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Mexicolore contributor Eleanor King

The Maya market mystery

We are sincerely grateful to Dr. Eleanor King, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Howard University, Washington (USA) for writing specially for us this illuminating article on the surprising lack of evidence for pre-Hispanic Maya markets in the archaeological record. This article compliments effectively Professor King’s earlier introductory article on (ancient) Maya markets (link below).

Pic 1: The market at Chichicastenango, Guatemala, photographed in 1948
Pic 1: The market at Chichicastenango, Guatemala, photographed in 1948 (Click on image to enlarge)

From England to China and Canada to Chile, markets exist everywhere in the world. Markets also have great time depth. The old English nursery rhyme beginning “This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed at home…” reminds us of that, as do histories that talk about the many goods sold in bazaars, souks, seaports, and other places around the globe, and the caravans, carts, and boats that carried them there. Markets are so common, in fact, that it is hard to understand why they were only recently recognized to have existed among the Classic Maya (C.E. 250-900). The Spanish mentioned the presence of trade when they first arrived and visitors to the Maya highlands* today will tell you about the many markets they saw there.

Pic 2: Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s painting of the great Aztec market at Tlatelolco with the city of Tenochtitlan spreading out to the south
Pic 2: Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s painting of the great Aztec market at Tlatelolco with the city of Tenochtitlan spreading out to the south (Click on image to enlarge)

However, scholars did not believe markets existed until just before the Spanish Conquest in the Maya lowlands, the heart of the Maya area.* They thought markets had just been established there and were not well developed. We know the Aztecs had a big market in Tlatelolco, the twin city to their capital Tenochtitlan in the Valley of Mexico. Other cultures in Mexico had them, too. Why, then, did no one until recently think the Maya had markets?

Pic 3: Representation at Palenque of Maya God L: in the Classic Period (C.E. 250-900) he was the god of merchants and of cacao
Pic 3: Representation at Palenque of Maya God L: in the Classic Period (C.E. 250-900) he was the god of merchants and of cacao (Click on image to enlarge)

One reason is that the Spanish chronicles documenting the Conquest did not discuss them much. Fray Diego de Landa, the Bishop of Yucatán who gave us our most complete description of the lowland Maya, famously said, “The occupation to which they had the greatest inclination was trade” (Tozzer 1941:viii). He never went beyond that, however. The chroniclers of the Aztecs, in contrast, such as the conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo, left us lengthy descriptions of the large, bustling market at Tlatelolco.

Pic 4: Pottery figure of a Maya market seller, Veracruz region
Pic 4: Pottery figure of a Maya market seller, Veracruz region (Click on image to enlarge)

Similarly, in the highlands of Guatemala Fray Bartolomé de las Casas described in detail how markets were set up and how merchants of different kinds plied their trade. All that’s left to indicate the existence of markets in the lowlands, however, are scattered vocabulary words recorded by the Spanish that mostly refer to different kinds of merchants, from peddlers to long-distance traders.

Pic 5: God L with merchant’s pack and cacao tree. Mural detail. Late Classic period. Red Temple, Cacaxtla, Mexico; drawing by Simon Martin
Pic 5: God L with merchant’s pack and cacao tree. Mural detail. Late Classic period. Red Temple, Cacaxtla, Mexico; drawing by Simon Martin (Click on image to enlarge)

Another reason lowland markets were so difficult to recognize is that the Maya glyphs do not discuss economic matters. In ancient Sumer cuneiform tablets tell us about the production, ownership, and sale of land and goods. Among the Aztecs, tribute rolls give us a window onto the types of goods that came and went from the Aztec heartland. The Maya glyphs, on the other hand, seem to discuss only political and religious matters. Since the 1980s, when scholars were able to decipher them more easily, the glyphs have given us information on ruler successions, warfare, and alliances - all the stuff of political intrigue - but very little about economic matters. The little we know is what scholars have been able to deduce from drawings, largely on pottery, depicting events like tribute delivery. The glyphs themselves have remained silent until very recently.

