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Mayans Employed Market-Based Economics
Maya people traded products for more than 500 years in the highlands of central Guatemala, with little interference from their kings.
According to a recent study published in the journal Latin American Antiquity1, the Mayan K'iche' elite in power had a hands-off attitude to controlling the trade and acquisition of obsidian by those outside of their area of central control. Locals in these regions controlled access to adjacent supplies of obsidian, a glass-like rock used to build tools and weapons, through separate and varied acquisition networks. Over time, a system that is remarkably similar to modern market-based economies emerged as a result of the accessibility of obsidian resources and the predominance of craftspeople to mold it. Rachel Horowitz, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of anthropology at Washington State University said,
"Scholars have generally assumed that the obsidian trade was managed by Maya rulers, but our research shows that this wasn't the case at least in this area. People seem to have had a good deal of economic freedom including being able to go to places similar to the supermarkets we have today to buy and sell goods from craftsmen."
While the Maya Post-classic Period (1200–1524 AD) leaves behind significant written documents on political structure, little is known about how society elites exercised economic power. By looking at the manufacturing and distribution of obsidian artifacts, which are used as a proxy by archeologists to gauge the degree of economic development in a location, Horowitz set out to fill this knowledge vacuum for the K'iche'. She examined obsidian items unearthed from 50 sites near the K'iche' city of Q'umarkaj and its environs using geochemical and technological studies to ascertain the provenance of the raw material and the manufacturing processes used.
Her findings revealed that the Central K'iche' region and Q'umarkaj were similar sources from which the K'iche' obtained their obsidian, demonstrating a high level of centralization. Based on its availability in these key locations, the ruling class also appeared to control the commerce of more expensive non-local obsidian, particularly Pachua obsidian from Mexico.
However, there was less resemblance in the obsidian commercial networks outside of this core zone, in the territories that the K'iche had taken over. According to Horowitz's analysis, these locations had access to their own obsidian resources and established specialized shops where people could go to purchase blades and other practical objects carved from the rock by experts. She said,
"For a long time, there has been this idea that people in the past didn't have market economies, which when you think about it is kind of weird. Why wouldn't these people have had markets in the past? The more we look into it, the more we realize there were a lot of different ways in which these peoples' lives were similar to ours."
Horowitz received a loan of the obsidian blades and other artifacts she needed for her investigation from Tulane University's Middle American Research Institute. In the 1970s, the relics were unearthed. Horowitz stated that she will continue to look at more of the collection, the most of which is kept in Guatemala, in order to learn more about the Maya's trade practices, economic structures, and general way of life.