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The Travels of Maya Merchants in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries AD: Investigations at Xuenkal and the Greater Cupul Province, Yucatan, Mexico


Abstract and Figures

The region between the Maya capital of Chichen Itza and its port site on the Gulf of Mexico was one of the most heavily traversed landscapes during the Classic period. Vast quantities of trade goods were conveyed inland from the coast on the backs of long-distance traders. This study explores the experiences of these traders as they transported raw materials such as shell and obsidian as well as finished ornaments to the urban center in exchange for salt from the northern salt beds of Yucatan. We utilize archaeological data from sites along this trade route with a focus on Xuenkal, where we have conducted excavations into the nature of regional changes during the expansion of Chichen Itza since 2004. Archaeological data coupled with view-shed and travel-time analyses provide a nuanced perspective on the travel experiences of the traders who maintained one important component of the Classic Maya economy.
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The travels of Maya merchants in the
ninth and tenth centuries AD:
investigations at Xuenkal and the
Greater Cupul Province, Yucatan, Mexico
Traci Ardren and Justin Lowry
The region between the Maya capital of Chichen Itza and its port site on the Gulf of Mexico was one
of the most heavily traversed landscapes during the Classic period. Vast quantities of trade goods
were conveyed inland from the coast on the backs of long-distance traders. This study explores the
experiences of these traders as they transported raw materials such as shell and obsidian as well as
finished ornaments to the urban center in exchange for salt from the northern salt beds of Yucatan.
We utilize archaeological data from sites along this trade route with a focus on Xuenkal, where we
have conducted excavations into the nature of regional changes during the expansion of Chichen Itza
since 2004. Archaeological data coupled with view-shed and travel-time analyses provide a nuanced
perspective on the travel experiences of the traders who maintained one important component of the
Classic Maya economy.
Traders; exchange; landscape; Maya; Chichen Itza; Xuenkal.
Long-distance trade is well established as a central component of Classic Maya culture
due to chemical and stylistic analyses of the varied materials that moved throughout
southern Mesoamerica from 200 to 1200 CE. But relatively little attention has been
paid to the people who transported these goods, despite images of traders in pre-
hispanic books and Spanish ethnohistoric descriptions of Maya trading caravans
´n 1959 [1502]; Morris 1931). The ancient Maya landscape was filled with a variety
World Archaeology Vol. 43(3): 428–443 The Archaeology of Travel and Communication
ª2011 Taylor & Francis ISSN 0043-8243 print/1470-1375 online
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of specialists who contributed unique skills within the greater cultural system. Long-
distance traders form one set of specialists for whom we have a variety of data, from
the distances and conditions under which they travelled, to the quantities and nature of
the goods they transported. This article utilizes data from the northern Maya Cupul
trade corridor, and especially the site of Xuenkal located at the midpoint between the
urban center of Chichen Itza and its port facility along the Gulf of Mexico, to
reconstruct the travels of Classic Maya traders. A focus on this particular aspect of the
ancient northern Maya landscape illuminates the interrelationships between people,
cultural practices and their environmental settings.
The coastal-inland interaction sphere
Despite a subsistence economy centered on maize agriculture, Classic Maya society was
deeply dependent upon an extensive system of marine trade and transport. The
Mesoamerican ‘holy trinity’ of corn, bean and squash agriculture was supplemented with
marine proteins in the coastal zone while un-worked and worked marine shell products
were traded deep into the interior of the lowlands, based on their recovery at many inland
archaeological sites (Sua
´rez 2007). The sea and sea products played a central role in
ancient Maya cosmology, and items such as spondylus shell bivalves, stingray spines and
shark teeth were required ritual items for elite members of Classic society, even those who
lived many hundreds of kilometers from the coast. Yet, as Finamore and Houston stated
recently, ‘the Maya thought about the sea more frequently than most of them encountered
it physically’ (2010: 16), a reflection of the fact that the bulk of Maya settlement is
landlocked deep in tropical jungle environments without easy access to the coast. Most
scholars agree that the bulk of trade in exotic goods moved along the long expanse of
easily navigable microenvironments such as estuaries, bays and barrier islands that
characterize the Maya coastline.
Long-distance trade between major environmental areas in both daily commodities and
exotic imports is well documented in the material record (Masson and Freidel 2002;
McKillop 2005; Mock 1997). Critical utilitarian goods from the highlands of Guatemala
and central Mexico, such as basalt grinding stones and obsidian blades, were traded
throughout the entire lowland region. But most commodities, such as food, cloth and
utilitarian ceramics, were available locally and long-distance trade was concerned most
visibly with the movement of items necessary for ritual or elite status-enhancing
performances. Both overland and sea transport relied upon human carriers; there were no
domesticated pack animals in Classic times and depictions of ancient traders wearing
heavy back racks full of items are known from elite pottery and native books (Fig. 1).
Movement over long distances was greatly facilitated by long wooden dugout canoes,
described by the Spanish at contact as holding up to twenty-five oarsmen plus cargo
´n 1959 [1502]). Examples of these canoes have not been recovered archaeologically
although McKillop (2007) found a wooden canoe paddle preserved in mangrove muck and
images of canoes, oarsmen and traders are known from the murals of Chichen Itza
(Fig. 2).
