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 Maya Trade and Economy

God L
(Bolon Yookte' K'uh), was a prince of Xibalbá, as well as a wealthy god of commerce and trade. He is an old god, sometimes with the ear of a jaguar.
He’s prosperous, and smokes a cigar.

See Dr. Richard Hansen's Lecture in UFM, Mirador Basin, Guatemala on Feb 5 2007

 Contrary to the early investigators such as Thompson, now we know that The Maya participated in long distance trade with many of the Mesoamerican cultures, including Teotihuacan, the Zapotec, and other groups in central and gulf-coast México, the Caribbean islands and down up to Colombia, as well as inter-site commerce.  Favorable allocation of resources and specialization facilitated favorable trading relationships. The availability of resources is so tightly connected to economics that scholars often use economic laws, such as supply and demand, when assessing ancient Maya commerce. Specialization in trade can be defined as specialized exploitation of resources by populations in a specific environmental zone. Concentration in a specific area of commerce in response to availability of resources was key in determining the products exchanged between two groups. This long distance trade surely was accompanied by the exchange of writing, astronomic and mathematical knowledge and any other cultural manifestation.

Tak'alik Ab'aj in the Pacific Lowlands is a well studied trade center since the Early Preclassic,
the original population apparently arrived during the Early Preclassic period, and around the Middle Preclassic, the inhabitants were already involved in a trade network that connected the Olmec groups. The trade network was concentrated in a lineal route that ran along the boca costa region in Guatemala and that connected Mexico with El Salvador. By the beginning of the Late Preclassic period, trade nexuses were switched to the Maya groups, with a strong orientation towards Kaminaljuyú in the Highlands. The commercial route was essentially the same, except for the fact that Kaminaljuyu and its trade connections with the Motagua basin were integrated into the network. This connection ceased to exist by the end of the Preclassic period. At the beginning of the Early Classic period, Tak’alik Ab’aj established new relationships with the Northwestern Guatemalan Highlands, more specifically with the Solano group that was in a process of expansion from the centers located in the northwest, and which eventually took control over Kaminaljuyu. At that time, the trade route no longer continued in line along the boca costa, but instead, it became vertical, connecting the South Coast not only with the Northwestern Altiplano but indirectly, with the Central Altiplano now under the control of the Solano group. Another change occurred during the Late Classic, when Tak’alik Ab’aj apparently became independent just like many other sites of the South Coast of Guatemala, such as Chocolá, in the department of Suchitepéquez, and Cotzumalguapa, Montana and Texas in the department of Escuintla (Bove 1989:80).

During the Preclassic the first truly state in Mesoamérica, The Mirador Basin, was linked by huge causeways that allowed the exchange of goods between bajos around 800 BC, thus giving them the strength to build the largest structures known in the Americas, including the largest Pyramid in the world, La Danta.

For the Maya, the world was a transformational and multi-sensorial place, governed by analogical symbolic reasoning, where the senses of smell, touch, sight and hearing appear to have merge in what Houston and Taube (2000) have called ‘cultural synaesthesia’. Contextualized within sacred landscapes, different kinds of matter such as Jade, that was believed to belong to rulers, attracted moisture, had a magnetic quality and bestowed greenness and fertility to the area around it. Turquoise, similarly, was the property of the gods and was believed to emit smoke. A defining quality of the Maya world-view is the cross-media sensual dimension which links objects to landscape, deities, myth andObsidian Spear Point everyday life, thus, green objects such as Quetzal feathers, Jade and Turquoise, represented the sacred link between the gods and the rulers.  Obsidian, which, in the absence of metal tools, underwrote the economic and symbolic life of the Maya for some three thousand years, played a main role in  agriculture and hunting, but probably the most powerful role of obsidian was as weapon and sacrificial blade.

