Mayan economics were based primarily on trade and agriculture. Here are some details of some of that system.

Cacao Tree (Theobroma spp), Brazil

Cacao Tree (Theobroma spp), Brazil.

Archaeological Evidence of Cacao

Five hundred years ago, Zapotec, Aztec, and Maya civilizations all had their own versions of cacao drinks. Archaeologists have also documented cacao use a thousand years earlier, at archaeological sites in the Toltec, Maya, Olmec, and Soconusco regions.

Archaeological evidence used to identify cacao on archaeological sites include the beans themselves, images from codexes which show the preparation of the liquid, lists of tribute for various kings, carvings on stele, the presence of specialized bottle forms and shapes for the making of cacao drinks, and, most recently, chemical analysis of residues on the insides of bottles or broken pot sherds.

Another strand of evidence for cacao use is the language used for cacao drinks, which also reflects its use throughout Mesoamerica. The word cacao is a Maya term (kakaw), borrowed from the Mixe-Zoqueaen (also spelled Mije-Sokean), the language of the Olmec and Soconusco region. But the word 'chocolate' as used by the Spanish probably comes from a colonial period confusion of terms. The Aztec (Nahuatl) term for chocolate was cacahuatl; the Maya name for hot water is chocol ha; and the word chocolate is (so Michael Coe surmises) probably a combination of those two.

Ancient Chocolate Recipes

Throughout Mesoamerica at the time of the European conquest, chocolate was served as a liquid, hot or cold, sometimes mixed with maize or manioc, often sweetened with honey and spiced with chili peppers, vanilla and other spices. The liquid was served at weddings and other ceremonies; and in some societies such as the Aztecs it was reserved for the elites, rulers, warriors, and traders.

The cacao pod was harvested and broken open, the seeds inside the fruit were dried and fermented, then (possibly) toasted to a dark brown or black color to shed their husks, and then ground between a mano and metate (sometimes over a fire). The paste was either then prepared right away or dried and stored as a dried tablet. This paste or tablet was dissolved in water and mixed with ground maize, chile or other spices.

Across Mesoamerica during the 16th century, preparing chocolate for visitors was a display itself. Grinding the beans, adding flowers and spices, and pouring the liquid from jar to jar to create a froth were all part of the ritual involved with cacao consumption.

Currency: Cacao beans, copper bells, marine shells, jade beads were used as exchange media, although calling them "currency" is a bit strong, since the production of any of them wasn't controlled by a specific government.

Mines and quarries: Obsidian, jadeite, limestone.

Lapidary arts: jadeite, marine shell, turquoise, specialized workshops, schist, in an elite context.

Metallurgy: Didn't develop in Mesoamerica until 600 AD (Late Postclassic), and then it was west Mexico that developed it.

Trade systems: The Maya had a fairly extensive trade network, with obsidian, jade, serpentine, feathers (quetzalcoatl birds), and ceramic vessels being traded throughout Mesoamerica. Trade connections were established with Olmec and Teotihuacan; there were markets in most of the cities.

Polychrome Ceramics: Prudence Rice argued in 2009 that during the Late Classic period, elite personages were the painters of the figural specialized polychrome wares, and the painting of them represented a specialized expression of state control.

Agriculture: Begins in the highlands about 3000 BC, with maize and beans, the Maya were arranged into small communities of farmers by ca 900 BC. First villages had pole and thatch houses and a few community buildings. Fields were slash-and burn at first, then home gardens and raised terraces.

In the Maya highlands, irrigation canals and terraces were constructed to adapt the local environment to agriculture; in the the lowlands, the people grew crops on raised platforms called chinampas.

Cultivated crops: maize (domesticated ca 7000 BC), beans (5000 BC), cucurbits (squash), chili peppers, manioc (3000 BC), amaranth, chenopodium, palms, cacao, vanilla; ramon, avocado (500 BC), agave, tobacco.

Domesticated animals: hairless god, turkey, honeybee.

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