Trade & Commerce during the Mayan Period
By David Conrad
Salt beds lining the coasts of the Yucatan provided profitable trade and contributed to the
success of the Maya. Salt is a basic human requirement; most people requiring
approximately 4 grams per day. Not only is it required in diet, but it can also be used as a
preservative. During the Classic and Post Classic Periods small island populations on Caye
Ambergris and Isla Mujeres traded salted fish. An exchange relationship between island
communities and the mainland was critical because these geographically isolated groups
were incapable of sufficient subsistent agriculture.
Salt was also frequently used for ritual and medicinal purposes. Remnants of large religious
shrines and temples in Emal on the Yucatan Peninsula suggest the surrounding salt beds
were considered sacred. 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. In Yucatan village salt is
prescribed for epilepsy and honey and salt for severe birth pains, suggesting that similar
practices may have been evident in ancient periods.
The Yucatan coast is abundant in salinas, or coastal salt flats. The dry season (January to
May) allows for inland saline-filled swamps to recede, leaving residual salt-encrusted mud. It
is estimated that 20,000 metric tons could be yielded annually. The central area contained
little to no salt sources. The need for salt and the abundance of the resource in the Yucatan
prompted rigorous trade.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF COMMERCIAL CENTERS
The Yucatan was not the only area to thrive as a result of the salt trade. It is believed that
Tikal was a major commercial hub, or "middleman" for the rest of Guatemalan Maya land.
Salt arrived from the north and jade and obsidian were received from the Chiapas highlands
of western Guatemala. It allowed the city to partake in commerce without having many
profitable resources. Later maritime trade proved to be more efficient and practical as parts of
the Central Area declined. Bypassing the core region tremendously decreased the economic
activity of this major trade center.
The obsidian trade is comparable to the salt trade; however, its uses and resource
distribution differ. Like salt, trade of the volcanic glass resource flowed through core areas
which were thus viewed as redistribution points not only for their own zones of political
control, but for all lowland Maya centers.
Teotihuacan appears to have been the largest obsidian consumer throughout Mesoamerica.
Obsidian was primarily transferred in the form of spall. The term "spall" refers to large flakes,
large flake fragments, and chunks. Hirth explains that 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 approximately 700 CE. Both transport and treatment of obsidian created a
labor-intensive industry, requiring simple porters and skilled craftsmen.
Control of obsidian deposits was crucial as it pertains to politics and the power of elites.
Formalized exchange relationships may have existed between ruling elite members of the
importing and exporting societies who would have governed the flow of important
commodities such as obsidian. However, these relationships were not always positive.
As stated earlier, Tikal acquired a "middleman" role in the salt and obsidian trade. Two recent
discoveries are Cancuen's role as a major trading post and Caye Amergris' maritime trade
network. These discoveries have given rise to new theories pertaining to ancient Maya trade.
One theory proposes that Cancuen's great wealth was acquired through wide-spread
hegemonic warfare. Further excavation of the city and the absence of defense walls have led
other experts to believe that such great wealth was obtained through long-distance trade.
They made a series of alliances with whichever city-state was the most powerful, furnishing
their allies the jade, obsidian, pyrite, quetzal feathers and other goods necessary for
maintaining control over the common people."
The existence of elaborate tombs with jade inlays in the deceaseds' teeth and men buried
with lavish headdresses reflects the prosperity and splendor the city experienced. It also
suggests that Maya kings could obtain great power through commerce instead of imperialistic
warfare. Demarest uses Cancuen as an example of wealth acquired not through violence, but
solely through commerce.
Caye Ambergris is an island located off the coast of Belize, and according to Thomas
Guderjan, was connected to a major trade network. Not only did communities on Caye
Ambergris have access to significant salt deposits, but also they partook in the ceramics
industry. The absence of obsidian deposits prompted rigorous trade with areas of the Maya
highlands, such as El Chayal. The Putun, or Chontal Maya, acquired great wealth when the
civilization controlled many of Caye Ambergris's maritime trade routes during the late Classic
and early Post-Classic Periods. Guderjan comments, "[The Putun's] power came not from
military might but as a result of their virtual monopoly over sea-going trade." Guderjan even
goes as far as saying, "It is possible that the merchants of the Classic period, who carried
goods among the various polities, became more powerful during the early Post-Classic
period and virtually dominated the Maya world."
Maya experts contends that fine items such as quetzal feathers, jade, and cacao were traded
during and at the end of the Classic Period. Elaborate ports were used by the Maya to trade
utilitarian goods during the Classic Period out of necessity and practicality. The transport of
goods such as obsidian, salt, and basalt was very labor intensive and high-maintenance.