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A member of the fourth voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1502, Ferdinand Colo
described a large seagoing canoe of Maya or Maya-related people encountered in the Bay
Islands off modern Honduras:
By good fortune there arrived at that time a canoe long as a galley and eight feet wide,
made of a single tree trunk like the other Indian canoes; it was freighted with
merchandise from the western regions around New Spain. Amidships it had a palm-leaf
awning like that which the Venetian gondolas carry; this gave complete protection
against the rain and waves. Under this awning were the children and women and all the
baggage and merchandise. There were twenty-five paddlers aboard, but they offered no
resistance when our boats drew up to them.
´n 1959 [1502]: 231–2)
Figure 1 Maya trader gods (God L) with backrack, Madrid Codex (drawing by Justin P. Lowry).
430 Traci Ardren and Justin Lowry
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The Spanish description of goods onboard the canoe matches the material evidence found
at Classic period sites. Colo
´n mentions bolts of cotton and clothing, flint knives and other
weapons, ceramic vessels, copper ornaments, stone (possibly jade) beads and cacao beans,
all of which were fundamental components of the ancient trade between competing elite
dynasties located in different environmental zones. Coastal canoe trade has been
documented from the earliest periods of occupation in the Maya area at Late Preclassic
(400 BCE–200 CE) sites such as Cerros and Komchen through European contact, although
it reached a peak of intensity during the Terminal Classic period (800–1100 CE) (Andrews
and Mock 2002; Freidel et al. 2002). It was at this time that the urban city of Chichen Itza
grew to power through control of a commercialized economy built upon trade networks
that extended throughout Mesoamerica coupled with the extraction of key local resources
such as salt (Andrews et al. 1989; Cobos 2007).
The Cupul trade corridor
Since 2004, the Proyecto Arqueolo
´gico Xuenkal, or PAX, has investigated the cultural and
environmental landscape of the area known in early ethnohistoric accounts as the Cupul
region, a 4000 sq km corridor between the ancient city of Chichen Itza and the Gulf of
Mexico coast (Fig. 3). Research in 1988 by the Cupul Survey Project identified the port
facility for Chichen Itza, a small island site 200m in diameter known as Isla Cerritos,
100km north-northeast of the urban center (Andrews et al. 1989). Seventy-five other sites
Figure 2 Traders and goods in canoes, Upper Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza, Yucatan,
Mexico (drawing by Justin P. Lowry based on watercolor by Anne Axtell Morris (1931)).
The travels of Maya merchants 431
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Figure 3 Cupul survey region with archaeological sites, rank I–V. Adapted from the Cupul Survey
Map (Andrews et al. 1989) with basemap SRTM elevation model (courtesy SRTM Team NASA/
432 Traci Ardren and Justin Lowry
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were located through survey in the intervening plains leading to the mangrove forests of
the Gulf, and the presence of non-local trade goods at many of these sites demonstrated
the involvement of the region in long-distance, rather than down the line, exchange
(McKillop 1996; Renfrew 1977). Three of these sites were of semi-urban proportions,
eleven were towns of smaller proportions and the rest were rural settlements. Xuenkal, one
of the semi-urban centers, is situated 60km from the coast, mid-way between Chichen Itza
and Isla Cerritos. It has proven to be a perfect location from which to explore the nature
of economic and political changes in the region during the expansion of the polity centered
at Chichen. Artifactual evidence for intensified craft production, architectural evidence for
defensive features and a very high percentage of imported trade goods previously known
primarily from Chichen Itza have provided a dynamic perspective on the political and
economic transformations that occurred at this key settlement in the Cupul region during
the Terminal Classic period (Ardren et al. 2010).
Finding ancient Maya traders in the Cupul region
Goods are moved by people and trade is essentially an extension of interpersonal
relationships (Oka and Kusimba 2008). Previous scholarship has not established whether
the scale and intensity of long-distance trade in the Maya region necessitated full-time
specialists, perhaps a merchant class, although this has been suggested for later periods
(Masson and Freidel 2002; McAnany 2010; Sabloff and Rathje 1975). There is little evidence
that the majority of ancient Maya people ever traveled far from their original homes,
although elites often visited neighboring dynasties for feasting, ballgame events and other
royal ceremonies. Merchants were some of the only other members of society who regularly
traveled any distance and thus had some familiarity with vastly different environmental zones
and social settings. This specialized set of skills and local knowledge facilitated the movement
of goods between temperate zones and tropical lowlands as well as in and out of large urban
centers. By utilizing landscape and archaeological data from PAX in conjunction with the
results of prior research within the Cupul region, we offer a more detailed exploration of the
specialized knowledge and experiences of traders in this particular part of the Maya world.
Landscape analysis
Merchants who arrived at the coastal site of Isla Cerritos bound for the urban capital of
Chichen Itza had to choose the route they would travel. Andrews et al. (1989: 94)
suggested two likely routes based on the presence of ceramics associated with the capital.
The decision to take the eastern or western route might have been made for many of the
same reasons merchants choose a route today – considerations of ease, familiarity and
supplies all play a part. These deliberations take place within a context of specialized
knowledge about the landscape, including climate, fauna and topography.
