Mesoamerican Commerce – The Phoenicians of Middle America

Mesoamerican Commerce -
The Phoenicians of Middle America

Written by Tim Hazell




Trade and External Contacts:


Among the Maya from the beginning of the Pre-Classic period  (c. 2000 BC - AD 250), communities were reaching out, often to considerable distances to obtain raw materials or finished goods.  By the time of the Spanish conquest, the Post-Classic (c. AD 950 - 1539) Maya were participants in a widespread network of trade and exchange reaching south as far as Panama and north to Central Mexico.  Columbus, on his fourth voyage of 1502, encountered an Indian canoe near the Bay Islands off Honduras as long as a western galley and 8 feet in width.  The vessel was  filled with cotton cloth of many designs and colors, shorts that reached the knees, flint knives, cloth for cloaks, swords of wood with flakes of flint set along the edges and produce from Honduras, as well as copper axes, bells and cacao beans; the standard Mesoamerican unit of currency.


Analysis of the contents points to a connection with central Mexico for the copper implements, Yucatan for the cotton clothing, and Belize for the cacao beans which had probably been picked up on the way down the coast for shipment back to the Yucatan on the return voyage.  The trip had likely begun in the Gulf of Mexico at the great Maya-Aztec hub of Xicalango on the Laguna de Terminos where land, river and sea routes meet, and was destined for the Gulf of Honduras where similar ports existed at Naco in the Ulua basin and Nito on the Rio Dulce.


The merchants and crew would probably have been Chontal or Put’un Maya from the Laguna de Terminos area, dubbed the “Phoenicians of Middle America.”  The Put’un knew of sites as far down the coast as Panama and Costa Rica.  Mayan sites of gold and gold alloy metalwork from this isthmian area indicate that a movement of goods had become commonplace at least by the Early Classic period (c. AD 200 - 900) at the same time as Mayan influence had begun to be felt along the coast as far southeast as Costa Rica.


We can draw upon both archaeological and etno-historic evidence in studying the role of trade in Mayan culture and the materials traded, the means by which they were transmitted and the motives underlying the exchange system.


“Trade”- a term loosely used which may refer to the direct acquisition of something from its source to exchange with the producer of the source, or to the activities of merchants either peripatetic or based in market centers.  Trade operates on a number of scales, in terms of the distance traveled, bulk of goods carried and nature of the merchandise.


The buying and selling of a current surplus of food - a few dozen eggs or a bag of corn -  to a neighbor in a village market is trade on the local level.  The availability of goods from a range of communities in different environmental zones or with different specialities constitutes regional trade.



The distribution through several regions of goods of restricted origin but wide demand, such as obsidian in both the Middle East and Mesoamerica constitutes long distance trade.  The greater the bulk of the commodity traded and the more widespread its distribution the less distance the commodity will travel.  In contrast to items such as Quetzal feathers, jade and obsidian, which were brought great distances from specific areas of origin, foodstuffs would have probably constituted the bulk of goods in any pre-industrial exchange system, and most would have been locally grown and consumed.  The open-air market represented the chief arena for commerce and exchange of goods as it remains today.  In the Middle East and Africa this is also the way in which commerce is conducted.


Cotton textiles were a highly tradable commodity from the lowland zones and were exported out of the Yucatan in exchange for obsidian, jade and cinnabar of the highlands.  Cacao, another very important and commercial crop, was cultivated at Chetumal on the lower Rio Hondo, the Ulua valley in northwest Honduras and the Pacific Piedmont of Chiapas/Guatemala.


Cacao was brought from the Lubaantun area up into the Veracruz highlands around Cajabon.  This route is still in use today by the Cobanero traders who bring back cacao among their other acquisitions.  Pre-Classic Mayan cacao trading, according to carbon dating of cacao pod rinds recovered from trash deposits at Cuello in northern Belize, may have begun as far back as 1100 BC.


