Economy of the Maya civilization

Economy is a system which consists of the production and distribution of goods and services by multiple agents within a society and/or geographical area. An economy is made up of individuals and larger organizations such as governments and gives value to goods and services. The Maya economy was very complicated in that it did not consist of the modern view of currency; there was no universal form of trade exchange other than the resources and services that could be provided among groups. The Maya documented wars and lives of their leaders in much greater detail than their trade networks and economy.

The Maya economic system was largely based on agriculture, craft production, and trade. With the Maya most likely starting as small egalitarian societies spread throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and the modern southern Mexican states of Tabasco, Chiapas, Campeche, and Quintana Roo, and expanding throughout Central America in Guatemala, parts of Honduras, sections of El Salvador, and Belize.[1] During this early Maya Preclassic era from 2000 BC-AD 250 these small egalitarian societies slowly formed into large settlements by as early as 500 BC. These used their most abundant resources to trade with other groups who lacked these resources. "As part of the social economy, localized trade allowed communities that possessed some products in abundance to exchange these with other communities to acquire what was unavailable locally. This promoted a complex economy based on symbiotic relationships between communities and regions, as each relied on others to furnish a portion of their needs in return for their efforts."[2] Thus economic relationships began among Maya groups, and trade networks began to flourish.

Economic Structure

The backbone of the Maya economy was a middle class made up the workers and artisans who produced goods that the trade networks required.[3] Through farming, domestication of animals,and the development of personal employment through acquiring sought after skills the middle class of the Maya developed an extremely complex trade network that was overseen by an elite class that made up the governing party.

Journalist John Noble Wilford notes that evidence for marketplace activity demonstrates an advanced economic structure. The ruins of Chunchucmil show that, "using improved methods of analyzing the chemistry of ancient soils have detected where a large marketplace stood 1,500 years ago in a Maya city on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico."[4] This is one of many archaeological sites that show proof of the use of marketplaces and advanced trade networks. Shells from distant shores, feathers from far away lands, and rocks that don't belong in local areas have been found in a large number of archaeological sites in Mesoamerica that prove the Maya had trade networks similar to ours today.

In summary, the economy of the ancient Mayas was running by a middle class under the supervision of the elite class. Resources from all over the geographic regions of the Maya world and beyond made up the economy of the Maya.

Development of Trade and Specialization

Trade was the main factor that kept Maya cities growing economically. This system was a form of free market trade, except in the major cities in which the local government had direct control over the trade networks and economy. Within these larger cities there were almost always established markets with connections all over Mesoamerica including interactions with Olmec and Teotihuacan.[5] All items throughout the Maya world varied in value from one region to another, likely rising in value the farther from its native area it traveled. Prestige items and subsistence items made up the commercialized goods of the Maya. Prestige items were items such as jade, gold, copper, extravagant pottery, ritual items and any other items used as status symbols by the upper class. Subsistence items were resources used on a daily basis, such as clothing, food, tools, pottery, salt, lithic material, etc.[6] Merchants rose during the Pre Classic and Classic Periods and were directly responsible for the growth in the middle class and elite of Maya communities. The middle class isn't necessarily connected to the merchants themselves but instead to their occupations being profitable due to the presence of the merchants. Whether it was Cacao beans or Obsidian or skills such as pottery and lithics, merchants facilitated the growth of occupations throughout the Mayan world.


The Maya had an extremely rich variety of resources that made up its currency. Cacao beans, marine shells, maize, chili peppers, manioc, amaranth, palms, vanilla, avocado, tobacco, and hundreds more resources were readily available for intensification and eventual trade throughout the Maya groups, with each resource rising and falling in value depending on its rarity. It is important to understand that agriculture began around 3000 BC with maize and beans in a slash and burn, then individual gardens, and eventually raised terraces throughout Maya communities. Furthermore, metallurgy was not used in Mesoamerica until about AD 600.[7] Obsidian, jade, and other rocks and minerals were used in the production of lithic tools.

Among the most important goods that circulate within the long-distance trade network were salt, obsidian, jade, turquoise, and quetzal feathers. The large market centers within major Mayan cities acted as redistribution centers in which merchants could obtain goods to sell in more minor cities.[8] Mostly subsistence items were traded within major city market centers, items for the elite class such as rare feathers, jaguar furs, art such as paintings, highly decorated ceramics, and high quality jewelry were symbols of power among the elite class.[9]


  1. ^ Maya civilization
  2. ^ Richard J. Sharer with Loa P. Traxler (2006) The Ancient Maya, 6th Edition
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Maya Economy

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