscount Kingsborough.
Antiquities of Mexico.
London: R. Havell, 1831-48

resources

Mario Ardón Mejía, editor.
Agricultura prehispánica y colonial.
Tegucigalpa, Honduras: Editorial Guaymuras, 1993.

Lawrence H. Feldman, editor and translator.
Lost Shores, Forgotten Peoples: Spanish Explorations of the South East Mayan Lowlands.
Durham (NC): Duke University Press, 2000.

home | units index | search |  contact drawing of envelope |  contributors | 
help | privacy | terms of use