Pochteca - Elite Long Distance Traders of the Aztec Empire

Aztec Merchants and Traders: The Pochteca

A Male Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) in Flight
Feathers of the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) were some of the exotic materials traded over long distance by Aztec pochteca. mallardg500 / Getty Images

The Pochteca (pronounced pohsh-TAY-kah) were long-distance, professional Aztec merchants and traders who provided the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan and other major Aztec city-states with luxury and exotic items from faraway lands. The pochteca also worked as information agents for the Aztec empire, keeping tabs on their far-flung client states and uneasy neighbors such as Tlaxcallan.

Long Distance Trade in Mesoamerica

The Aztec pochteca were not the only merchants in Mesoamerica: there were many regional-based commercial actors who distributed fish, maize, chile and cotton; their activities provided the backbone of the economic society in the regions.

The pochteca were a special guild of these merchants, based in the valley of Mexico, who traded in exotic goods throughout Mesoamerica and acted as a social and economic connection between the various regions. They interacted with the regional merchants, who in turn acted as middlemen for the pochteca's wider networks.

Pochteca is sometimes used as a generic word for all Mesoamerican long-distance traders; but the word is a Nahua (Aztec) word, and we know much more about the Aztec pochteca because we have written records--the codexes--supporting their history. Long distance trade began in Mesoamerica at least as long ago as the Formative period (2500-900 BC), in societies such as the Olmec; and the classic period Maya. Long distance traders in Maya communities were called ppolom; compared to the Aztec pochteca, the ppolom were loosely confederated and did not join guilds.

Pochteca Social Organization

The pochteca held a special status in Aztec society.

They were not nobles, but their position was higher than any other non-noble person. They were organized into guilds and lived in their own neighborhoods in the capital cities. The guilds were restricted, highly controlled and hereditary. They kept their trade secrets about routes, exotic goods sources and connections across the region restricted to the guild membership.

Only a few cities in the Aztec empire could claim to have a leader of a pochteca guild in residence.

The pochteca had special ceremonies, laws and their own god, Yacatecuhtli (pronounced ya-ka-tay-coo-tli), who was the patron of commerce. Even if their position provided them with wealth and prestige, the Pochteca were not allowed to show it in public, in order not to offend the nobles. However, they could invest their wealth in the ceremonies for their patron god, organizing rich feasts and carrying out sophisticated rituals.

Evidence of the effects of long distance trade by pochteca is found at Paquime (Casas Grandes) in Northern Mexico, where trade in exotic birds such as scarlet macaws and quetzal birds, marine shell and polychrome pottery was based, and extended into societies of New Mexico and Arizona. Scholars such as Jacob van Etten have suggested the pochteca traders are responsible for the diversity of precolumbian maize, transporting seeds throughout the region.

The Pochteca and the Aztec Empire

The pochteca had the freedom to travel all over the empire even in lands not subjected to the Mexica emperor. That put them in a terrific position to work as spies or informants for the Aztec state.

This also meant that political elites deeply mistrusted the pochteca, who wielded their economic prowess to establish and guard their trade routes and secrets.

In order to obtain precious and exotic items such as jaguar pelts, jade, quetzal plumes, cocoa, and metals, pochteca had special permission to travel across foreign lands and were often escorted by armies along with servants and carriers. They were also trained as warriors since they often suffered attacks from the population who saw in the Pochteca another aspect of the yoke of the Aztec empire.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Aztec Civilization and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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Updated by K. Kris Hirst