An examination of the geological terrain through which ancient traders travelled is a
valuable key to understanding their specialized knowledge. Between Isla Cerritos and
Chichen Itza there are four distinct geological zones (Weidie 1985). The beach is a narrow
The travels of Maya merchants 433
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strip of sand and dunes; there is no fresh water and few other resources beyond those
available in the sea. In the tidal zone of lagoons and marshes there are some fresh or
brackish water sources although few were suitable for human consumption. The tidal zone
in Yucatan is primarily comprised of mangrove forests and sawgrass with mucky soils and
abundant wildlife that presented serious challenges to overland transport. These zones
have naturally occurring channels that were augmented by historic people to facilitate the
removal of timber by canoe and it has been suggested that some of these channels may
have existed prior to European contact (Andrews 2008; Millet 1985).
Approximately 5–8km inland from the coast is the transition from the tidal zone to the
higher elevation of the central northern geological zone, which has a drier climate. A
slightly hilly karst landscape is the result of large diameter solution holes (natural
depressions) in the limestone substrata. Fresh water is still scarce in this zone and a
traveler would have to know available sources and plan a route accordingly. In some
senses this zone was the most difficult to traverse as it has hilly terrain, open bedrock, little
water and the first dense settlement of potentially hostile occupants. A large semi-urban
pre-hispanic site, Panaba, was located within the central northern zone.
South of Panaba the elevation continued to rise slightly as travelers reached the central
interior flatlands that surround greater Chichen Itza. This karst zone has generally smaller
solution holes, larger areas of deep soil and a greater incidence of caverns. In pre-hispanic
periods, this zone would have supported the highest forest on the peninsula with fresh
water available in caverns and solution holes. Despite a sizable pre-hispanic population,
plant and animal products from the high forest, such as birds, feathers, thatch and other
housing materials, game animals, medicinal plants and tree fruits, were plentiful.
Our analysis of the Cupul regional landscape indicates the presence of pre-hispanic sites
at the transition between each major geological zone. There are three sites at the most
dramatic geological transition, from beach to tidal forest; Isla Cerritos, Paso de Cerro and
Chinalco. The large semi-urban site of Panaba, now destroyed by modern settlement, was
located at the transition from the central northern zone to the drier central interior zone.
Together with the intermediate settlement San Ramon de los Cerros, these sites form a
travel corridor through the most challenging environments faced by ancient traders.
Choosing to travel from site to site maximized the safety and reliability of travel in a
region of open yet seasonally inundated plains.
The sites listed above make up the northern component of the eastern corridor between
the coast and Chichen Itza. This corridor continues south to the sites of Xlacah, Xuenkal,
Ichmul de Morley and finally to Chichen Itza. Naturally flat topography coupled with the
large pre-hispanic constructions of northern Yucatan provide a cultural landscape that is
well suited to visibility studies and view-shed analysis reveals a component of the
specialized knowledge held by travelers through this region. Our analysis suggests traders
were able to sight a pathway of way-station settlements along the route from Isla Cerritos
to Chichen. A person standing 2m above the ground surface can see 5.1km to the horizon,
barring obstructions, because of the nature of the curvature of the earth. That same person
at 10m above the ground surface can see 11.3km to the horizon, which is consistent with
the experience of a pre-hispanic person standing at the summit of the largest mounds at
San Ramon de los Cerros, Panaba and Xlacah. At 30m above the ground surface, which is
possible given the architecture at Xuenkal and Chichen Itza, a person can see 19.6km to
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the horizon. These distances are based on the assumption that the object the person is
sighting is at ground surface. If, however, one is sighting from Xuenkal to Chichen Itza,
both of which have 30m-high pyramids, it is possible to see as far as 39km to the horizon,
doubling the visible distance, based on the elevation provided by monumental
architecture. Travelers could have planned each leg of their journey by utilizing
monumental architecture at way-station sites along the travel corridor. These view-shed
measurements are applicable during daylight hours and could have been augmented by the
use of signal fires at night. As seen in Figure 4, given that there are seven way-station sites
within the 100km between Isla Cerritos to Chichen, a traveling merchant could sight each
subsequent large settlement within the eastern travel corridor. The ability to utilize this
navigational aid was still dependent upon specialized knowledge of approximate direction
to gain the correct bearing and gauge distance.
Travel-time estimates also correlate with the way-station model proposed above. Based
on personal experience, a young person carrying 20–25kg, or a relatively light burden, can
easily travel 20–25km per day in the northern Yucatecan plains (A. P. Andrews, pers.
comm. 2010). For the purposes of this analysis we assume that a fit ancient trader could
travel a maximum of 35km per day on foot. Within these parameters a merchant could
travel from Isla Cerritos to Chichen Itza along a direct route in three days (Fig. 5). Given
the social landscape it is more appropriate to assume travelers would include settlements
as part of their journey. From Chinalco, the beginning of the overland route on dry land,
one could pass all the way to Panaba (25km) in a day easily carrying 25kg of trade goods.
On that same journey, the leg from Panaba to Xuenkal (36km) would be more challenging;
however, one could rest in Xlacah and continue to Chichen the third day or stop in
Xlacah, travel to Ichmul de Morley the third day and arrive in Chichen on the fourth. This
straight travel-time analysis does not account for trading activities at each of the
settlements along the corridor. While traders may have been able to make the trip from
Isla Cerritos to Chichen in three days, and perhaps did so on their northern journey back
to the coast from the capital when they were free of trade goods, the southern journey is
more likely to have taken five days or more given the evidence for trade items at many of
the sites along the route (see below). Familiarity might allow travel time through the
Figure 4 View-shed map of trade corridor indicating relative height of monuments at each site from
Chichen Itza to Gulf of Mexico, horizontal axis compressed.
