A new study suggests that the Maya used a market economy.

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    More than 500 years ago, in the midwest of Guatemala, the Maya people bought and sold goods with far less oversight from their rulers than many archaeologists once believed

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    This is evidenced by a new study of Latin American antiquity, showing that the Quiche ruling elite did not interfere when it came to managing the purchase and trade of obsidian by people outside their centrally controlled region, Newswise reports.

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    In these areas, access to nearby sources of obsidian was controlled by the local population through independent and diverse purchasing networks. Overtime, the availability of obsidian resources, and the predominance of craftsmen who could process it, led to a system that in many ways resembles a modern market economy.

    “Scientists have generally assumed that Mayan rulers were in charge of the obsidian trade, but our study shows that this was not the case, at least in this area,” said Rachel Horowitz, lead author of the study and assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Washington. “People seem to have had considerable economic freedom, in particular being able to visit places similar to today's supermarkets to buy and sell goods from artisans.”

    While there is abundant written evidence from the Postclassic Maya period (1200-1524 AD) of political organization, much less is known about how social elites wielded economic power. Horowitz set out to fill this knowledge gap for Kyich by studying the production and distribution of obsidian artifacts, which archaeologists use to determine the level of economic development in a region.

    She conducted a geochemical and technological analysis of obsidian artifacts excavated at 50 sites around the capital of Kyich – the city of Kumarkaj – and nearby regions, in order to determine where the raw materials and technology for their manufacture come from.

    The results of the study indicated that the Kyiche obtained their obsidian from similar sources in the Central Region of the Kyiche and Kumarkaji, indicating a high degree of centralized control. The ruling elite also seem to have controlled the more valuable forms of non-native obsidian, particularly Pachua obsidian from Mexico, based on its abundance in these central locations.

    Outside of this core region, however, in the areas conquered by the Kyich, there was less similarity in the economic networks of obsidian. Horowitz's analysis suggests that these places had access to their sources of obsidian and developed specialized places where people could go to buy blades and other useful tools made from stone by experts.

    “For a long time, the idea was that people didn't have a market economy in the past, which, when you think about it, is a little strange. Why didn't these people have markets in the past?” – she said. “The more we investigate this issue, the more we understand that the life of these peoples was in many ways similar to ours.”

    The Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University provided Horowitz with obsidian blades and other artifacts that she used to of your research. The artifacts were unearthed in the 1970s.

    Horowitz said that in the future she plans to explore most of the collection, the rest of which is in Guatemala, to learn more about how the Maya conducted trade, managed their economic systems and generally lived their own lives.