Mayan Economy: Subsistence, Trade, and Social Classes

What Role Did the Expansive Maya Trading Network Have in the Economy?

Aerial View of Tulum, Maya Trading Center on the Gulf Coast of the Yucatan Peninsula
Aerial View of Tulum, Maya Trading Center on the Gulf Coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Getty Images / Larry Dale Gordon

The Maya economy, which is to say the subsistence and trade networks of the Classic Period Maya [ca AD 250-900], was dependent to a large extent on the way the various centers interacted with each other and with the rural areas under their control. The Maya were never one organized civilization under one leader, they were a loose collection of independent city-states whose individual power waxed and waned. Much of that variation in power was the result of the changes in the economy, in particular, the exchange network that moved elite and ordinary goods around the region.

The city states are collectively designated "Maya" by and large because they shared a religion, architecture, economy, and political structure: today there are over twenty different Maya languages.


The subsistence methodology for people who lived in the Maya region during the Classic Period was primarily farming and had been since about 900 BC. People in the rural areas lived in sedentary villages, relying heavily on a combination of domestic maize, beans, squash, and amaranth. Other plants domesticated or exploited by Maya farmers included cacao, avocado, and breadnut. Only a handful of domesticated animals were available to the Maya farmers, including dogs, turkeys, and stingless bees.

Highland and Lowland Maya communities both had difficulties with obtaining and controlling water. Lowland sites like Tikal built immense water reservoirs to keep potable water available throughout the dry season; highland sites like Palenque built underground aqueducts to avoid frequent flooding of their plazas and residential areas. In some places, the Maya people used raised field agriculture, artificially raised platforms called chinampas, and in others, they relied on slash and burn agriculture.

Maya architecture also varied. Regular houses in the rural Maya villages were typically organic pole buildings with thatched roofs. Classic period Maya urban residences more elaborate than rural ones, with stone building features, and higher percentages of decorated pottery. In addition, Maya cities were supplied with agricultural products from the rural areas--crops were grown in fields immediately adjoining the city, but supplements such as exotic and luxury goods were brought in as trade or tribute.

Long Distance Trade

The Maya engaged in long distance trade, beginning at least as early as 2000-1500 BC, but little is known about its organization. Trade connections are known to have been established between pre-classic Maya and people in Olmec towns and Teotihuacan. By about 1100 BC, the raw material for goods such as obsidian, jade, marine shell, and magnetite was brought into the urban centers. There were periodic markets established in most of the Maya cities. The volume of trade varied over time--but much of what archaeologists use to identify a community that was hooked into the "Maya" sphere was the shared material goods and religion that were no doubt established and supported by the trade networks.

Symbols and iconographic motifs depicted on highly crafted items like pottery and figurines were shared over a widespread area, along with ideas and religion. The interregional interaction was driven by the emergent chiefs and elites, who had greater access to specific classes of goods and information.

Craft Specialization

During the Classic period certain artisans, especially those makers of polychrome vases and carved stone monuments, produced their goods specifically for the elites, and their production and styles were controlled by those elites. Other Maya craft workers were independent of direct political control. For example, in the Lowland region, the production of everyday pottery and chipped stone tool manufacture took place in smaller communities and rural settings. Those materials were likely moved partly through market exchange and through non-commercialized kin-based trade.

By 900 AD Chichén Itzá had become the dominant capital with a larger region than any other Maya city center. Along with Chichén's militaristic regional conquest and the extraction of tribute came a large increase in the number and variety of prestige goods flowing through the system. Many of the previously independent centers found themselves voluntarily or forcibly integrated into Chichén's orbit.

Post-classic trade during this period included cotton cloth and textiles, salt, honey and wax, slaves, cacao, precious metals, and macaw feathers. American archaeologist Traci Ardren and colleagues note that there is an explicit reference to gendered activities in the Late Post Classic imagery, suggesting that women played an enormous role in the Maya economy, particularly in spinning and weaving, and manta production.

Maya Canoes 

There is no doubt that increasingly sophisticated sailing technology impacted the amount of trade that moved along the Gulf Coast. Trade was moved along riverine routes, and Gulf Coast communities served as key intermediaries between the highlands and the Peten lowlands. Waterborne commerce was an ancient practice among the Maya, extending back to the late Formative period; by the Post-classic they were using seagoing vessels that could carry much heavier loads than a simple canoe.

During his 4th voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus reported that he met a canoe off the coast of Honduras. The canoe was as long as a galley and 2.5 meters (8 feet) wide; it held a crew of about 24 men, plus the captain and a number of women and children. The vessel's cargo included cacao, metal products (bells and ornamental axes), pottery, cotton clothing, and wooden swords with inset obsidian (macuahuitl).

Elite Classes and Social Stratification

Maya economics were intimately tied to hierarchical classes. The social disparity in wealth and status separated the nobles from ordinary farmers, but only slaves were a sharply bounded social class. Craft specialists--artisans who specialized in making pottery or stone tools--and minor merchants were a loosely defined middle group that ranked below the aristocrats but above common farmers.

In Maya society, slaves were made up of criminals and prisoners obtained during warfare. Most slaves performed domestic service or agricultural labor, but some became victims for the sacrificial rituals.

The men--and they were mostly men--who ruled the cities had sons whose family and lineage connections led them to continue family political careers. Younger sons who had no available offices to step into or were unsuited for political life turned to commerce or went into the priesthood.