During the rise of great cities of the Classic period such as Uxmal and Palenque, and inspired leadership of kings like Pakal (AD 591-683) and Chan - Balum, the Mayan culture reached its zenith.  This was a time of architecture, sculpture and codices (screenfold books) of exquisite beauty.  Unique among pre-Conquest civilizations, the Maya possessed a logo-syllabic system of 800 individual symbols (glyphs).  Apart from the monumental Popul Vuh, sacred manuscript of the Quiché Maya, we are left with shimmering gems of verse.  These lyric poems speak of love, philosophy, ancient rituals and personal feelings.  They are strikingly modern and reach across the millennia, filled with scents of flowers and jungles that preen and strut.


Here is an excerpt from the Songs of Dzitbalché, Mayan Poetry by Ah Bam, translated by John Curl:


Put on your beautiful clothes;

the day of happiness has arrived!

Comb the tangles from your hair;

put on your most attractive clothes and your splendid leather.

Hang great pendants in the lobes of your ears;

put on a good belt.

String garlands around your shapely throat;

put shining coils on your plump upper arms.

Glorious you will be seen,

for none is more beautiful here in this town, the seat of Dzitbalché!


Yucatan is still very much the heartland of the “Yucatec” Maya—the people who actually call themselves “Maya.”  Here is an authentic Mayan salsa that gets its name because it makes your nose run and become cold and wet like a little dog’s!


Little Dog’s Nose (Xni'-pek')


Seed and chop an habanero chile.  Add chopped onion, garlic, tomato, and any herbs, to taste.  Marinate in lime juice, with salt.


Xni’-pek’ can marinate for up to a day once made.


Salt was produced from production centers with pans for evaporation or pots for boiling and probably packed for transport in leaf wrappers.  Honey and beeswax were important Post-Classic products of the northern lowlands.  The area of Chetumal supported thousands of hives of the native stingless bee, which produces a sweet liquid honey.  Cozumel was also a noted center of agriculture.  Bees were kept in log hives with their ends stoppered by stone or pottery discs.


Obsidian, a kind of volcanic glass gray-black and occasionally green or gold in color, is found in many parts of the world, from New Zealand to eastern Europe and has been exploited for thousands of years because it fractures easily and can be made into tools with a sharp edge or point.  In Asia, the substance was traded over long distances by land and water from about 6000 BC.


Obsidian sources in Mesoamerica have been located in the highland plateaus of central Mexico and the volcanic spine of Guatemala and El Salvador.  Long-distance export of this material had begun before 1000 B.C.  Obsidian begins to appear in Belize about 1300 B.C. and was brought from San Martin Jilotepeque, northwest of Guatemala City, and a trade route down into Peten and downstream on the Pasion-Usumacinta to the west, and down to the Hondo to the northwest.


 Two Major Mayan routes:


Mayan trade depended on two major thoroughfares, one operating over lands and down rivers, the other running up the Carribean coast around the Yucatan Peninsula and linking up with waterways and land routes into the interior.  Trade in metallurgy on a limited scale in the Maya area occurred before AD 550, verified with the discovery of a pendant made of tumbaya, a gold-copper alloy made in Costa Rica and imported into Belize.  The same cache contained shells and pearls that could have come from the gulf of Nicoya on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.


Pottery, a carved mirror with a hieroglyphic inscription, possibly from Tikal, and ornamental jade have all been found in Costa Rica which seems to have been a meeting place for goods and merchants from as far apart as Mesoamerica in the northwest and Colombia in the south.


Metallurgy in the Americas:


Smelting techniques and metal-working began in the Colombia-Panama region, spread from there along sea routes to a receptive secondary center in Mexico were the Mexicans developed their own style in copper and gold goods by the Late Classic period.  At the same time similar goods appeared in the Maya area, some of which were certainly locally made.  Thus the art of metallurgy was introduced to the broad area of southern Mesoamerica and with the Maya in the Post-Classic period a distinctive style began to emerge, with the evidence of lost wax casting and other complex techniques.  This implies the existence of specialist metalsmiths.