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Figure 5 Eastern travel corridor from Isla Cerritos to Chichen Itza with foot travel estimates.
Adapted from the Cupul Survey Map (Andrews et al. 1989) with basemap SRTM elevation model
(courtesy SRTM Team NASA/JPL/NIMA).
436 Traci Ardren and Justin Lowry
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region to be shortened, but the physical limitations of foot travel with a back rack or
tumpline would have militated against shortening the trip to less than three days.
Archaeological evidence
Large wooden canoes were heavily laden when they arrived at the port facility of Isla
Cerritos on the north coast of the Yucatan peninsula, given the quantity of trade items
recovered from sites within the Cupul region. The island is located 500m from the coast at
the mouth of a long estuary and would have been easily visible to shallow water vessels
moving along the coast of the peninsula (Andrews 1995: 16). Submerged evidence of
docking facilities was discovered on the south side of the island by Andrews and indicates
that canoes could have been unloaded and harbored (Andrews 1995: 17).
Given the high quantities of non-local materials found at Isla Cerritos, our current
model of coastal trade in the Terminal Classic period hypothesizes that canoes were filled
with trade goods from outside the peninsula when they arrived at Isla Cerritos and then
returned to other parts of Mesoamerica filled with the primary natural resource of the
peninsula, high-quality salt. At Isla Cerritos excavations revealed exotic materials that
had previously been found only at Chichen Itza, such as gold ornaments from Central
America and turquoise from northern Mexico or the southwestern United States
(Andrews 1995: 23). Research on this small island site also documented vast quantities of
more common non-local trade goods such as jade ornaments and basalt grinding stones
from the highlands of Guatemala as well as high-fired Plumbate pottery that was
manufactured many thousands of kilometers to the south in Chiapas, Mexico (Neff and
Bishop 1988).
Merchants bringing goods to Chichen Itza from Isla Cerritos may have been housed in
the large open buildings on the island known as gallery patios (Cobos 2007; Ruppert
1950). This civic architecture has been found only at these two closely related sites within
the Cupul corridor, and would have been familiar to traders who frequented the urban
capital. Gallery-patio architecture is open and accessible, with long rectangular rooms,
supporting columns and a perishable roof.
To begin their journey to the regional capital, traders likely loaded the grinding stones,
ceramics, shell and smaller precious ornaments into net bags which were secured to
wooden back racks and tumplines, as seen in Postclassic period depictions of God L, the
merchant deity (Fig. 1). God L is always shown wearing a wide-brimmed hat made of
woven plant material and his body is often black, perhaps to indicate the effects of
prolonged exposure to the sun (Taube 1992: 79). Tumpline transport limits the weight that
can be carried to approximately 38–40kg (Reina and Hill 1978: 208).
Once on the mainland, traders headed to Chichen Itza would first have passed through
the small hamlet Paso de Cerro, where salt workers lived in small domestic structures and
tended evaporative saltpans (Andrews 1995: 18). Andrews and colleagues found evidence
of artificial walkways that cross the coastal swamp and lead to higher ground inland in the
area around Paso de Cerro. One of these walkways led to a fresh water source east of the
site, a feature of obvious importance to long-distance traders (Andrews 1995: 18). Three
kilometers south of Paso de Cerro is a small site known as Chinalco that Andrews
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described as a farming settlement that may have provided plant and animal products such
as deer meat to the occupants of Isla Cerritos (Andrews 1995: 19).
When the traders reached the city of Xuenkal, mid-way along their journey to the
capital, they deposited trade goods at twenty specialized craft production platforms within
the site center. As a result of five seasons of fieldwork and excavation we have documented
a shift in material culture and architecture closely associated with the expanding cultural
influence of Chichen Itza within the Cupul region (Ardren et al. 2010; Manahan et al. in
press). Settlement from this period at Xuenkal shifts from dispersed residences to large
free-standing platforms clustered in the center of the urban settlement (Fig. 6). Terminal
Classic platforms contain not only the greatest concentration of ceramics associated with
Chichen Itza, but also long-distance trade goods such as Central Mexican obsidian and
Plumbate pottery. The latest construction phase at these platforms is frequently an
assortment of low, rectangular structures elevated slightly from the surface to support
masonry constructions on their summit. Abundant middens with domestic ceramics,
ground stone, faunal remains and craft debitage indicate these platforms were multi-
crafting residential areas (Ardren et al. in press).
Over 90 per cent of Terminal Classic period ceramics from Xuenkal are from the Sotuta
ceramic complex believed to originate at Chichen and these materials are found across the
site although in highest frequencies at the craft production platforms (Smith 1971). New
Sotuta complex ceramic forms such as grater bowls suggest the introduction of new
cuisines that certainly traveled to Xuenkal and other sites within the Cupul region in the
hands and minds of merchants. Introduced ceramic forms made in local pastes are a clear
indication of the influence traders had on daily domestic life outside the capital.
