The Maya used a market economy
More than 500 years ago, in the highlands of midwestern Guatemala, the Maya bought and sold goods with less control than many archaeologists had previously thought.
That’s according to new research Latin American Antiquity This suggests that the ruling K’iche’ elites were hands-off when it came to managing the supply and trade of obsidian by people outside their central areas of control.
In these areas, access to nearby sources of obsidian, a glassy rock used to make tools and weapons, was controlled by local people through independent and diverse acquisition networks. Over time, the availability of obsidian resources and the dominance of artisans in its formation resulted in a system that in many ways resembles modern market economies.
“Researchers have generally assumed that the obsidian trade was controlled by Maya rulers, but our research shows that, at least in this area, that was not the case,” said Rachel Horowitz, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Washington. State University. “People seem to have a lot of economic freedom, including the ability to go to places like today’s supermarkets to buy and sell handicrafts.”
Although there are many written records of political organization from the Postclassic Maya period (1200-1524 AD), little is known about how social elites gained economic power. Horowitz began to fill this knowledge gap for the K’iche’ by examining the production and distribution of obsidian artifacts used as proxies by archaeologists to determine the region’s level of economic development.
He conducted geochemical and technological analyzes on obsidian artifacts excavated from 50 sites around the K’iche’ capital Gumarkaj and the surrounding region to determine the origin of the raw material and its production methods.
The results showed that the K’iche’ obtained their obsidian from similar sources in the central K’iche’ region and Gumarkaj, indicating a highly centralized control. The ruling elite also controlled trade in more valuable forms of non-native obsidian, particularly Pachua obsidian from Mexico, based on its abundance in these central locations.
However, outside this core region, in areas conquered by the K’iche, there was less similarity in obsidian economic networks. Horowitz’s analysis shows that these sites had access to their own sources of obsidian, and that there were specialized places where people could go to buy knives and other useful tools made from the rock by experts.
“For a long time, people had the idea that there was no market economy in the past, which seems strange when you think about it. Why haven’t these people had deals in the past?” he said. “The more we think about it, the more we realize that there were different ways that these people’s lives resembled ours.
Tulane University’s Middle American Research Institute loaned Horowitz obsidian blades and other artifacts that he used for research. The artifacts were excavated in the 1970s.
Moving forward, Horowitz said he plans to further explore the collection, the rest of which is in Guatemala, to uncover more details about how the Maya traded, managed their economic systems and generally led their lives.
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Provided by Material Washington State University. Originally written by Will Ferguson. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.