Mesoamerican Trade Research Paper

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Trade and exchange were ancient and pervasive activities throughout Mesoamerica (much of present-day Mexico and northern Central America). The great ecological diversity of Mesoamerica, from steaming tropical forests to highland mountains and plateaus, stimulated the development of regional specialties (such as textiles from the Peruvian Andes) and the opportunity to exchange surplus yields with others.

Trading activities in Mesoamerica (the name refers to much of modern-day Mexico and northern Central America) became particularly prominent with the development of sedentary civilizations, from as early as 1600 BCE. Economic specialization associated with these civilizations required that individuals and communities exchange their specialized production for other necessary goods, while the development of hierarchical social systems encouraged elites to gain access to specific status-linked luxuries, often from distant regions. The production of surpluses also allowed individuals to exchange their excess yields or output for other goods they did not personally produce. These processes became important in the Formative period (c. 1600 BCE–250 CE) and increased during the Classic period (variably 250 CE–900 CE), becoming highly commercialized in the Postclassic period (900 CE–1521 CE). Evidence for trading activities during the Formative and Classic periods relies on archaeological investigations, while rich historical records augment archaeological data for unraveling Postclassic trading patterns.

Types of Trade and Traders

Trade in Mesoamerica was multifaceted: it was carried on over long and short distances; involved producers, professional merchants, and elites; embraced utilitarian goods and luxuries; and took place in marketplaces and royal palaces.

Long-distance trade was typically the domain of the full-time professional merchant. Lacking beasts of burden and a practical use of the wheel, the transport system of Mesoamerica relied on human backs and canoes, and few rivers were navigable. A man could carry up to 20 kilograms with a tumpline across his forehead or shoulders, and could travel approximately 24 kilometers in a day, depending on the difficulty of the terrain. Most trade conducted in this manner over long distances involved low-weight, low-bulk, and high-value commodities such as feathers, precious stones such as turquoise and jadeite, gold ornaments, shells, and decorated textiles. In the Formative period and among the Classic Maya, goods such as these were used by the aristocracy for social and ritual display; this trade was managed by the elites and its focus on elite consumption and control defines it as a “prestige goods economy.” During the more commercialized Postclassic period, Mesoamerican professional merchants served as both state agents and private entrepreneurs. In the Mayan area (present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize) they appear to have been of elite social standing, while in central Mexico they emerge as a specialized, albeit ambitious, group of commoners. During the period of the Aztec Empire (1430–1521), such merchants belonged to guild-like organizations and gained considerable political favor and economic wealth.

Much trade was conducted regionally and involved goods of medium weight, bulk, and value. Produced in specialized regions, these goods were typically carried and traded across ecological zones to areas where there existed a high demand for such goods and materials. The most common products were salt (especially from northern Yucatan), cacao (from coastal and southern lowland regions), rubber (also a lowland product), raw cotton (from coastal regions and inland areas below approximately 900 meters), and obsidian (from specific volcanic outcrops in mountainous areas). These were materials of nearly universal use in Mesoamerica: salt for diet, cacao as an elite and ritual beverage, rubber for the popular ball game and for use in religious ceremonies, cotton for clothing and other textiles, and obsidian as a multipurpose cutting tool and weapon. Some finished goods may also have fallen into this category; these include plain textiles woven of cotton or maguey (fibers from agave plants), paper, reed mats, and gourd bowls. A somewhat different type of commodity, fancy polychrome pottery, also falls into this category, although it was relatively heavy and probably carried a higher value than other goods carried in this manner. Transport of these raw and manufactured commodities was typically in the hands of professional regional merchants, although records from the Postclassic period also indicate that the actual producers sometimes carried their own goods over ecological zones for purposes of trade. The transport involved considerable effort, since nearly all of these goods traveled between lowlands and highlands.

A great deal of trade was carried on by individual producers, most of it over more restricted distances. This type of trade involved most foodstuffs, such as maize and beans, which were heavy, bulky, and relatively low in value; it was inefficient to incorporate such goods in long-distance trading enterprises. Other, similar goods included utilitarian pottery wares and wood products. Individual producers also took advantage of the marketplace setting to sell small lots of regular or seasonal surpluses, such as pottery, baskets, herbs, fruits, turkeys, and prepared foods such as tortillas and tamales.


The most pervasive context for trading activities was the marketplace. Every city and community (except for the very smallest) had a marketplace and held a market either daily or on a periodic basis (usually every five or twenty days). It was typically the liveliest spot of the community, where individuals from all walks of life congregated to exchange goods and gossip. During the period of Aztec imperial dominance, the largest marketplace in Mesoamerica had developed at Tlatelolco, also a major residence for long-distance professional merchants. By 1519, Tlatelolco was geographically and politically attached to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec (Mexican) capital city. Reportedly, this market accommodated as many as 20,000–25,000 vendors and consumers daily, while every fifth day it served twice as many people. Being the grandest market in the land, virtually every type of product and commodity, from far and wide, was available there. Other marketplaces were less extensive, serving smaller populations, fewer elite, and more restricted areas. Still other marketplaces became known for their specialties: for instance, lakeside Texcoco was known for ceramics, cloth, and fine gourds; forested Coyoacan focused on wood products and carpenters; the Basin city of Acolman was famous for its dogs; and Azcapotzalco, in the western part of the Basin of Mexico, had a noted market for slaves.

These scenes of bustling economic and social activity were commonplace during the Postclassic, but probably developed earlier. Marketplaces are difficult to detect archaeologically, since markets were often held in an open plaza, and once market day was over, the plaza was swept clean and returned to its original function. Therefore, only vague and spotty information on them exists for Formative and Classic times. A great deal of information on markets and market activities exists for the Postclassic and early colonial periods, however, from historical documents that supplement the archaeological record.