Production stage analysis of the shell artifacts conducted by Alejandra Alonso indicates
that a majority of the materials found at Xuenkal are in the intermediate stage of
production, with only small percentages of raw or finished materials present in the
platform samples (Alonso et al. in press). Alonso also identified the origin of shell
materials recovered from these workshops and found that, while the majority of materials
were from the Caribbean, some came from as far away as the Pacific coast of Mexico
(Alonso et al. in press: 8). Thus we suggest traders delivered unfinished commodities such
as obsidian and chert cores, as well as shell forms and probably other perishable craft
materials, to the craftspeople of Xuenkal, and may have received in return finished
products for delivery to the ruling elite of the capital.
Given the lack of gallery-patio structures at Xuenkal and the high percentages of trade
goods found at the Sotuta phase platforms, traveling merchants might have been housed
near the workshop areas atop these platforms. The spatial organization of the modest
structures on the summit of the platforms, which include multiple domestic buildings
around open working areas filled with craft debris, suggests shared intra-familial or intra-
domestic economic activities. In the intensified economy of the Terminal Classic period,
such spaces may not have been shared by members of the same extended family, but rather
by those engaged in complementary economic activities, such as exchange and production.
Traders also left exotic objects such as Plumbate pottery, jade beads and copper
ornaments at Xuenkal, perhaps in the hands of the Itza-affiliated elites who administered
the site during this period, although the precise mechanisms of political governance at the
site during the expansion of Chichen Itza have yet to be fully elucidated. An absence of
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gallery-patio architecture at Xuenkal suggests to us that the existing resident population at
the site was absorbed, perhaps forcibly, into the political and economic sphere of Chichen
without an effort to construct architectural frameworks or spaces that conveyed Chichen
leadership. The architectural disjunction between Isla Cerritos/Chichen Itza and Xuenkal
suggests a different cultural experience for traders who visited Xuenkal, where modest
production spaces were emphasized over monumental gallery-patio complexes.
Upon reaching the northern periphery of Chichen Itza, traders would have encountered
small settlements with familiar architecture as far as 2.5km north of the heart of the city
Figure 6 Terminal Classic period platforms at Xuenkal, Yucatan, Mexico (drawing by T. Kam
Manahan and Justin P. Lowry).
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(Cobos 2007: 334). These outlying centers had gallery-patio structures, and many of these
settlements were connected to the urban core of Chichen by raised roads or causeways
(Cobos 2007: 327). It is unclear whether outlying gallery-patio groups were used for
housing traveling merchants or their wares but certainly the ideological message was clear:
the merchants had arrived at their destination.
Those traders who arrived in the city of Chichen Itza around the year AD 900 would
have encountered a massive amount of architectural construction. From the outlying
settlements and causeways to the very center of the city itself, the leaders of the capital
were constructing new performance spaces for collective rituals key to the urban identity
of this particular city. Earlier traditions of long hieroglyphic texts and detailed portraits of
kings gave way to new means of expressing political authority through extensive building
programs that included massive architectural constructions and vast open plazas. Some of
these architectural features would have been familiar to long-distance traders who might
have seen similar skull racks, colonnaded halls and sculptured panels at the site of Tula in
central Mexico or El Tajin on the southern Gulf coast, although the buildings at Chichen
are a unique version of what has been called the pan-Mesoamerican style of the Epiclassic
period (Kowalski 2007; Ringle et al. 1998). Likewise, traders would have recognized a set
of ceramic forms used at these sites linked by long-distance trade and shared participation
in a tradition of rituals of inclusion. In this period, frying pan, spiked and openwork
censers were found throughout a string of Mesoamerican sites that never had these
traditions before (Bey and Ringle 2007: 415). Likewise the use of griddle and grater-bowl
domestic wares was introduced to Chichen from the cities of central Mexico, perhaps via
the appetites of traders and merchants (Bey and Ringle 2007; Smith 1971).
In addition to new rituals and ways of eating, cities within the pan-Mesoamerican style
of the Epiclassic may have been the origin of the traders themselves who brought goods
long-distance into Chichen. The names of high-ranking men married to local elite women
appear in hieroglyphic inscriptions of this period at Chichen and some have suggested that
these men were not just warrior elite but also a merchant elite (Grube and Krochock 2007:
223). Ringle et al. (1998) have argued that the flow of exotic goods through the major cities
of the Epiclassic, including Chichen Itza, was driven by the participation of the leaders of
these cities in a shared religious cult of the Feathered Serpent, an order that may have
relied upon merchants as members or key proselytizers. Given the dominance of military
imagery in the elite artwork of Chichen, we suggest traders operated under the strict
control of a military order or dominant governing structure rather than as the leaders of
these cities, but further investigation of the lives of the ruling elite of Chichen Itza and
other Epiclassic cities could shed important light on the question of how merchants
participated in political control of the population.
Coastal trade was crucially important in ancient Maya civilization, both to elites who were
dependent upon exotic prestige-enhancing goods, and also to the movement of basic
commodities such as obsidian. Often this extensive system of trade and exchange has been
reconstructed without attention to the individuals who were responsible for securing,
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transporting and delivering such materials. The area between the urban capital of Chichen
Itza and the coast was one of the most traveled trade routes of the Classic period, and the
ancient settlement distribution reflects this. A study of the geological conditions and view
sheds of the Cupul region shows the location of ancient sites facilitated foot travel through
the region. Archaeological evidence from Xuenkal and other nearby sites demonstrates the
relationship traders had with regional centers, not just the port site and capital.