Pic 6: Artist’s reconstruction of the market at Tikal; illustration by Peter Speir
Pic 6: Artist’s reconstruction of the market at Tikal; illustration by Peter Speir (Click on image to enlarge)

Markets are also notoriously difficult to find archaeologically. Many of them are ephemeral, lasting only a short time - a few days or at most a week. Stalls in these markets are made to be easy to put up and take down, leaving not much of a trace in the archaeological record. The spaces where markets took place, mostly large plazas in towns, were used for other purposes, too, thus further obscuring that record. In places where permanent markets existed, they left more of a mark, as stalls were more durably built. It is no surprise, then, that for many years the only prehispanic (“before the Conquest”) Maya market recognized in the lowlands was the one at Tikal, where long rows of stone stalls line up to form a market similar to the Aztec one at Tlatelolco (pic 6).

Pic 7: One of the oldest markets identified to date in the Maya area, at Chunchucmil, Mexico, where Bruce Dahlin and colleagues found an Early Classic (C.E. 250-600) market (top). What the marketplace area at Chunchucmil looks like today (bottom)
Pic 7: One of the oldest markets identified to date in the Maya area, at Chunchucmil, Mexico, where Bruce Dahlin and colleagues found an Early Classic (C.E. 250-600) market (top). What the marketplace area at Chunchucmil looks like today (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

It is not just the buildings in most markets but the goods, too, that were perishable. Bruce Dahlin (2009:354) estimates that in the Maya area between 90 and 98 percent of all the goods traded would not have been preserved over time. Foods of different kinds and other organic materials, such as cotton cloth, woven mats, and feathers, would rot and disappear quickly. In places like the Valley of Mexico archaeologists have found a way around this problem by tracing some of the more lasting products sold, such as ceramics. Kenneth Hirth (1998) has suggested that by looking at the distribution of specific pots within and between sites, one can tell whether or not they were locally made or traded from a more distant production spot.

Pic 8: Ceramics emerging from the ground at an archaeologist’s dig
Pic 8: Ceramics emerging from the ground at an archaeologist’s dig (Click on image to enlarge)

Other archaeologists have followed suit and used Hirth’s method to assess the presence or absence of markets. This approach is easier to use in the Valley of Mexico than in the Maya area, though. The drier climate of the Valley allows archaeologists to find many artifacts on the surface (pic 8), so it is relatively easy to collect a large number of potsherds from many different sites in a region. In the Maya area the dense rainforest and thick leaf litter cover make surface collections impractical. Archaeologists are confined to comparing the ceramics they excavate from different contexts within a site - a process that is more labor-intensive and yields more limited results than surface collecting. Some have tried it, though, at sites where multiple excavations permit a larger sample size.

Pic 9: View of Tikal temples I, II & III, from the top of Temple IV. This is the view from the Great Temple on Yavin 4 (the rebel base), where the Royal Award Ceremony took place at the end of Episode IV, the first Star Wars movie to be released
Pic 9: View of Tikal temples I, II & III, from the top of Temple IV. This is the view from the Great Temple on Yavin 4 (the rebel base), where the Royal Award Ceremony took place at the end of Episode IV, the first Star Wars movie to be released (Click on image to enlarge)

The remaining reasons for why scholars did not investigate markets among the lowland Maya have to do with anthropological theories about the nature of the rainforest, Maya settlements, and markets. In brief, for a long time the rainforest was viewed as a jungle or wasteland (from the Hindi jangal, desert or wasteland; Harper 2001) where the same few resources were evenly spread throughout. It was not until late in the twentieth century that scientists began recognizing the incredible richness and endless localized variety in plant and animal species of this, the oldest biome on earth. Up until then, archaeologists thought that the only way the Maya could have used the sparse “jungle” resources was to spread out thinly over the landscape to farm. What we recognize today as large Maya cities were thought to be mostly empty ceremonial centers, housing only a few priest-rulers who served a dispersed group of peasants.

Pic 10: Some older tropical cities such as Lahore, India, have built-in green spaces, just as the Maya did
Pic 10: Some older tropical cities such as Lahore, India, have built-in green spaces, just as the Maya did (Click on image to enlarge)

It did not help that the Maya had their own, unique view of space and built “garden cities” (Graham 1987) with lots of terracing, kitchen gardens, tree groves, and other green spaces connecting buildings. These contrast sharply with the pattern of crowded structures on gridded streets that we are more familiar with in modern cities. If their cities did not look like ours and if they did not seem to have that many resources to trade, what would the point of markets have been? Adding to the confusion was the firmly established idea in economic anthropology that markets could not have existed as they do now before Western capitalism took hold. Where markets did prove to exist, in non-Western and, especially, ancient cultures, scholars thought they served the local elite, or people in power, and were controlled by them, as were the merchants.