Since no copper ores exist in the Maya lowlands, the metal must have been imported, either as ingots or scrap and it has been suggested that northern Honduras was the source.  A repousse gold disc from the cenote of sacrifice at Cichen Itza depicts a scene in Toltec-Mayan style depicting the defeat of Maya by the Toltecs.


Trade during the Classic period of Mayan civilization involving long distances was principally in exotic or elite goods and controlled by a theocracy used to support its position as the ruling class.  Merchants did not exist as a separable socio-political entity, unlike the Pochteca of the Mexican empire.  Most goods likely to have been traded over long distances in the earlier part of the Classic period, were functional in the elite social sense rather than useful in the economic one such as  jade, marine shells, fine pottery vessels and obsidian contributed more to the status of their possessors than to their survival.


However, the skills shown in working some of these materials and the local styles in which exotic goods were sometimes manufactured  from late Pre-Classic period onward does suggest the existence of merchant artisans, carrying their own materials and producing items on commission, comparable to the bronze-smiths of prehistoric Europe.  Merchants may have existed as a class of craftsmen in Pre-Classic and Early Classic periods but not as a distinct stratum of society.


During the Mayan Late Classic and Post-Classic there was a broadening of the trade base with mass production of pottery and bulk produce such as salt and cotton being distributed far beyond their areas of production as economic, not as status goods.  This coincided with the rise of the Put’un merchant traders and suggests they organized centers of production and then channeled all the produce into the circumpeninsular trade route which they monopolized, and which was more cost efficient than the old network of trails and river routes used by small canoes.


From the Early Pre-Classic period onward, the pattern was set for the exchange of goods, both practical and ornamental, between areas of complementary resources, often distances apart.  This marked the pattern of contact between the Maya and their neighbors for the succeeding three millennia.


Native trade and commerce meant a brisk exchange of ideas, customs and oral histories, such as this Quiché Mayan creation myth, along the routes where business was transacted, and in the open-air markets:


“God sent a great flood to destroy the houses of the wooden men.  They wanted to escape, but the animals they had starved and beaten, cooking pots they had burned, and trees whose branches they had chopped off, all turned against them.  A few took to higher ground.  It is said that their descendants are the monkeys.  God took ears of yellow and white corn, ground them into meal and made nine kinds of liquor.  These became man’s strength and energies.  With the dough he sculpted the bodies of four men gifted with intelligence.  While the men slept, he created four women.  When the men awoke, each found a beautiful wife at his side.”


The exotic soul of Yucatecan cooking, red, black and roasted garlic “recados” are incendiary pastes made from chilies, garlic, herbs and spices.  To make a recado, grind all the ingredients very fine, and moisten with enough “bitter orange” juice to make a solid paste, adding salt to taste.  Lime juice or a mix of orange and grapefruit juice works well as a substitute.


Roasted Garlic Recado


20 large garlic cloves

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. black pepper

1/2 tsp. cloves

2 tsp. oregano

Salt to taste

Lime juice



Roast the garlic (broiling in oven, or roasted in foil over open flame).  Peel and mash with the spices and salt. Mix with enough lime juice to make a paste.  Use as a rub for chicken or pork.  Marinate for at least one hour before stewing, grilling or roasting.


The Aztec Pochtecas and Rise of the Middle Class:


Hernán Cortez described the huge Aztec market of Tenochtitlan/Tlatelolco in the economic center of the city as follows:


“The city has many plazas, where there are always markets being held dealing in foodstuffs and all manner of merchandise.  The main plaza in the middle of the city is surrounded by columns.  Day after day 60,000 people congregate here to buy and sell.  Every imaginable kind of merchandise is available from all parts of the empire, foodstuffs and dress, and in addition objects made of gold, silver, copper... precious stones, leather, bone, mussels, coral, cotton, feathers: finely polished and unpolished stones are for sale, burned and unburned clay bricks, chalk, planed and unplanned beams and boards of every description.  In a particular plaza, all sorts of birds are sold: turkeys, wild fowl, quails, ...all kinds of vegetables are also obtainable, salads, onions, garlic, hellebore, artichokes, watercress and so on...  Maize is offered for sale either as a grain or also in loaves.  Game and fish are available raw, cooked or salted...  The various wares may only be sold in the appointed plazas, a rule strictly kept.  Everything is sold by the piece or by measurement, never by weight.”