As the Maya population increased during the Classic period, a higher demand for "commoner
items" developed. The rising demand for utilitarian goods allowed coastal communities, such
those on Caye Ambergris, to prosper and specialize in maritime commerce.
WARFARE, ANCIENT MAYA ELITES, AND COMMERCE
The role of elites in the Ancient Maya civilization is examined today. Experts' views are
changing, as new evidence is uncovered concerning commerce's function in politics. The
majority of experts believe the trade of luxury goods empowered elites with greater prestige
and status during the Classic Period.
Luxury items included jade, quetzal feathers, cacao, seashells, elaborate polychrome pottery
and embroidered cloth, chert, amber, and turquoise. Because long-distance trade was
extremely labor intensive and costly, fine goods were primarily exchanged. This is not to infer
that "non-luxurious" items such as salt and obsidian were rarely traded. In fact, Guderjan
believes these goods dominated the markets during the Classic Period. The definition of
luxurious and utilitarian items is somewhat subjective.
According to Kenneth Hirth, trading goods' worth can be classified by location of discovery.
John Fox comments, "Workshops for two specialties, shell-bone working and cloth
embroidery, were recovered only in the high-status complexes [palaces] within the elite
center proper, therefore defining them as elite goods." Objects commonly found in religious
temples and sophisticated palaces suggest the high value of the good.
Embroidered cloth was particularly important in signifying status, emphasizing the importance
of workshops to process raw materials into usable finished products. Obsidian necessitated
skilled craftsmen to cut and form the shards of volcanic glass into cutting tools. Jade was
carved and shaped into elaborate designs often depicting deities.
Jade is considered an important elite good because of its frequent appearance in Mayan
rulers' tombs. Fox suspects control over workshops and distribution of goods to community
markets was a major source of elite power. Fox comments, "The internal distribution of
materials by Quichè [elites] made everyday resources available to everyone."
Consequentially, the influx of ample raw materials and the distribution of finalized goods was
a major factor in the prosperity of the community.
Relations among elites were vital in obtaining favorable trade. Fox believes obsidian and
other materials were "obtained along kinship networks among political allies, notably between
the Nima Quiche and Cakchiquel." However, commerce did not always produce favorable
relations among elites.
During the Classic and particularly Terminal Classic Periods, warfare among city-states was
common. During the early Classic Period warfare was primarily a religious ritual. However,
reasons for war shifted as elites developed imperialistic goals during the late and Terminal
Classic Periods. Tikal conquered neighboring Uaxactun under the leadership of Jaguar Paw.
In turn, Caracol defeated Tikal during the mid-Classic Period. The Late Classic kingdom of
Dos Pilas carried out wars of conquest against its neighbors and incorporated such states as
Seibal into its own dominion. A greater amount of defensive walls surrounding ancient cities
were constructed during the Late Classic Period suggests an increase in Maya warfare.
FOREIGN CIVILIZATIONS AND MAYA COMMERCE
The lure of valuable natural resources was not only felt among the Maya themselves. During
the Classic and Post-Classic Periods, a strong foreign element in Maya trade markets
prompted rapid economic expansion and development. David Webster suggests the role of
foreign rule when he concludes:
"[Salt, cacao, cotton] provide a material link between the household and the palace, the
village and the center. It is only logical to presume that such links were central to
Mesoamerican political and social cohesion. If these goods served as currencies in earlier
periods, as most of them did at the time of contact, they would have provided a practical
means of controlling a very much wider range of goods and services connected to them by
equivalency. Monopoly over such currencies would provide significant control over the mode
of distribution. And if control of the mode of distribution was central to Mesoamerican political
economy, then government would have been as concerned with the places and events as
with the means of exchange."
Control of currency sources and access to resources had both political and economical
effects. These incentives prompted "foreign" civilizations such as the Teotihuacan and the
Toltecs to obtain control of trade in various areas of Mayan land. Most experts agree that
Teotihuacan was the most influential foreign civilization to influence ancient Maya long-
distance trade. The Teotihuacans from central Mexico most likely held the greatest influence
over the Maya during the early Classic Period before 600 CE.
With the production of routes to Teotihuacan in Central Mexico, long-distance commerce
relations were established and a trade foundation built. The expansion of long-distance trade
during the Teotihuacan regime facilitated further economic growth with the influx of new
materials via newly established trade routes.
During the Terminal Classic Period, a migration from the central lowlands to the Yucatan and
areas of the western highlands occurred. As a result, the populations of cities such as Koba
and Chichenitza expanded significantly during the Post-Classic periods. According to Coe
and many other experts, the Maya lowlands declined both politically and economically during
the late Classic and Terminal Classic Periods.
Consequentially, many of the Yucatan cities rose as major commercial centers controlled
primarily by merchants. During these declining centuries of Maya society, the merchant was
apparently much more closely identified with his political chiefs than was the Aztec merchant.