Pic 11: Model of Tikal showing the location of the market, to the east of Temple 1 (area in the red box in the top right-hand corner of the drawing)
Pic 11: Model of Tikal showing the location of the market, to the east of Temple 1 (area in the red box in the top right-hand corner of the drawing) (Click on image to enlarge)

So, what’s changed? Why can we now talk about markets among the Maya? First, theories about the rainforest, Maya settlements, and the role of markets have now radically shifted. As noted, scientific discoveries about the rainforest made it possible for scholars to begin thinking about how one might live in an area with such variable resources. At the same time, explorations of large Maya sites showed they were densely packed cities that included planned green areas rather than the empty places we once thought them to be. Ideas about markets changed, too. Persistent exceptions to the idea that markets were only a consequence of capitalism, such as the undeniable existence of the large, pre-capitalist market at Tlatelolco, slowly eroded that view. Today, scholars see all kinds of markets, from ancient to modern, as part of a continuum. There is no one kind of market; they have features in common, but they differ from culture to culture, place to place, and time period to time period. The change in our theories means that we can now contemplate the existence of markets among the Maya rather than dismiss that idea outright.

Pic 12: Part of the murals at Calakmul showing inhabitants trading goods; southeast corner of Structure Sub 1–4 of the Chiik Nahb complex
Pic 12: Part of the murals at Calakmul showing inhabitants trading goods; southeast corner of Structure Sub 1–4 of the Chiik Nahb complex (Click on image to enlarge)

Another thing that has really changed is the evidence available to archaeologists. First, exciting discoveries at the large site of Calakmul, a rival of Tikal’s during the Classic, have revealed a possible permanent market area with a temple in front decorated by images of what seem to be specific merchants (pic 12). We can tell because there are glyphs labeling them that appear to indicate what they sell - for example, salt, tobacco, or atole, a sweet corn drink. These glyphs are the first ones known to discuss economic matters.
Second, renewed work on the lowland Maya vocabulary recorded by the Spanish has revealed words for a whole range of merchants. It has also demonstrated how old and widespread some of those terms are, thereby suggesting merchants were common for some time before the Spanish arrived.

Pic 13: The Conquest of Guatemala, oil painting (anonymous), Museum of America, Madrid
Pic 13: The Conquest of Guatemala, oil painting (anonymous), Museum of America, Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)

Additionally, there is a growing recognition that the lowland markets Diego de Landa and others were able to observe were only poor shadows of what had once existed. The lowland Maya were conquered late, some twenty years after the Valley of Mexico and the highland Maya (pic 13). Unlike in those areas, there was no gold or silver in the Yucatán, so the Spanish were less interested in it, though they did eventually want the land. By the time they succeeded in conquering it, they had already severely disrupted old Maya trade routes by controlling the ocean and the routes through the southern highlands. The actual conquest was the last blow to the indigenous Maya economy. Whatever trade had existed previously was rapidly folded into the Spanish imperial system. Lands that were independent and central to markets became colonial hinterlands that supplied produce and other limited goods to the established Spanish capitals in the New World and, beyond that, to Spain itself.

Pic 14: Mural by Rina Lazo of classic Maya society, focussing on the sacred nature of food. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 14: Mural by Rina Lazo of classic Maya society, focussing on the sacred nature of food. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there have been breakthroughs in archaeological techniques that now allow us to use several lines of evidence to try to identify markets. The placement and layout of possible market plazas, the architecture and other features, the distribution of artifacts such as stone tools and potsherds within the plazas, and the residues left by food, produce, and other organic materials in market soils can all help indicate where a market occurred. While each indicator by itself is weak, together these lines of evidence can be persuasive.
The result of all these developments is that we can now talk confidently about the existence of Maya markets in the lowlands long before the Spanish arrived. We can also begin talking about a model or template for what those markets looked like. For more on that, see the article about “Maya Markets” (link below).

Pic 15: The ruins of Toniná, some 3,000 ft above sea level in the Chiapas highlands of southern Mexico
Pic 15: The ruins of Toniná, some 3,000 ft above sea level in the Chiapas highlands of southern Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

* The mountainous area occupied by the Maya in southern Guatemala and adjacent Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador is known as the Maya highlands (pic 15). While it played an important role in the development of Maya civilization, by the time of the Conquest it was occupied by a number of Maya groups who moved into the area from Mexico. Many of the best-known Classic Maya sites, such as Tikal, lie to the north in the Yucatán Peninsula. That area of low, rolling hills is called the Maya lowlands.