During at least the Postclassic, markets served as the venue for exchanging the full range of commodities produced and manufactured in Mesoamerica. Professional long-distance merchants stopped frequently at marketplaces in their long and arduous treks to and from distant lands, trading local and exotic luxuries to their economic advantage. Regional merchants depended on the numerous marketplaces as they moved their specialized goods across ecological zones. Last but not least, individual producers relied on market days to maintain diversity in their material lives, whether for subsistence or an elevated standard of living. Any given marketplace, then, would see expensive and inexpensive goods, elite and commoner consumers, local and distant vendors and merchants, and familiar and exotic wares for sale.

The marketplace was not only a site for economic transactions, but also for the exchange of the most recent news and rumor. Indeed, under the Aztec Empire, some specialized professional merchants were sent by the emperor to travel from market to market, disguised as local traders; their purpose was to ferret out information on political and military conditions in the region.

The local city-state also benefited from a lively market, as taxes were typically levied on vendors. A different sort of external involvement can be seen at the Tlatelolco marketplace, where professional merchants oversaw the functioning of the market and sat there as judges on market-related crimes and disputes.

Media of Exchange

Trade was facilitated by the general use of specified media of exchange, at least by Postclassic times. The most common and lowest-value exchange media were cacao beans, which may have served as “small change” or to even out unequal values in barter exchanges in marketplaces. While the actual value of cacao beans in pre-Hispanic times is unknown (and probably fluctuated in any event), colonial values may well be fairly representative: two hundred cacao beans for a turkey cock, one hundred cacao beans for a turkey hen, thirty cacao beans for a small rabbit, three cacao beans for a turkey egg, one cacao bean for a large tomato or a tamale. While relatively low in value, cacao beans were sufficiently valued to have been actively counterfeited.

Large plain cotton cloaks were another common form of money that were higher in value than cacao beans; depending on the quality of the beans and cloaks, values ranged from sixty to three hundred cacao beans for one cloak. Cloaks also served a variety of exchange functions: they could be used to ransom certain slaves, to obtain land, and to gain restitution for theft. A basic standard of living (probably for a commoner) was also expressed in terms of these cloaks, twenty of which could support an individual for one year. These cloaks therefore also served as a standard of value in the economic system.

Other recorded media of exchange were feather quills filled with gold dust in central Mexico, and copper bells, stone beads, and thin copper axes in the more southern reaches of Mesoamerica. Information on all of these forms of money applies to the highly commercialized Postclassic times; it is not clear how extensive such media of exchange may have been in earlier periods. Cacao beans continued as a medium of exchange well into Spanish colonial times, although the other money forms quickly faded away. Spanish coin was used side-by-side with cacao, gradually replacing it.

International Trading Centers

Another significant trading venue was the international trading center. Typically located beyond or at the periphery of major city-states, these centers attracted long-distance professional merchants from great distances. Here, the merchants would find a considerable diversity of trade goods and could carry on a high volume of high-value trade relatively unencumbered by political conditions. While they may have developed early in the prehistory of Mesoamerica, they became particularly significant during the commercialized Postclassic period. Such centers were found throughout Mesoamerica, in highland as well as lowland regions. Wherever their specific locale, they typically were strategically situated between major polities or significant environmental zones, and were located along convenient trade routes— overland, riverine, or coastal. While on the surface it appears that these trading centers were specialized venues for high-level economic dealings of professional merchants, they were also hotbeds for more regional and locally based trading activities.

Professional Merchants as Private Entrepreneurs

Professional merchants undoubtedly enjoyed a long history in Mesoamerica. They are not specifically documented prior to the Postclassic; however, as early as the Formative period, elite goods such as shells and fine stones traveled long distances. While this trade may have operated by goods passing from hand to hand until they reached their ultimate destinations, their status-linked nature suggests a more centralized, even politically controlled and generated, method of trade. The Classic period witnessed a continuation of long-distance trade in luxuries destined for the elite (again, probably conducted by professional merchants or by the elites themselves) and also saw a growth in exchange of more broadly consumed goods, such as ceramics for cooking, storing, and eating; ground stone for grinding implements; and obsidian for tools and weapons. During the Postclassic, professional merchants attained unprecedented levels of wealth and political influence. In the Basin of Mexico during Aztec times, professional merchants were organized throughout the major cities into their own city wards, or calpulli. Resembling guilds, calpulli retained exclusive membership rights, a system of internal ranking, a set of specific laws and codes, the ability to manage their own trading ventures and the wealth derived from them, and an advantageous relationship with the state. Professional merchants served the state by carrying state goods on their trading expeditions; they took them as diplomatic gifts to unconquered rulers or used them in profitable exchange negotiations for the state. As mentioned earlier, some of these professional merchants also served the state as spies in their far-ranging travels. As private entrepreneurs they became wealthy beyond their social standing; as state agents they were esteemed by their rulers but often despised in outlying regions. Indeed, a major motivation for Aztec conquests was the relatively frequent assault and murder of their professional merchants.

Significance of Mesoamerican Trade

Throughout the history of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, trade served a number of important functions. It provided a context for evening out ecological and seasonal variations, allowing for households throughout Mesoamerica to obtain a wide variety of necessary or desired goods from distant regions as well as from the local area. Trade was an adjunct to specialization, whereby a specialized producer could be assured of exchange outlets for obtaining other essential commodities. Far-flung trading networks provided exotic and expensive goods to elites throughout Mesoamerica in their efforts to visually enhance their high status. And, in an important general sense, trade served to integrate broad regions in relatively sustained and predictable exchanges of goods, information, and social relations.


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