Trade in Maya civilization

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Trade in Maya civilization was a crucial factor in renaming Maya cities. The economy was a mixed capitalist/command system combining free market trade and direct government control over areas considered vital to the population of any specific state. Maya economics functioned on a simple supply and demand theory.[1]

Chief staples of Maya economic activities were centered primarily around foods like fish, squash, yams, corn, honey, beans, turkey, vegetables, chocolate drinks; raw materials such as limestone, marble, jade, wood, copper and gold; and manufactured goods such as paper, books, furniture, jewelry, clothing, carvings, toys, weapons, and luxury goods. The Maya also had an important service sector, through which mathematicians, farming consultants, artisans, architects, astronomers, pilots, scribes and artists would sell their services.

Specialized craftsmen also played a large part, creating luxury items and developing devices to overcome specific problems usually by royal decree. They also engaged in long range trade of almost any other necessities such as salt, fish, stone and luxury items because there was a large need for trade in order to bring such basic goods together. The types of trade varied greatly regionally with specific districts of kingdoms typically specializing in a specific trade which contained workers of every skill set needed to produce their designated specialty. Areas were typically given a designated specialty based upon the resources available in their areas which allowed for very rapid production and distribution of a regions products.


The Maya relied on a strong middle class of skilled and semi-skilled workers and artisans which produced both commodities and specialized goods.[2]Governing this middle class was smaller class of specially educated merchant governors who would direct regional economies based upon simple supply and demand analysis who would place mass orders as needed by other regions. This merchant-governor class was responsible for trade of commodities while the middle class directed how specialized items such as furniture and tools were produced based upon their demand for them. Above the merchants were highly skilled specialists such as artists, mathematicians, architects, advisers, astronomers. The specialist class would sell their services and create luxury goods based upon their specific skill set. At the top of the structure was the King and his array of advisers who would manage trade with other kingdoms, ensure that regions remained stable, inject capital into specific sectors and authorize construction of large public works.


The Maya used several different mediums of exchange and in the trading of food commodities the barter system was typically used for large orders. Cocoa beans were used for everyday exchange in postclassic times. For more expensive purchases gold, jade and copper were used as a means of exchange.[3]


Because of the readily available trade resources and local merchants in most of the Maya territory, small towns did not need to take part in long-distance trading and limited trade to local exchange. Despite the fact that the area was rich in resources, even the most self-sufficient farm families, which were the vast majority of the population, still had to participate in exchanges in order to obtain the necessities (the necessities would generally include some pottery, bronze or copper tools, salt, and imported fish for inland areas). As craftsmen in small cities began to specialize and the cities began to grow, so did the need for increased trade. Cities such as Tikal and El Mirador are two such examples. Tikal, specifically, had a population somewhere in the range of 60,000–120,000 people, which means it would have needed to get food and other goods from up to 100 km away. Because of the size of these, they would have also needed a larger amount of control from the Rulers to oversee it. Eventually the increased trade, and growing cities gave the Rulers more power over their territory and their subjects.

However, not only the central cities in the empire grew. Because of the increased amount of traffic through the smaller cities along trade routes, these once isolated cities grew too, creating a fairly consistent amount of growth throughout the Post-Classic period.

Evidence discovered in the past few decades seems to prove that trade was widespread among the Maya. Artifacts collected under grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and Howard University, show that hard stones and many other goods were moved great distances (despite the inefficiency of moving goods without so-called 'beasts of burden'). Modern chemical tests have taken these artifacts and confirmed that they originated in locations great distances away. There is also documented trade of goods ranging from honey to quetzal feathers throughout the Maya region.

The goods, which were moved and traded around the empire at long distance, include: salt, fish, hard stone, Maize, Honey, Cocoa, Pottery and manufactured goods such as paper.[4]

And for the elites, such goods as: Quetzal Feathers, Fine Ceramics, Jade, Obsidian and Pyrite. Textiles and other artworks were often traded for as well because they were easily transported. Other food stuffs, furniture and commodities like wood were usually regionally traded.


Raw obsidian and obsidian blades, examples of Maya commodities,

As trade grew in the Postclassic period, so did the demand for commodities. Many of these were produced in large specialized factory-like workshops around the empire, and then transported elsewhere. Some of these commodities included, fine ceramics, stone tools, paper, jade, pyrite, quetzal feathers, cocoa beans, obsidian, copper, bronze and salt.[5]

Mostly the main population used the more basic commodities, such as stone tools, salt, cocoa beans, fish and manufactured goods such as books and ceramics and wood items. But some of the other commodities like jade, pyrite, fine ceramics and furniture, luxury goods and quetzal feathers were goods that upper class and rulers used to show off their power.

Arguably the most important of these commodities was salt. Salt was not only an important part of the Maya diet, but it also was critical in the preservation of food. By covering meat and other food items in salt the Maya were able to dehydrate it so that it would not rot. Salt, for the most part, was produced near the oceans by drying out large flats of seawater. After the flats were dry, the salt could be collected and moved throughout the empire.

Chocolate was used throughout the Maya region to make sauces, and for drinks. It was grown mostly in the lowlands, so it was often transported to the highlands.

Ceramics and furniture were produced in specialized workshops, before being traded for other goods. Often the work produced by a particular artist, or workhouse was heavily sought after by the elite classes of Maya society and therefore artists were usually supported by and primarily catered to the wealthy.[6] Art goods such as jade carvings, paintings, ornate furniture and metal ornaments were also circulated through kingdoms, and local areas amongst the elite classes. This was usually the case because of the strong symbol of power and wealth the fine arts provided. The ceramics produced were mainly plates, vases, and cylindrical drinking vessels. When painted, these pots were usually painted red, with gold and black detailing.

Rare stones such as jade and pyrite were also very important to the Maya elite. These stones were relatively hard to acquire, so having such treasures helped them to solidify their positions in the society. Many of the stones were collected in the highlands of the empire in Guatemala, so when long-distance trade developed, the Maya were able to move more of the these precious stones to the lowland cities.

Other stones, such as obsidian, were more common, but were also a crucial part of Maya society. Obsidian was a strong volcanic glass, also from the highlands, which could be chipped and shaped into strong sharp tools in order to be used for cutting. In the later years of the Empire obsidian was moved extensively via long-distance trade routes.

During the early periods of the Maya, much of these commodities were only available to the regions in which they could be produced, or were naturally available. However, economic restructuring during the transition from the Classic to the Postclassic periods, as well as the beginning of trade over water allowed for larger volumes of long-distance trade to occur, and therefore the commodities were able to reach throughout the entire Maya region.


  • Demarest, Arthur “Ancient Maya: the rise and fall of a rainforest civilization” Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK. 2004
  • Ericson, Jonathan E. & Baugh, Timothy G. “The American Southwest and Mesoamerica: systems of prehistoric exchange” Plenum Press, New York. 1993
  • Fuente, Beatriz de la “The Pre-Columbian Painting Murals of the Messoamericas” Jaca Books, Italy. 1999
  • Herring, Adam “Art and Writing in the Maya cities: AD 600-800” Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK. 2000

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