A focus on the daily experiences of the specialists who moved trade goods throughout
the Maya area adds a new dimension to the study of ancient economies. Travel conditions
were an integral part of the establishment and maintenance of long-distance trade
networks. The landscape through which traders moved was neither the determining factor
nor an invisible component of these economic activities, but rather was culturally shaped
and understood by individual merchants with a deep and specialized knowledge of their
We wish to thank all the members of the Proyecto Arqueolo
´gico Xuenkal, past and
present, including Co-Director T. Kam Manahan, property owner Alejandro Patron
Laviata and the citizens of Espita, especially Miguel Rosado Kuk. Field research was
supported with funding from the National Science Foundation (grants OISE-0502306 and
BCS-0852233), FAMSI (grant 05064), the Offices of the Provost and Dean of the College
of Arts and Sciences of the University of Miami and Kent State University. Research was
conducted under the auspices of the Instituto Nacional de Antropologı
´a e Historia, Dra.
Nelly Garcia Robles, Presidente del Consejo de Arqueologı
´a. The comments of two
anonymous reviewers greatly improved this manuscript; however, the authors retain all
responsibility for errors of interpretation.
Traci Ardren
University of Miami
Justin Lowry
State University of New York, Albany
Alonso, A., Manahan, T. K., Vela
´zquez, A., Zun
˜iga, B., Valentı
´n, M. and Ardren, T. in press.
´lisis de las te
´cnicas de manufactura de los objetos de concha de Xuenkal, Yucata
´n. Estudios de
Cultura Maya 36.
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´xico, DF: Instituto Nacional de Antropologı
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Traci Ardren (PhD, Yale University, 1997) is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the
University of Miami and Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs. Her research focuses
on issues of identity and other forms of symbolic representation in the archaeological
record. With T. Kam Manahan she co-directs research at the ancient Maya archaeological
site of Xuenkal, Yucata
´n, Me
´xico, investigating the role of environmental resources and
trade in the development of an economically dominant state centered at the urban center
of Chichen Itza
Justin P. Lowry is a PhD candidate at the University at Albany, SUNY. His primary
research focus is the application of GIS technology to the landscape of the ancient Maya.
He is presently completing a dissertation on the Late Preclassic component of Xuenkal
and is a staff member of the Proyecto Arqueologico Xuenkal.
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... On the other hand, Ichmul de Morley's architecture was distinct from that of both larger sites, and did not include any defensive architecture such as walls. All of these characteristics lead Smith and colleagues to suggest that Ichmul de Morley was not a Chichén Itzá-controlled outpost in this border zone, even though outposts critical to trade did exist (e.g., Xuenkal and Isla Cerritos;Andrews et al. 1989;Ardren and Lowry 2011). The argument for hegemonic rulership based on relationships rather than territories is reminiscent of a similar argument that Sergio Quezada (2014) makes for Postclassic to early Colonial period Yucatán.Recent studies in the northern lowlands have begun to address the daily lives and economies of non-elites during the Late to Terminal Classic periods (e.g.,Dahlin et al. 2005; Hutson 2010; Hutson et al. 2016:131-135;Manahan et al. 2012;Manzanilla and Barba 1990;Simms et al. 2012). ...
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Farmers rarely feature prominently in accounts of Spanish colonialism. When they do, it is often because they assisted in staging rebellions. However, in Yucatán, Mexico, and elsewhere, the vast majority of the population consisted of farmers, who lived in places with long histories. The everyday decisions that they made about how to support the well-being of their households and communities influenced colonial trajectories. This dissertation tracks common farmers’ livelihood strategies at Tahcabo, Yucatán, throughout the Colonial period as a way of understanding how they negotiated colonial impositions and restrictions. The research presented in this dissertation included interviews with current farmers, site survey, and excavation within residential and garden areas. Interviews provided information about the factors that farmers consider as they make agricultural decisions, and in particular how they use and understand dry sinkholes called rejolladas—landscape features often employed as gardens when located within settlements. The results of excavation within the rejolladas of central Tahcabo demonstrated some consistency in their specialized use through time. Excavations also took place at Colonial period residential areas located near the edges of town, where non-elite or recently arrived farmers lived. Colonial policies enacted violence on rural livelihoods, resulting in food insecurity and inadequate resource access. In particular, they worked to narrow and constrict farming households’ activity portfolios, and encouraged dependence on field agriculture. After forcing many farmers from settlements across the countryside to relocate into designated towns, friars demanded that extended family households break apart into nuclear house lots. Nonetheless, excavation results show that, during the early Colonial period, town residents continued to live in extended family groups and pursued diversified livelihood activities, which included extended hunting and fishing trips. Nuclear family house lots were evident by the middle Colonial period. Heavy demands for commodities imposed as quotas for each adult family member led to activity intensification. Farmers responded to colonial violence through both mobility and place-making—strategies which remained in tension throughout the Colonial period. In short, this project provides new insights into the daily lives and livelihood decisions of ordinary families attempting to survive colonialism in Yucatán, Mexico.
... The distribution of sinkholes is particularly dense (8/km 2 ) at the ancient Maya center of Xuenkal, the largest urban center between Chichen Itza and its seaport of Isla Cerritos on the north coast of Yucatan ( Fig. 1) (Ardren and Alonso, 2017;Ardren and Lowry, 2011;Ardren et al., 2005;Munro-Stasiuk et al., 2014). Pre-dating the rise of Chichen Itza by a millennium, Xuenkal was absorbed into its territorial landscape by as early as the 8th century (Manahan et al., 2012). ...