 The rise of merchants during the Pre Classic and Classic Periods facilitated growth in the middle class as well as the elite of many Maya communities. The rise of a middle class is not so much connected to the merchants themselves, but rather, to the Marble Pot, found in Petén, Marble quarries were in the Central and Eastern Highlands in Guatemalaintermediary occupations, such as skilled artisans and craftsmen, who were indirectly involved in commerce. Maya farmers transported their cocoa beans to market by canoe or in large baskets strapped to their backs, and a Mecapal, (forehead band tied to the basket). Wealthy merchants traveled further, employing porters, as there were no horses, pack animals or wheeled carts in Central America at that time. Some ventured as far as Teotihuacan, introducing them to the much-prized cocoa beans, it was also traded with the TainosKakau god from Cuba and the Quechua from South America. Chocolate was made from roasted cocoa beans, water and a little spice: and it was the most important use of cocoa beans, although they were also valued as a currency. An early explorer visiting Guatemala found that: A  large tomato was worth one bean, a turkey egg was 3 beans,  4 cocoa beans could buy a pumpkin, 100 could buy a rabbit or a good turkey hen, and 1000 a slave. Cacao beans were worth transporting for long distances because they were luxury items. In Maya times, one of the privilege of the elite (the royal house, nobles, shamans, artist, merchants, and warriors) was to drink chocolate. although it was not used as currency like in the Postclassic, it surely was a good trade foodstuff 

Recent studies are being  aimed to the Trade routes and importance of long distance commerce in the Maya Civilization, that has been documented since the Preclassic, and flourished during the Classic period and certainly had a central role in the Politics, and Warfare the led to the Classic Maya collapse.

Perhaps the most important goods involved in long distance trade to the Petén Lowlands, were Salt, Obsidian, Jade,  Turquoise, Cacao,  Cotton, Vanilla and Quetzal feathers, although prestigious items such as Chert, Flint and Granite (fine and course grained) used for manos and metates and traded all around Mesoamerica, for this material only comes from volcanic areas (like Maya Mountains of Belize and Highlands of Guatemala), for weapons and domestic tools, Pyrite, Hematite, Cinnabar were used for colors, mirrors, dyes Resplendent Quetzal near Lake Atitlánand polishing materials, and other minerals such as basalt (and other volcaniclastic rocks all used for grinding stones), quartz, travertine, magnatite (used for black pigments), limonite (used for yellow pigments), greenstones (like serpentine), high-quality clays (common in specialized cave deposits used for high-quality ceramics).  Artistic ceramics, Macaw feathers, Jaguar skins and other animal furs and of course crops, were obtained locally, also were traded between cities as exchange goods. The large centers acted as redistribution centers where merchants obtained the goods to sale in minor cities. The largest known market is that from Tikal, where all kind of Onix bowl, Lowlands, Traded from the Highlandsgoods where exchanged, but mainly every day goods such as clothes, fruits, vegetables, salted fish and meat, and domestic pottery. Even the most skilful and dedicated farmers had to trade some of its production in order to obtain salt, chocolate and other commodities.

Feathers were used for personal adornment, as was also Jade and Obsidian. The brilliant tail feathers of the Resplendent  Quetzal,  that lives in the Highland cloud forests in Guatemala, the vivid green of the Jade from the Motagua River Valley, and the sharp and hard Obsidian objects, from the Highlands,  that are essential in the Maya Cosmovision and social system,  were rare and therefore commanded a high price.

Spondylus objectsThe large quantities of spondyllus shells, (both from the Pacific and the Caribbean), shaped in squares or in necklaces and earrings, found inSpondylus and Jade beads, Preclassic, Nakbé the Preclassic sites of the Mirador Basin, have led some scholars such as Dr. Richard Hansen to believe that this was the first “currency” used by the Maya, and also are, a proof of long distance commerce. During the classic, the trade was made by exchanging goods to obtain whatever someone needs, although a piece of Jade will buy a lot of goods. Cacao beans are documented as currency during the Post Classic.
The presence of almost complete specimens of marine shells from both coasts is fascinating, and outlines the importance of the wide trading connections of the earlier elites of the place, underlining the significance of El Mirador in the commerce interactions from north to south and from east to west, between the coasts and the interior of the Maya Lowlands (Sharer 1994:458).