Several wealthy merchant families gained substantial political control.
The Cocom family governed Mayapan and later their headquarters in Sotuta for several
generations. Merchant leaders did not wish to redesign community life. This is not to infer
that the wealthy traders did not always advocate an egalitarian and democratic political
system. They exercised privileges such as juridical sovereignty, the right to send their
children to the calmecac (school of the elite class), and the management of the major urban
The ruling merchants may have derived from either prestigious nobles or commoners. Both
groups could own slaves, therefore having direct access to a labor force, allowing transport of
labor-intensive products. Goods such as salt and obsidian were especially difficult to
transport long-distance, and slaves were commonly used to haul large, cumbersome loads
from Koba to as far as Kaminaljuyu or areas in central Mexico.
THE RISE OF A SOCIAL HIERARCHY
The rise of merchants during the Classic and Post 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 intermediary occupations,
such as skilled artisans and craftsmen, who were indirectly involved in commerce. In many
commercial communities, it is estimated that the population consisted of 20-25% merchants,
artisans, or craftsmen of "middle" status.
Most criticism has originated from the subjectivity involved in labeling certain occupations as
"trade related." Nevertheless, evidence suggests there was development of a stronger middle
class during the Post Classic Period, primarily in the Yucatan.
COMMERCES ROLE IN THE DECLINE OF THE MAYA
Numerous theories for such a sharp decline have developed from extensive study.
Overpopulation accompanied with drought and crop failure is one theory. Populations
exceeded the carrying capacity of land, resulting in widespread famine. Also, widespread
deforestation possibly produced lower levels of precipitation.
Although cities, such as Tikal, built large reservoirs and extensive irrigation systems to
combat these environmental factors, low crop yields hindered any possibility of supporting a
large population. Another reason for decline is endemic internecine warfare.
Yet another reason is the deterioration of trade relations which contributed to the increasing
scarcity of fine goods as seen in the decrease of jade, turquoise, polychrome pottery, and
elaborate textiles placed in elite burial tombs. As a result, loss of power in the elites.
Cities in the Yucatan and Chiapas highlands achieved prosperity through concentration in a
specific trading market. I think that specialization in trade was a significant contributing factor
in achieving economic growth because it produced favorable trade relationships. Symbiotic
associations developed, creating an overall commercial network allowing various values and
ideas to be transported along with the exchangeable goods to distant cities.
This so-called "trade network" did not exclude areas that were somewhat resource deficient.
Cities, such as Tikal and Caracol, obtained great wealth by becoming major focal points of
commerce, a central theory of Coe. I claim that cities in the lowland regions would not have
reached such high populations without the existence of such a trade network. Tikal
developed a strong reliance on the influx of goods primarily because of necessity. Items such
as salt and jade were used in religious events, as well as daily activity.
Major religious and cultural aspects of the lowland Maya would have been severely inhibited
if they did not have access to goods via trade. The level of the central area's dependency on
trade can be witnessed through the eventual decline of the 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. The Cocom family gained
significant political strength as a result of wealth and prestige derived from commerce.
Commerce apparently 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.
Merchants came to occupy the greatest power in the Maya political structure by being able to
regulate traded materials and their availability to both commoners and other elites. Therefore,
as warrior elites were gradually phased out, merchants gained control not only of commercial
activity, but also political power.
Long-distance trade involved different components of the labor force in Maya communities. I
think the most significant effect of commerce and the social stratum is the strengthening of
the middle class. Slaves, peasants, and elites were the basic units of social organization until
The social aspect of the ancient Maya became more egalitarian when wealthy merchants
progressively gained power. The growth of a middle class allowed upward mobility and
overall prosperity for those both directly and indirectly involved in trade. I believe a greater
distribution of wealth is the underlining factor in larger population trends due to favorable
economic conditions during the Classic period. Commerce encompasses a variety of
attributes of the Ancient Maya. I believe it is one of the most important factors contributing to
the ancient Maya's development. A complex and diverse civilization, as the Maya were, can
be connected through a network of distributive resources.
Two south-to-north trails developed as avenues for trade, in effect, conduits for macaws,
colorful feathers, copper bells and other Mesoamerican goods moving north and turquoise,
obsidian, buffalo hides and other Southwestern goods moving south. Over time, the travelers
from the south also introduced northern tribes to various ideas of religion and ritual; crops
such as corn, beans and squash; the craft of pot-making; new products from distant
workshops; and different concepts in architecture.
Mayan religious motifs, fertility rites, male-female balance, weather control, and Scarlet
Macaws, are found throughout the American Southwest in ceramics, rock art, and agricultural
design systems. Their presence strongly indicates a connection between these cultures.