The importance of cacao in ancient Mesoamerica is attested by the presence of cacao biomarkers in ritual pottery. By at least the Postclassic period, if not earlier, cacao beans are thought to have been a prominent mode of currency in the central Yucatan. During the colonial period the Maya of Yucatan were tending sacred groves of cacao trees in the shaded, humid microclimates of karst sinkholes that dot the peninsula. We report on the development of a method for the extraction and quantitation of the methylxanthine biomarkers of cacao (theobromine, theophylline, and caffeine) from soil. The presence of these biomarkers provides evidence of the distribution and ritual importance of these sacred cacao groves to the Maya. Methylxanthine biomarkers were present in the soils of nine of eleven sampled sinkholes in Yucatan and Quintana Roo, MX.
... This seemingly was not a development initiated by the Maya, but by other (poorly known) people of debated provenance called Putun or Itzas (Cobos 2015). Whatever the details, they did not use sailing vessels but canoes (Melgar 2017;McKillop 2017;Ardren and Lowry 2011; for countering Thompson's 1949arguments see Epstein 1990). ...
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A chronological worldwide map of sailing history is presented, emphasizing when sailing as a technology/activity appeared for the first time in each coast of the world, due to local invention, technological diffusion, or mere routes expansion. The map is the product of compiling and synthetizing historiographic works dealing with sailing history across regions and epochs; an effort that is presented to make explicit the map’s foundations. The map necessarily shows each world region’s precocity or lateness in sailing, while also, interestingly, exposing places that acted as persistent barriers to the expansion of sailing. Hopefully the map will be a useful tool to better visualize sailing history, and will encourage the search for explaining the non-trivial patterns of its spread over the world.
... Interest in this subject has roots in the early pioneering work on settlement patterns by Gordon Willey (1956), extended and perpetuated through discussions on settlement pattern and territory (from Fash [1983], Haviland [1966], and Sabloff [1980] to the more recent work by, for example, Chase and Chase [2016], Driver and Garber [2004], and Helmke and Awe [2012]). The idea that control of aspects of the physical landscape, including arable land (Dunning and Beach 2010), travel routes (Ardren and Lowry 2011;Doyle et al. 2012), and water sources (Lucero 2002), is important in settlement location choice has fed into a tradition of spatial analysis and territorial modeling, reviewed in further detail below. While the broad premise of strategic settlement placement with the aim of territorial control may well hold true, the ancient Maya civilization of southeastern Mesoamerica (FIGURE 1) occupied a wide range of terrain types and ecosystems, which imply different factors and priorities in the selection of settlement locations. ...
Mayanist archaeology has long been concerned with creating and evaluating explanatory models for the locations of ancient sites relative to one another and to the physical geography of the Maya world. This study combines epigraphic data and spatial analyses to explore motivations for settlement location and to interrogate territorial strategies in Late Classic (a.d. 600–830) kingdoms in the southern Maya Mountains, around the modern towns of Dolores and Poptún, Guatemala. Least-cost path analyses were used to model natural travel corridors and their relationship with site location was assessed. In conjunction, viewshed analyses were applied to evaluate the importance of visual connections to likely travel routes. The results are considered in the context of the socio-politics and economics of the region, and raise questions about the character of and interconnections between travel, exchange, settlement location, and mechanisms for reinforcing territorial claims in the Late Classic Southern Maya Mountains.
... The smaller sites demonstrate a variety of associations with the politically independent Chichen Itza. Ichmul de Morley, a Rank 3 site located between Xuenkal and Chichen Itza, was a convenient place for traders traveling to and from the latter to spend the night (Ardren and Lowry 2011). In Chapter 4 Johnson describes the site as autonomous and forming a social border between Ek Balam and Chichen Itza. ...
Studies of the ancient economy associated with the Classic and Postclassic periods of Maya civilization show that, in order to explain it, the market economy model has been widely used, where economic transactions were carried out in marketplaces. In this type of economy, goods are exchanged based on an agreed value that takes into account supply and demand. However, other types of exchange, such as tribute and centralized redistribution, could have been used in those transactions instead of a market economy. This article analyzes the role that tribute and centralized redistribution may have played during the heyday of Chichen Itza between the tenth and eleventh centuries. This site seems to have used its powerful military supremacy to extract tribute from sites and regions it conquered militarily and politically as they experienced their collapse. In addition, the archaeological evidence suggests that Chichen Itza made political as well as economic alliances in different regions of the Maya Lowlands in order to obtain sumptuous goods. These commodities were used by members of the elite to reinforce the power structure and consolidate social relations among the different individuals who inhabited that community located in northern Yucatan.
