Merchants of Mesoamerica

Ancient Traders of Mesoamerica

Fruit Market in Tlalnepantla, Mexico
Fruit Market in Tlalnepantla, Mexico. Ralf Peter Reimann

A strong market economy was a very important aspect of Mesoamerican cultures. Although much of our information about the market economy in Mesoamerica comes primarily from the Aztec/Mexica world during the Late Postclassic, there is clear evidence that markets played a major role throughout Mesoamerica in the diffusion of goods at least as recently as the Classic period. Further, it is clear that merchants were a high-status group of most of the Mesoamerican societies.

Beginning during the Classic Period (AD 250-800/900), merchants supported urban specialists with raw materials and finished goods to convert into luxury goods for the elites, and exportable items for trade.

Specific materials traded differed from region to region, but, in general, the merchant job involved acquiring for example coastal items, such as shells, salt, exotic fish and marine mammals, and then exchanging them for materials from the inland such as precious stones, cotton and maguey fibers, cacao, tropical bird feathers, especially precious quetzal plumes, jaguar skins, and many other exotic items.

Maya and Aztec Merchants

Different types of merchants existed in ancient Mesoamerica: from local traders with central markets to regional merchants to the professional, long-distance merchants such as the Pochteca among the Aztecs and the Ppolom among the lowland Maya, known from Colonial records at the time of the Spanish conquest.

These full-time merchants traveled over long distances, and were often organized into guilds. All the information we have about their organization comes from the Late Postclassic when Spanish soldiers, missionaries, and officers--impressed with the organization of the Mesoamerican markets and merchants--left detailed documentation about their social organization and functioning.

Among the Yucatec Maya, who traded along the coast with large canoes with other Maya groups as well as with Caribbean communities, these merchants were called Ppolom. The Ppolom were long-distance traders who usually came from noble families and leaded trading expeditions to acquire valuable raw materials.

Probably, the most famous category of merchants in Postclassic Mesoamerica, though, was the one of the Pochteca, who were full-time, long-distance merchants as well as informants of the Aztec empire.

The Spanish left a detailed description of the social and political role of this group in the Aztec society. This allowed historians and archaeologists to reconstruct in detail the lifestyle as well as the organization of the pochteca.

  • Learn more about the Aztec merchants called Pochteca


Davíd Carrasco (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, vol. 2, Oxford University Press.