References Cited:-
• Dahlin, Bruce H. 2009. Ahead of its Time? The Remarkable Early Classic Maya Economy of Chunchucmil. Journal of Social Archaeology 9(3):341–367
• Graham, Elizabeth 1987. Resource diversity in Belize and its implications for models of lowland trade.American Antiquity 52:753-767
• Harper, Douglas 2001. Jungle. Etymological Dictionary. Electronic document, http://www.etymonline.com, accessed May 30, 2018
• Hirth, Kenneth G. 1998. The Distributional Approach: A New Way to Identify Marketplace Exchange in the Archaeological Record. Current Anthropology 39(4):451–476
• Tozzer, Alfred M., trans. 1941. Landa’s Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, vol. 18. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

For further reading:-
• Becker, Marshall 1979. Priests, Peasants, and Ceremonial Centers: The Intellectual History of a Model. In Maya Archaeology and Ethnohistory. Norman Hammond and Gordon R. Willey, eds. Pp. 3–20. Austin: University of Texas Press
• Caufield, Catherine 1984. In the Rainforest: Report from a Strange, Beautiful, Imperiled World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
• Dahlin, Bruce H., Christopher T. Jensen, Richard E. Terry, David R. Wright, and Timothy Beach 2007. In Search of an Ancient Maya Market. Latin American Antiquity 18(4):363-384
• King, Eleanor M. 2015. The Ethnohistoric Evidence for Maya Markets and Its Archaeological Implications. In The Ancient Maya Marketplace. The Archaeology of Transient Space, E. M. King, ed. Pp. 33-66. Tucson: University of Arizona Press
(Do.) 2018. Markets and the Maya: From Muddle to Metamorphosis in Our Models. The Codex 26(1-2):14-29
• King, Eleanor M., and Leslie C. Shaw 2015. Research on Maya Markets. In The Ancient Maya Marketplace. The Archaeology of Transient Space, E. M. King, ed. Pp. 3-32. Tucson: University of Arizona Press
• Martin, Simon 2012. Hieroglyphs from the Painted Pyramid: The Epigraphy of Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1–4, Calakmul, Mexico. In Maya Archaeology 2, Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, eds. Pp. 60–81. San Francisco, CA: Precolumbia Mesoweb Press.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Photo ‘Guatemala 1948 - Chichicastenango Market’ by Janice Waltzer, Wikimedia Commons
• Pic 2: Photo by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore
• Pic 3: Image ‘Reproduction of a Maya priest smoking from the Temple at Palenque, Mexico’ (no author given), Wikimedia Commons (God L)
• Pic 4: Photo © and courtesy of Justin Kerr, image no. 1865 (‘Woman Market Vendor’) in Kerr’s ‘A Precolumbian Portfolio’ (www.mayavase.com)
• Pic 5: Illustration by and courtesy of Simon Martin
• Pic 6: Illustration by Peter E. Spier/National Geographic Creative
• Pic 7 (top): Image ‘Chunchucmil-sitecentermap’ (Principal authors: Dahlin, Magnoni and Hutson), Wikimedia Commons (Chunchucmil)
• Pic 7 (bottom): Photo ‘View of possible market area in the site center of Chunchucmil, Yucatan, Mexico’ by Bruce Dahlin, Wikimedia Commons (Chunchucmil Marketplace)
• Pic 8: Photo by and courtesy of Eleanor King
• Pic 9: Photo ‘Tikal, Aerial view of North Acropolis, temple I, II, III and V from temple IV’ by Laslovarga, Wikimedia Commons (Tikal)
• Pic 10: Photo ‘Lahore Canal, picture taken near Ferozepur Road’ by Umer Ghani, Wikimedia Commons (Lahore canal)
• Pic 11: Image ‘Reconstruction of Tikal, 8th century’, from Guatemala, Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Ethnología (no author given), Wikimedia Commons (Mesoamerican architecture)
• Pic 12: Photo (no author given) from ‘Daily life of the ancient Maya recorded on murals at Calakmul, Mexico’ by Ramón Carrasco Vargas, Verónica A. Vázquez López, and Simon Martin, online PNAS article, downloaded from http://www.pnas.org/content/106/46/19245
• Pix 13 & 14: Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 15: Photo by Maricela González C./Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 26th 2018

Professor King’s companion article ‘Maya Markets’

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