Full-text available
Entheseal changes (EC), formally musculoskeletal stress markers, are the recordation of osteophytic change at an enthesis (any muscular origin or insertion). Study of EC is valuable in decoding past life activities, social dynamics, and health through the quantification of reactive osseous changes at entheses. The current study assesses EC to ascertain activity patterns at the Late Mississippian Dallas Phase (~1300-1550 AD) site of Toqua, aboriginally located in the lower Little Tennessee River Valley of East Tennessee. Toqua was a multiple mound, palisaded settlement of maize-intensive agriculturalists. The subsistence strategy may have required intense and possibly specialized labor of the upper arms and shoulders. This study compares entheseal scores of 96 individuals at the origins of biceps brachii, triceps brachii, deltoideus, and pectoralis major on the humerus, radius, and ulna of males (n=48) and females (n=46). These adults are separated into three age-at-death groups: Young Adult (15-30 years of age [yoa]), Middle Adult (31-44 yoa), and Old Adult (45-55+ yoa). The data suggests changes and transitions in social roles or labor patterns as people senesce and tentatively supports a heterarchical social organization. Burial patterns both here and at other Dallas Phase sites and ethnohistoric evidence support this notion. Power relationship within the Dallas phase and at this site may have been more horizontally than vertically complex. This sample does not reflect sustained, life-long labor, but rather reflects the heterarchical or fluid social roles and power relationships reflected in the SE Appalachian mortuary patterns and programs.
The consideration of cosmopolitanism in archaeology provides a useful lens for thinking about and expanding how to conceive of inter-regional interactions and experiences of belonging in the ancient world. Previous models in Mesoamerican archaeology often implicitly follow a cosmopolitanism of elite male citizens of the world. In incorporating a feminist perspective to the analysis of inter-regional relations, this paper examines Maya women’s roles in cosmopolitan encounters during the Late Classic to Postclassic periods (ca. 600–1521 CE) with a particular focus on merchant women, clothing as a statement of belonging in a larger world, and the adoption of new cooking practices. Such a perspective underscores the ways in which inter-regional interactions in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica may have been unevenly and contingently experienced, rather than homogenously adopted, and that the articulation of different worlds need not require everyone to be highly mobile.
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Recent investigations at the site of Xuenkal on the plains north of Chichén Itzá provide evidence of the changing regional political environment during the Terminal Classic Period (A. D. 900-1000). This paper examines a collection of spindle whorls recovered during the 2005, 2006, and 2007 field seasons of the Proyecto Arqueológico Xuenkal (PAX) as evidence for intensification of craft production. Through this analysis and comparison with spindle whorl collections from other Lowland Maya sites, we suggest the inhabitants of Xuenkal rapidly adapted to changing economic demands by increasing the amount of cloth produced in their residential settings, perhaps in response to increased tribute demands that emanated from the dominant political power of the region. Spinning and weaving is associated with the female gender during the Classic Period in Mesoamerica. Thus, intensification of this gendered activity not only produced excess materials for the state, but also reinforced its gender ideology. Analysis of these artifacts adds to the knowledge of Maya cloth production and addresses the nature of Chichén Itzá's influence on regional sites during the height of its influence in the Terminal Classic period.
This chapter reviews some of the regularities that have now become apparent about proposed mechanisms of exchange and discusses whether it is justified to associate these with specific kinds of trade or exchange. Characterization methods and the development of efficient field recovery procedures have now made possible the quantitative investigation of trade or distribution patterns in a detailed manner. The most obvious suitable subjects for such studies are classes of artifact. The underlying regularities in the patterns observed are being sought, with the aim of understanding the mechanisms of exchange involved and, hence, of gaining insight into the economic and social processes at work in the society in question. In circumstances of uniform loss or deposition, and in the absence of highly organized directional exchange, the curve of frequency or abundance of occurrence of an exchanged commodity against effective distance from a localized source will be a monotonic decreasing one. Various approaches have been made toward a regression analysis of the fall-off with distance of traded commodities. In each case, some measure of abundance or frequency is plotted against distance from the source in question. Three principal classes of curves have, up to the present time, been considered relevant as possible approximations for the distance regressions observed.
The decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs has enabled scholars to better understand Classic society, but many aspects of this civilization remain shrouded in mystery, particularly its economies and social structures. How did farmers, artisans, and rulers make a living in a tropical forest environment? In this study, Patricia McAnany tackles this question and presents the first comprehensive view of ancestral Maya economic practice. Bringing an archaeological approach to the topic, she demonstrates the vital role of ritual practice in indigenous ecologies, gendered labor, and the construction of colossal architecture. Examining Maya royalty as a kind of social speciation, McAnany also shows the fundamentality of social difference as well as the pervasiveness of artisan production and marketplaces in ancestral Maya societies. Her analysis of royal iconography and hieroglyphic texts provides evidence of a political economy dominated by tribute extraction, thus lifting the veil of opacity over the operation of palace economies. Written in an engaging and accessible style, this book situates Maya economies within contemporary social, political, and economic theories of social practice, gender, actor-networks, inalienable goods, materiality, social difference, indigenous ecologies, and strategies of state finance.
The question of spatial and temporal origins for Plumbate ware is addressed with archaeological evidence from the eastern Soconusco region of the Pacific slope, and evidence from a recent stylistic and compositional study (the latter by neutron-activation analysis). This evidence confirms the Pacific coastal-origins hypothesis proposed by Shepard (1948), suggesting specifically that the first Plumbate, designated "Guayabal Plumbate," was produced in or near the littoral zone of southwest Guatemala. The development of Early Postclassic Tohil Plumbate out of Late Classic San Juan Plumbate is found not to involve a hypothesized intermediate stage (designated "Robles" in previous literature). The fancy abstract-incised and effigy style associated with Tohil Plumbate is argued to represent a stylistic departure of a small group of ceramic artisans who previously had worked in a long-lived "background" tradition.