SALT: It is estimated that the Early Classic Tikal's population of roughly 45,000 consumed approximately 131.4 tons of salt annually. Not only is it required in diet, but it can also be used as a preservative
Salt was also frequently used for ritual and medicinal purposes. It is also believed that salt was commonly used during childbirth and death. A midwife would offer salt to both parents at birth and a saline solution was sprinkled throughout the house following the death of a family member. Veterans of battle often wore  armor, consisting of short cotton jackets packed with rock salt--the equivalent of the modern "flack jacket" and tight bindings of leather or cloth on forearms and legs. Cotton armor is so much more effective than any other protection

Three major sources of Salt have been identified for the Petén Lowlands Maya sites, the Pacific Lowlands, the Caribbean coast and the Salinas de los Nueve Cerros in the Chixoy river in the Highlands of Alta Verapaz in Guatemala, where the salt is obtained from a brine springs that flows from a Salt dome, curiously its color is black, this site produced an estimated of 2,000 tons per year.  Other in- land sources such as San Mateo Ixtatán in Huehuetenango and Sacapulas in Quiché also have been documented and are still in use. The Salt was obtained in disposable tin unfired  brine-cooking vessels, such as the ones still used in Sacapulas and San Mateo Ixtatán, Guatemala, that not only evaporated the water, but made blocks of salt, the vessel was thus, a single use. In The Pacific Lowlands, platforms were used to obtain sun-dry salt, near La Blanca such platforms have been documented ca 1000 BC, and are perhaps the oldest in Mesoamerica.

Photographs © Justin Kerr

Both methods were used in the production of salt, as has been proved in Nueve Cerros by Andrews and Dillon. The salt was then transported using the river routes, such as the Chixoy, that forms the Usumacinta when it confluences with the Pasión river near Altar de Sacrificios.


Jade and Obsidian:  The Jade route was mainly the Motagua river and a recently discovered land route in the Sierra de las Minas, and then distributed to all the Maya area and beyond, using canoes in the Caribbean routes, as well as the Pasión River route via the land route trough Jade Ring, Royal Tomb, YaxháAlta Verapaz. A unique and valuable trade item tends to become more valuable as it is traded farther from the source. The incentive is to profit by continuing to trade it until one of three things happens: an owner can’t bear to part with it, it reaches a cultural area where it is not valued, or it reaches the bitter end of the trade route. For the jadeite axes found on Antigua, the second and third may have both applied. Antigua was the far eastern edge of the Taino cultural area and of the Caribbean island chain. This finding are significant geologically and archaeologically as it argues for the primacy of Guatemala as the New World source of jadeite jade and refutes an assertion that all exotic gems and minerals in the Eastern Caribbean were sourced from South America, as no jadeite rock is known from there. (See Jade). The Caribbean route is also the most likely Olmec trade route for Jade. The fact that Cancuén appears to have prospered for hundreds of years without warfare and that commerce appeared to play a far more important role in everyday life than religion contradicts the widespread view among scholars that religion and warfare were the sources of power for Maya rulers, particularly toward the end of their dominance, after about 600 A.D.

  This is true also for the Obsidian, transported from the El Chayal (25 Km north from Kaminaljuyú), San Martín Jilotepeque and  from the Ixtepeque quarries, using  a river that confluences with the Motagua River, then it wasLeyden Plaque, made in Central Petén, found near Puerto Barrios in the Caribbean shores transported from the Caribbean shores, using the Río Azul, Holmul and Mopán rivers systems, to distribute it to the Major centers in Petén. In El Baúl Cotzumalguapa, in the Pacific Lowlands, large workshops have been documented
, the production of artifacts was aimed at manufacturing two major products: prismatic blades and projectile points. Both technological types required specialized skills and a centralized productive organization. The major purpose of this production was serving the local and probably the regional demand of cutting tools, throwing weapons with a cutting point, and instruments for scraping, polishing and perforating, all of which could be a part of household maintenance activities.