In the main market there is a law court in which there are always 10 or 12 judges performing their office and taking decisions on all marketing controversies.  They also have the power to administer punishment.  Furthermore overseers always go round and examine the measures of the salesmen and I have frequently seen them taking away a false measure and breaking it.”


The Merchants:


The hereditary aristocracy and the priesthood, military order and the military aristocracy all had, as far as their functions, influence and power were concerned, changed very rapidly during the fifteenth century.  Nevertheless they had still developed organically out of Aztec society.


There was another group however that, for the most part, had forced their way into Tenochtitlan as outsiders, and despite the greatest esteem being shown them by the nobility and close ties that were forged, they were basically to remain outsiders until the fall of the city.  This group was that of the merchants, or Pochteca.


The importance which the people of Mesoamerica attached to commerce is clear from the size and central position of the marketplace.  The huge market of Tlatelolco, although the largest in Mesoamerica, was not exceptional.  By the end of the fifteenth century extensive specialization had taken place in the valley of Mexico.  In the market of Atzcapotzalco slaves were mainly the commodity sold, in Cholollan jewels, stones and feathers.  Certain kinds of pottery were sold in Tetzcoco, dogs in the market of Acolman.


The importance of the market is emphasized by the fact that it had its own gods and laws:


Disputes in the market were referred to permanent market judges, who had power to punish and usually gave verdicts on the spot.  The organization of the market was extremely strict, each item of merchandise only being sold in its appointed spot.  The quality of the commodities was constantly being examined by market inspectors.  It was forbidden for the vendors, under strictest punishment, to buy or sell outside the market.


Spanish chroniclers were astonished that heavily-laden peasants on their way to Tlatelolco refused to sell their merchandise, even when offered more than the usual price.  Trade could only be carried on in the market square.  Currency took the form of cocoa beans, which were still regarded as money equal to the Spanish coins years after the conquest.  They were small, handy, valuable and a special delicacy admirably suited to this purpose.  It’s not possible now to determine wether market prices were fixed or left to the discretion of the vendors.


Only a fraction of those who sold merchandise in the market were Potchteca in the true sense of the word.  The great majority of marketeers consisted of peasants and craftsmen who laid out the products of their work.  There were no middlemen acting between the peasants of the High Valley and the purchaser in the city.


The function of the merchant or Pochteca was more limited.  These were the long-distance traders who imported sought-after products from the distant lowlands into the high central valley or Bajio: feathers, cocoa, cotton textiles, gold, silver, jade, dyes and so on.  Trade between the plateau and the lowlands was many thousands of years old in Mesoamerica.  Long before the rise of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, peoples of the Bajio had tried to obtain the cotton, cocoa and feathers they coveted by barter, if not through conquest.  However, the organization and importance of this trade changed according to whether or not they were lucky enough to have political control over the lowlands or at least the trade routes leading into it.


The great city of Tetzcoco represented the center of artistic and intellectual life of the Mexican plateau, under the rule of its philosopher-king, Netzahualcoyotl or Hungry Coyote (1403 - 1473).  The monarch became, as his later European counterpart, Frederic the Great, a warrior, intellectual and statesman who had a passion for the arts.  Tetzcoco’s dominant role followed the development of a military aristocracy, the increase of its power, and liberation from the daily routines of food production.  Aztec dominion over the Mexican highlands was reinforced after the overthrow of Atzcapotzalco and the formation of the Triple Alliance between Tetzcoco, Tlacopan and the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), in 1428.  This alliance and subsequent conquests resulted in an empire embracing the majority of the population of Mesoamerica at the end of the fifteenth century.


