Ancient Maya Economy and Trade

Chichen Itza
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The Ancient Maya civilization had an advanced trade system consisting of short, medium, and long trade routes and a robust market for a range of goods and materials. Modern researchers have made use of a variety of methods to understand the Maya economy, including evidence from excavations, illustrations on pottery, scientific “fingerprinting” of materials such as obsidian and examination of historical documents.

The Maya Economy

The Maya did not use "money" in the modern sense: there was no universally accepted form of currency which could be used anywhere in the Maya region. Even valuable items, such as cacao seeds, salt, obsidian or gold tended to vary in value from one region or city-state to another, often rising in value the farther away these items were from their source. There were two kinds of goods commercialized by the Maya: prestige items and subsistence items. Prestige items were things like jade, gold, copper, highly decorated pottery, ritual items and any other less-practical item used as a status symbol by upper-class Maya. Subsistence items were those used on a daily basis: food, clothing, tools, basic pottery, salt, etc.

Subsistence Items and Trade

Early Maya city-states tended to produce all of their own subsistence items. Basic agriculture — mostly production of corn, beans, and squash — was the daily task of the majority of the Maya population.

Using basic slash-and-burn agriculture, Maya families would plant a series of fields which would be allowed to lie fallow at times. Basic items, such as pottery for cooking, were made in homes or in community workshops. Later on, as the Maya cities began to grow, they outstripped their food production and food trade increased.

Other basic necessities, such as salt or stone tools, were produced in certain areas and then traded to places that lacked them. Some coastal communities were involved in the short-range trade of fish and other seafood.

Prestige Items and Trade

The Maya had a bustling trade in prestige items as early as the Middle Preclassic period (about 1000 B.C.). Different sites in the Maya region produced gold, jade, copper, obsidian and other raw materials: items made from these materials are found at nearly every major Maya site, indicating an extensive trade system. One example is the famous carved jade head of Sun God Kinich Ahau, discovered at the Altun Ha archaeological site in present-day Belize: the nearest source of jade was many miles away in present-day Guatemala near the Maya city of Quiriguá.

The Obsidian Trade

Obsidian was a precious commodity to the Maya, who used it for adornments, weapons, and rituals. Of all of the trade items favored by the ancient Maya, obsidian is the most promising for reconstructing their trade routes and habits. Obsidian, or volcanic glass, was available at a handful of sites in the Maya world. It is much easier to trace obsidian to its source than other materials like gold: obsidian from a particular site not only occasionally has a distinct color, like the greenish obsidian from Pachuca, but an examination of the chemical trace elements in any given sample can nearly always identify the region or even the specific quarry from which it was mined.

Studies matching obsidian found in archaeological digs with its source have proven very valuable in reconstructing ancient Maya trade routes and patterns.

Recent Advances in the Study of Maya Economy

Researchers continue to study the Maya trade and economy system. Studies are ongoing at Maya sites and new technology is being put to good use. Researchers working at the Yucatan site of Chunchucmil recently tested the soil in a large clearing long suspected of having been a market: they found a high concentration of chemical compounds, 40 times greater than in other samples taken nearby. This suggests that food was extensively traded there: the compounds can be explained by bits of biological material decomposing into the soil, leaving traces behind. Other researchers continue to work with obsidian artifacts in their reconstruction of trade routes.

Lingering Questions

Although dedicated researchers continue to learn more and more about the ancient Maya and their trading patterns and economy, many questions remain. The very nature of their trade is debated: were the merchants taking their orders from the wealthy elite, going where they were told and making the deals they were ordered to make or was there a free market system in effect? What sort of social status did talented artisans enjoy? Did the Maya trade networks collapse along with Maya society in general around 900 A.D.? These questions and more are debated and studied by modern scholars of the ancient Maya.

Importance of the Maya Economy and Trade

Maya economy and trade remains one of the more mysterious aspects of Maya life. Research into the area has proven tricky, as the records left behind by the Maya themselves in terms of their trade are scarce: they tended to document their wars and the lives of their leaders much more completely than their trading patterns.

Nevertheless, learning more about the economy and trading culture of the Maya can shed much light on their culture. What sort of material items did they value, and why? Did extensive trading for prestige items create a sort of "middle class" of traders and skilled artisans? As trade between city-states increased, did cultural exchange — such as archaeological styles, worship of certain Gods or advances in agricultural techniques — also take place?


McKillop, Heather. The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. New York: Norton, 2004.

NY Times Online: Ancient Yucatán Soils Point to Maya Market, and Market Economy 2008.

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Minster, Christopher. "Ancient Maya Economy and Trade." ThoughtCo, Jun. 18, 2017, Minster, Christopher. (2017, June 18). Ancient Maya Economy and Trade. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "Ancient Maya Economy and Trade." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 16, 2018).