Friday, 20 May 2011 09:03

The Trade and Economy of the Mayans

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The Mayans had a complex system of trade and economy throughout their entire history. In fact, contrary to early assertions, the Mayans actually had strong commercial ties with other Mesoamerican cultures from all over Central and South America.

This trade network initially began as a linear route which ran from the Guatemala all the way to Mexico during the Preclassic period (around 2000 BC to 300 AD). Over time, this trading network would change and shift according to political and economic necessities. Among the major trading hubs of the Mayan trade route include major city states like Kaminaljuyu and Tak’alik Ab’aj.

Expansion of the Mayan trading networks.

These trading networks blossomed as a result of favorable trading relationships with their neighbors as well as specialization in certain trading goods. The specialized aspect of trading relationship was driven largely by the availability of resources between trading partners as well as the expansion of merchant class.

Naturally, the extensive trade carried out by the Mayans would precipitate an increase in knowledge transfer with their neighbors. This being the case, it was only a matter of time before the Mayan literature, mathematics and astronomic expertise would be diffused to other Mesoamerican cultures and tribes.

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Jade, Turquoise and Other Luxury Items

Among the most valued luxury items traded by the Mayans were Jade, Obsidian and Turquoise. Jade was a valued trade commodity because the Mayans believed that it possesses sacred powers beneficial to rulers. Turquoise on the other hand was believed by the Mayans to be a substance held dear by the Mayan gods and was believed to be associated with smoke.

These gems as well as other green colored objects were valued by the Mayans because they were believed to be a mystical link to their gods as well as their semi-divine rulers.

Merchants and The Effects of Trade on Mayan Society

Predictably, a large class of merchants eventually developed as a result of the relatively vast Mayan trade network. These merchants would inevitably become part of the middle class, along with artisans and other specialists who helped increase the demand for further commerce and production within Mayan society.

It was up to the merchants to carry out large scale trade with the Mayan’s neighbors, to traveling from one point of the Mayan trade network to another. The transport of the merchant’s wares was carried out by hired porters, considering the absence of the wheel as well as pack animals in Mesoamerica.

Among the most common goods that Mayans traded are Salt, Cotton Vanilla, Obsidian, Cacao and Vanilla. Other resources such as Pyrite, Quartz, Magnatite, Clay and Cinnabar were also widely traded for use in the creation of mirrors, arms, dyes, ceramics and clothing.

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Most of these goods were part of everyday Mayan life, so much so that even salt and chocolate were considered basic goods by even the lower classes of society. Other goods which are traded, but which were not necessarily used for the production of any specific type of product were Jaguar skins, Quetzal feathers, Shells, Macaw feathers along with various other animal furs. Like Jade and Obsidian, these furs were used largely for decoration or adornment by the upper class to denote their rank and social position.

The Importance of Trade

The Mayan civilization was very dependent on trade. In fact, one of the main reasons why the Mayan civilization collapsed was that its trade routes fell apart. The loss of trade caused an erosion of prosperity, which eventually contributed to the decline of Mayan society.

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Overall, the Mayans benefited greatly from commerce. It was the source of luxury items like Jade and Turquoise for the upper classes. Trade provided commoners with Obsidian and Salt for their work and everyday needs respectively. And as trade increased so did the power of the merchants, who in turn contributed to the prosperity of Mayan civilization until their very end.

Some Great Mayan Ruins Tours

For more information on Mayan history click here and for more information on Mayan ruins click here.

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