Thursday, September 19, 2013

Ancient Trade: 9th Century

Part 2: Transition

As I mentioned in part 1, trade centers changed over time.   In the ninth century A.D., my hypothetical trade route ran from Tikal in the lowlands of Yucatan north through the Toltec capital of Tula (sometimes called Tollon), continued north to the Ancestral Pueblos of Chaco Canyon, then east to the Mississippi River city of Cahokia.
9th Century Trading Centers

The four cultures—Mayan, Toltec, Ancestral Puebloan, and Mississippian Mound Builders—were in transition.   Tikal and Tula were nearing the end of their dominance in their regions, while Chaco Canyon and Cahokia would dominate their regions for centuries to come.

Tikal was the capital of one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya.  Tikal reached its apogee during the Classic Period, ca. 200 to 900 AD. During this time, the city dominated much of the Maya region politically, economically, and militarily, while interacting with areas throughout Mesoamerica including the Toltecs to the north. 

The name “Tikal” was not the name of the city in the 9th century.  It was named Tikal after its discovery in 1840.  It was most likely called Yax Mutal at that time.  The “Mutal” probably refers to
the emblem of the reigning dynasty and roughly means “Hair Knot” referring to the hair knot worn by the “Ahua” or Ruler.  “Yax” means “first”. 

I would like to share with you this description of trade by J. Eric S. Thompson from his book, The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization:

“Throughout Middle America the principal medium of exchange was the cacao bean, with beads of spondylus shell and jade as secondary exchange units.  Cacao made an ideal currency.  Inflation was automatically controlled because if the value of the cacao dropped as a result of overproduction, more beans were taken out of circulation to make chocolate, the appetite for which was insatiable throughout Middle America.  It conformed to the law that the cheaper a desired product, the greater the demand.  Secondly, insect pests and decay made hoarding impossible; the beans shriveled and lost value.  Moreover, only certain localities were suitable for production.

“… Price depended on distance from the orchards.  … Because of its high value, there was regular counterfeiting of cacao money.  The skin of the bean was carefully lifted, the flesh removed and replaced with a wax or earth substitute or pieces of avocado rind were inserted beneath the skin of the bean to give it a well-filled look.

“… Traffic in cacao and other commodities gave rise to a wealthy merchant class.  Much of the trade in the Maya area was by canoe and was in the hands of the Chontal Maya. … Their dugout canoes, capable of holding forty or more people [were eight –feet wide] … maintained a service which girded the whole peninsula of Yucatan."

Items traded within the region were cotton mantles and loincloths from Mexico, wooden swords with pieces of flint or obsidian glued into slots down each side, little copper bells, plates and forges to melt copper, razors or knives of copper, and hatchets of sharp bright-yellow stone with wooden hafts and large quantities of cacao.  There would also have been spondylus shell and jade and salt from the north and northwest coasts of Yucatan.  The center of the canoes had covered galleys where the merchandise was kept and often women and children accompanying the traders rode inside out of the weather.

In the 9th century, these items among others would have been transported to the market in Tikal to be exchanged for exotic items transported in by foreign merchants .  These foreign traders would then haul their valuable bounty to the markets in the north.


  1. As always you spin a fascinating story about a time we know so little. What a contribution you are giving to our knowledge of history. Thank you!

    1. Thank you for the nice comment. I appreciate you.