Aztec cooking was characteristic of the Nahua peoples of the Valley of Mexico before the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519.  Their diet included corn, squash, fish, wild game, domesticated turkeys, ducks and dogs.  Rich hosts often entertained company seated in rooms around an open courtyard.  Fragrant tobacco tubes and flowers were distributed before a banquet.  Alone among international cuisines, Mexican gastronomy has been awarded a World Heritage designation, because of its many authentic Pre-Conquest recipes that have come down to us and are still in use, such as this intriguing shrimp stew: 



(Aztec Shrimp Stew)



2 lbs fresh medium shrimp, peeled and de-veined

4 large cloves garlic, smashed and peeled

1 tsp. cumin 

1 cup fresh corn masa dough (available at tortillerias)

4-1/2 cups water

1/3 cup dried shrimp lightly toasted on dry skillet and powdered (opt.)

2 tsp. sugar

2 tsp. salt or to taste

1 tsp. cumin

l/2 tsp cayenne pepper

8 small, unpeeled, cooked and halved new potatoes

1 cup frozen yellow corn kernels

1-15 oz. can whole black beans, drained


Spring onion and limes for garnish

Hot corn tortillas


Place masa dough in a mixing bowl and gradually add 1-1/2 cups hot water.  Let stand 5 minutes to soften, then mash with a fork until the consistency is smooth and fairly thick.  If using whole toasted dry shrimp, pulverize in spice grinder or with mortar and pestle.  Puree the garlic with a little of the liquefied masa in a food processor or blender and return to the mixing bowl.  Pour contents into a large saucepan and add 3 cups hot water.  Bring to the boil, stirring, then reduce to gentle simmer.  Add toasted shrimp powder, salt, sugar, cumin and cayenne pepper and simmer for a further 5 minutes.  Taste and correct seasoning.  Add the shrimp and simmer 3 minutes longer.  Add black beans, corn kernels and potato halves.  Stir gently to combine ingredients and allow to heat through.  Serve tlaxtihuilli in deep bowls topped with sliced spring onion, with limes and hot corn tortillas on the side.


Unlike the lowland Maya, the Aztecs possessed no pack animals and could not take advantage of great waterways.  All trade goods were managed by human porters called tamemes.  This seriously restricted the variety and bulk of merchandise to be handled, resulting in the transportation of high value, exotic and elite items.


Different types of jewelry and feathers were earmarked for the warrior class.  Merchants were forbidden to live more opulently than the classes above them.  However, the Potchteca could indulge themselves with rich banquets to which other merchants and members of the nobility were invited.  This type of extravagance frequently bankrupted the host, who would spend all he had earned to bring himself honor and esteem.


In order to cross enemy provinces, the Potchteca were masters in the art of disguise.  They became the multilingual interpreters of Aztec society.  Merchants also set up strong military convoys, and were united with all the other guilds of the Highland Plateau cities for this purpose.  They occasionally took the role of warriors and make conquests on their own account.


The possibility of accumulating wealth was extremely limited.  Gold coins could be stored indefinitely, but large quantities of cocoa beans or blankets were another matter, nor were the merchants of Mesoamerica in a position to invest their profits in such a way as to revolutionize their economy and ensure decisive political and economic positions for themselves.  Land holdings were a privilege of the nobility, who were almost never inclined to part with them.


State loans did not exist.  The payment of debts was among the duties the state itself controlled, but the individual, with certain exceptions could not pledge his land or house.  The only commodities that could be exchanged in the event of bankruptcy were objects of jewelry, his children or himself.


Therefore the influence of “money-lending” in Mesoamerica was very limited.  Setting up manufacturing industries was not feasible because of the Aztec’s primitive technical development.  Both the state and powerful guilds of the craftsmen obstructed the monopolization of artisan work by the Potchteca.  Strict regulations governed the personal use of the goods they brought back.