Quiriguá gained importance due to its dominance of the Nebaj style, Jade PectoralMotagua River route, as Cancuén a quiet port at the headwaters of the Pasión River. “That river, was really the superhighway of the Classic Maya world”, states Arthur Demarest.  During the Middle and Late Classic, Piedras Negras, had the dominance of the Usumacinta river route, substituting Altar de Sacrificios and Ceibal that held this dominance in the Preclassic and Early Classic. Dos Pilas an outpost of Tikal, was founded ca 650 AD to control the lower Pasión river route and thus the upper Usumacinta, and this brought the attention of Calakmul, that led to a series of conquer wars to hold this important commerce  route. The San Pedro river, another tributary of the Usumacinta, was the northern route to Central Petén and was dominated by Waka’.  Several Jade artifacts have been found as far as Costa Rica and the distant Island of Antigua. Obsidian was primarily transferred in the form of spall. The term "spall" refers to large flakes, large flake fragments, and chunks. In order to make use of obsidian it must be cut and shaped into smaller fragments that can be used as tools; hence large obsidian workshops are necessary.  It is estimated that Tikal had close to a hundred of these workshops in Obsidian, Flint and Chert eccentrics, Altar de Sacrificiosapproximately 700 A.D. Both transport and treatment of obsidian created a labor-intensive industry, requiring simple porters, usually slaves, and skilled craftsmen. The merchants, or Pochtecas, of Teotihucan, obtained access to obsidian sources in the Guatemalan highlands, as well as major economic centers, such as Tikal and Kaminaljuyú. The raw material demand for Teotihuacan was extremely high with its estimated 45,000 population during the Early Classic Period. The hallmark tripod pottery design of Teotihuacan, found primarily in Kaminaljuyú, suggests the heavy influence of entrepreneurial traders. Potter contends Teotihuacan's greatest influence is present in the increase of long-distance trade

Códex style vessel, Nakbé

Chamá location MapArt: Prestigious art objects, where made locally, but there were some very appreciated types such as the beautiful  polychromes, specially the "Codex" style, from the late Classic occupation in El Mirador and Nakbé, the "Ik Site" style, now known to be Motul de San José, the Alta Verapaz ("Chamá" style) vases and plates and the "Nebaj" style in Quiché, that made exquisite ceramics, Jade Pectorals and Stelas (Tetún) commissioned by other cities. Often the work produced by a particular artist, was heavily sought after by the elite classes of Maya society, the most renown is Aj Muwan from Naranjo, maker of the 7 and 11 god vases. Cancuén and Guaytán were specialized in Jade handcrafts,  Kaminaljuyú was a major producer and exporter of Obsidian objects, Río Azul also was an art exporter, including rare metal objects, found as far as Kaminaljuyú. from the Tiquisate area in the Pacific Lowlands came the finest incense burners, found in sites all over the Lowlands and Highlands sites. The pottery and statuettesLa Pasión River and related sites most wanted were those to be used in private rituals, mainly in shrines inside caves or in their homes. During the late classic, the Codex style from Nakbé was one of the most appreciated. The example of Aguateca is quite valuable due to its rapid abandonment, we now know that most artisans were involved in a part time job and in a low scale production, with some elite dedicated to the control of fine art and exotic goods.

The Maya developed paper quite early in the first millennium, archaeological evidence of manufacture, trade and use of Kopo', Ficus Guatemalana The Maya used its bark to make Paperbark paper by Maya dates from the early 5th century AD . The Maya named their paper Hu'un, and saw it as a writing surface when they appropriated their bark-cloth tunics as a possible means of transmitting information such as Calendars and  Mathematics: “early in their history the Mayas produced a kind of tapa cloth from the inner bark of certain trees, the main being the wild fig tree *Ficus guatemalana* or Amate, named Kopo' by the Maya, (Left), This paper, superior in texture, durability, and plasticity to Egyptian papyrus, was thus perfected anonymously and communally by the Maya. (Sandstrom and Sandstrom, Traditional Papermaking 13).

Maya Collapse:
 The level of the central area's dependency on trade can be witnessed through the eventual decline of the Petén lowlands after the deterioration of trade routes through the area. Although there are several reasons for the decline of the Maya, the failure of trade was a major issue, which impeded prosperity and lead to the abandonment of many lowland communities.

The rise of merchants severely altered the political structure of many ancient Maya communities. This reverts to resource control and wealth. Commerce revolutionized the political system of the ancient Maya by allowing the rise of a different type of political elites: the merchants. Maya elites relied on luxury items, such as jade and quetzal feathers, to denote high social rank. Commoners used obsidian tools for daily work and salt for consumption and religious practices. Both commoners and the elite used Cacao as a form of currency. These dependencies entrusted merchants with substantial power and wealth. Long-distance trade was a primary source of prosperity and enabled the ancient Maya to flourish as a culturally enriched and fascinating civilization and when this trade was disrupted, it contributed to their Civilization’s collapse











































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Last updated 28/01/2011 17:07:36 -0500
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