Mayan economy was a loosely-tied system of trades which defined the commercial activities of the Mayan city-states. Mayans didn’t have a currency of their own and they lacked any coins, so any trade exchanges took place in the form of certain products or services. Typically, Mayans used agricultural produce, obsidian, different handicrafts and other items in their trade. These products were traded for such items as were more needed by the Mayans but didn’t exist in their regions. Mayans also produced many agriculture-related tools which they traded with other cities. In exchange, Mayans would get items such as cocoa and marine foods.
The social economy of individual Mayan city-states was fairly complex and yet quite organised. The society was typically divided into commoners, the craftsmen and the nobility. The commoners normally limited themselves to working on agriculture. Those of them who acquired valuable skills rose to the ranks of craftsmen and earned more prestige. The craftsmen produced various items such as prestigious objects made with obsidian and jade, ceramics, sculptures and different kinds of art. The production of the agricultural lands as well as those of the craftsmen was overlooked by a nobility who then decided how to utilise them. Typically, the utilisation of these objects was done so that some of them were used locally while others were traded with other cities in return for different products.
Smaller Mayan cities had a free market structure where they openly traded different objects. In larger cities, such a marketplace was well-managed and usually controlled and overlooked by the local authorities. Since there was no currency and no definite scale for prices, they varied significantly as the traded objects travelled farther from their region of production. Merchants were an important social class in many Mayan cities. They helped fulfil the demands of the Mayan elite and furnished different products for them.
The single most important subsistence item for the Mayan society was maize. Mayans depended heavily on rainfall-based agriculture to grow enough quantities of maize. But in periods of drought or little rainfall, they had to trade with other cities and import vast quantities of maize in order to meet their needs. Other food items were also commonly traded, such as cocoa beans, fish and other types of seafood, chili pepper. Fruits such as avocado were also commonly traded between Mayan cities. Cocoa was typically traded by Mayan cities living in a typical rainforest environment to other Mayan cities who didn’t live in a region where cocoa could be grown, and to other non-Mayan cities as well.
Mayans created a number of art pieces and handiworks using different precious items such as gold, jade, copper and obsidian. These items were abundantly found in many Mayan cities. Mayan would excavate them and then get their craftsmen to work on them diligently, working out meticulously crafted items. These items were used by the nobility of the Mayan cities and traded to non-Mayan cities as well where the rich elite bought them as a sign of status. Other prestige items included turquoise, obsidian, salt and quetzal feathers. The large volume of trade of such prestige items significantly contributed to the overall Mayan economy.
Mayans built long-running causeways called sacbe in order to facilitate trade between cities. Causeways were frequently built between allied cities so that merchants and travellers journeying between them would not have to face any problem. These causeways were lined with limestone stucco, giving them a white colour which made them visible to travellers even at night. Among well-known Mayan sacbes is the causeway between Uxmal and Kabah. Recent researches have revealed that the longest running causeway built by the Mayans was from Tiho to the Caribbean Sea, running for a length of 300 km.
Although Mayans didn’t have any set form of a currency, cocoa was used as a highly valued object. It was used as a way of measuring the price of different objects in Mayan marketplaces. According to early Spanish explorers in the Mayan regions, a tomato was priced at the value of one cocoa bean, a pumpkin was priced at the value of 4 cocoa beans, a turkey egg costs 3 cocoa beans, a rabbit cost 100 cocoa beans and a slave was worth 1000 cocoa beans. Because of their universal appeal and consumption in nearly every city as a luxury item, cocoa items were traded far and wide by the Mayans. Such Mayans cities which didn’t have access to them imported them specifically for consumption by the nobility.
Although many Mayan cities were located at a long distance from sea, their trade routes enabled them to import seafood and other marine objects from distant lands. This has been confirmed by the recovery of sea shells from the sites of many Mayan cities. In some cases, the sea shells have been shaped into squares or clustered together as necklaces. This had led some researchers to believe that Mayans may have used seashells as a possible currency, given its easily portability and high value. However, unlike cocoa, there is no definite proof supporting this theory.
Mayans were an agrarian society who traded in subsistence items such as maize and fruits. In any Mayan city, the commoners were directly engaged with agricultural lands and ensured sufficient harvests if it adequately rained. These items were imported by such Mayan cities who couldn’t grow enough crops in a given year to meet their food needs. Craftsmen were another vital part of the Mayan economy. The Mayans worked on items such as jade, obsidian, turquoise and gold. These objects were abundantly found in Mayan regions. Mayan craftsmen turned them into precious artefacts which were then exported to many other cities as part of trade deals. Mayans also traded frequently in cocoa beans, vanilla and chili peppers. Although they lacked a definite currency, cocoa was frequently used to price other objects.