A Burgeoning Middle Class:


In spite of these disadvantages, the merchants became the most important purveyors of tropical products to the Bajio region and their influence was considerable.  In Tlatelolco, the Potchteca were predominant and in Tetzcoco they sat with equal rights on the Economic Council of the city, which dealt with all matters of commercial interest.  With the penetration of the Aztecs under the great campaigns of conquest into the lowlands and the economic development of the cities of the plateau, the security of the major trade routes was largely guaranteed and increasing numbers of merchants could go on expeditions.  Problems of payment were gradually facilitated.


Due to the flourishing crafts work in the cities of the plateau, it was now possible to bring raw materials into the valley of Mexico, have them manufactured there in order to re-export them and purchase new products with the profits.  The trade in war booty after successful campaigns must have been ever more lucrative.  State trading in the large capital sums that flowed into the cities of the empire as tribute was also carried out by the merchants who were increasingly required to trade in state merchandise as well as their own.


Large state-equipped expeditions expanded into the small neutral townships that lay between the Maya region and the conquered territories subject to the Triple Alliance.  These hamlets, whose independence from the large cities was respected in order to secure a neutral trading center, were designated outlets for trade.  The merchants demanded a high payment for the increasing services they performed for the Aztec empire.



Merchants’ guilds represented a state within the empire in many ways.  The Potchteca were the only fraternity in Tenochtitlan to possess their own judges and were not subject to state judiciary.  They appointed the presiding officials in the market at Tlatelolco and were granted special privileges in newly conquered territories.  These regions had to hold markets on certain days and were obligated to invite the merchants of the plateau.  A considerable monopoly was granted to the Potchteca in trading with certain Aztec districts and with the Maya across the Aztec border.


Attacks against merchants were punished severely.  If the crime was committed by a city-state, the Aztecs went to war against it.  To protect the merchants, a network of garrisons lined the most important trade routes.  Though they remained outsiders within the socio-political system of the Aztecs, their wealth increased considerably over time.  They were showered with honors and received into Aztec nobility.  Potchteca children attended the calmecac schools and could apply to be received into the order of the Brown Knights. 


The merchant class was still considered to be the last and least esteemed of three possibilities considered by the state to achieve a title to their name and found noble families, the first and surest being to distinguish oneself in battle and the second to enter the priesthood.  Nevertheless, membership in the nobility gave the Potchteca the right to invest their profits in purchasing their own land, which brought them great power and prestige.  A burgeoning middle class was emerging in Mesoamerica at the time of the Spanish conquest.


- Tim Hazell

Sign up to our Newsletter

The Best Mexican Women Writers You Need to Read
Written by Laura Torres


You could say that the most famous Mexican authors are big names such as Octavio Paz and Juan Rulfo. However, the rich tapestry of Mexican literature just wouldn’t be the same without some of its most iconic female writers too. From well-respected journalists to up-and-coming novelists and practically legendary playwrights, if you’re looking for some new literary inspiration, then read on for our guide to the ten best female Mexican writers that everyone should be reading...




An introduction to Frida Kahlo in 9 Artworks
Written by Laura Torres


Frida Kahlo is arguably Mexico’s most famed, iconic artist. From her monobrow to her flower adorned hairstyles, her distinctive aesthetics garnered almost as much interest as her artwork that was dominated by self-portraiture; of her estimated 140 paintings, 55 are self-portraits. While many considered her a surrealist, Kahlo rejected that title, as her work was immensely autobiographical that focused on Mexicanidad (Mexicanness), the culture and tradition of her beloved patria (homeland) and compellingly introspective subject matter. Here’s a chronological introduction to this fascinating artist in nine artworks...








A Guide to Mexico's Pueblos Mágicos
Written by Luis García


Mexico’s pueblos mágicos programme was developed by the tourist board in order to promote the rich cultural heritage and history of Mexico through smaller, once overlooked towns. Each of the 111 towns currently recognised as pueblos mágicos offer something a little different, whether that’s fantastic architecture, stunning natural wonders or even just great regional food. With that in mind, here’s your guide to just 11 of the best pueblos mágicos in the country...