Trade in Maya civilization

Trade in Maya civilization

Trade in Maya civilization was a crucial factor in maintaining Maya cities. The economy was fairly loose, and based mostly on food like squash, potatoes, corn, beans, and sometimes chocolate drinks made of ground cocoa beans and water. They also traded almost any other basic necessities such as salt and stone because there was a large need for trade in order to bring such basic goods together. The types of trade varied greatly, from long-distance trading spanning the length of the region, to small trading between farm families.



Because of the readily available resources in most of the Maya territory, small towns did not need to take part in long-distance trading and limited trade to local bartering and exchange. Despite the fact that the area was rich in resources, even the most self-sufficient farm families, which were the vast majority of the population, still had to participate in exchanges in order to obtain the necessities (the necessities would generally include some pottery, stone tools, and salt). As craftsmen in small cities began to specialize and the cities began to grow, so did the need for increased trade. Cities such as Tikal and El Mirador are two such examples. Tikal, specifically, had a population somewhere in the range of 60,000–120,000 people, which means it would have needed to get food and other goods from up to 100 km away. Because of the size of these , they would have also needed a larger amount of control from the Rulers to oversee it. Eventually the increased trade, and growing cities gave the Rulers more power over their territory and their subjects.

However, not only the central cities in the empire grew. Because of the increased amount of traffic through the smaller cities along trade routes, these once isolated cities grew too, creating a fairly consistent amount of growth throughout the Post-Classic period.

Evidence discovered in the past few decades seems to prove that trade was widespread among the Maya. Artifacts collected under grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and Howard University, show that hard stones and many other goods were moved great distances (despite the inefficiency of moving goods without so-called 'beasts of burden'). Modern chemical tests have taken these artifacts and confirmed that they originated in locations great distances away. There is also documented trade of goods ranging from honey to quetzal feathers throughout the Maya region.

The goods, which were moved and traded around the empire, include: salt, hard stone, Maize, Honey, Cocoa, and Pottery. And for the elites, such goods as: Quetzal Feathers, Fine Ceramics, Jade, Obsidian and Pyrite. Textiles were often traded for as well because they were easily transported.


As trade grew in the Postclassic period, so did the demand for commodities. Many of these were produced in specialized workshops around the empire, and then transported elsewhere. Some of these commodities included, fine ceramics, stone tools, jade, pyrite, quetzal feathers, cocoa beans, obsidian, and salt.

Mostly the main population used the more basic commodities, such as stone tools, salt, cocoa beans, and pottery. But some of the other commodities like jade, pyrite, fine ceramics, and quetzal feathers were goods that elite rulers used to show off their power.


Arguably the most important of these commodities was salt. Salt was not only an important part of the Mayan’s diet, but it also was critical in the preservation of food. By covering meat and other food items in salt the Maya were able to dehydrate it so that it would not rot. Salt, for the most part, was produced near the oceans by drying out large flats of seawater. After the flats were dry, the salt could be collected and moved throughout the empire.

Chocolate was used throughout the Maya region to make sauces, and for drinks. It was grown mostly in the lowlands, so it was often transported to the highlands.

Ceramics were produced in specialized workshops, before being traded for other goods. Often the work produced by a particular artist, was heavily sought after by the elite classes of Maya society. Ceramics were also circulated through kingdoms, and local areas as gifts from one ruler to another. This was usually the case because of the strong symbol of power and wealth the fine arts provided. The ceramics produced were mainly plates, vases, and cylindrical glasses. When painted, these pots were usually painted red, with some orange and black.

Rare stones such as jade and pyrite were also very important to the Maya elite. These stones were relatively hard to acquire, so having such treasures helped them to solidify their positions in the society. Many of the stones were collected in the highlands of the empire in Guatemala, so when long-distance trade developed, the Maya were able to move more of the these precious stones to the lowland cities.

Other stones, such as obsidian, were more common, but were also a crucial part of Maya society. Obsidian was a strong volcanic glass, also from the highlands, which could be chipped and shaped into strong sharp tools in order to be used for cutting. In the later years of the Empire obsidian was moved extensively via long-distance trade routes.

During the early periods of the Maya, much of these commodities were only available to the regions in which they could be produced, or were naturally available. However, economic restructuring during the transition from the Classic to the Postclassic periods, as well as the beginning of trade over water allowed for larger volumes of long-distance trade to occur, and therefore the commodities were able to reach throughout the entire Maya region.


  • Demarest, Arthur “Ancient Maya: the rise and fall of a rainforest civilization” Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK. 2004
  • Ericson, Jonathan E. & Baugh, Timothy G. “The American Southwest and Mesoamerica: systems of prehistoric exchange” Plenum Press, New York. 1993
  • Fuente, Beatriz de la “The Pre-Columbian Painting Murals of the Messoamericas” Jaca Books, Italy. 1999
  • Herring, Adam “Art and Writing in the Maya cities: AD 600-800” Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK. 2004

and they believed in lots of gods like the sun god, the rain god and the god of the corn.

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