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The Real Business of Ancient Maya Economies: From Farmers’ Fields to Rulers’ Realms

Editor(s):Masson, Marilyn A.
Freidel, David A.
Demarest, Arthur A.
Reviewer(s):López Alonso, Moramay

Published by EH.Net (February 2023).

Masson, Marilyn A., David A. Freidel, and Arthur A. Demarest, eds. The Real Business of Ancient Maya Economies: From Farmers’ Fields to Rulers’ Realms. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2020. xviii + 634 pp. $125 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0813066295.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Moramay López Alonso, Rice University.


The history of Ancient Maya Civilizations has long been of great interest to scholars of different disciplines and different parts of the world. The nature and quality of the sources available has shaped interpretations of this civilization. Over time, the discovery of different archaeological sites, the deciphering of Maya texts and their reinterpretations, and most recently the emergence of new technologies that facilitate archeological exploration have shifted paradigms by providing a growing body of evidence about the landscape and organization of ancient Maya civilization throughout its long existence. Recently, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology has shed light on how vast the ancient Maya civilization was to understand how the landscape had been altered. This meant that institutions and organizations of the Maya Civilization were more complex and diverse than they had originally being thought. Especially it showed that there were markets and market exchanges; hence the ancient Maya economy could be studied from a different viewpoint than in the past.

The Real Business of Ancient Mayan Economies masterfully weaves together strategic management studies, archaeology, and economic history in a compilation where scholars from these different disciplines addressed the study of the Mayan economy in its diversity and complexity. It is a monumental volume that brings together the ideas and research of 57 authors compiled in 27 chapters. The book is divided in five main parts that show how, with new archaeological evidence, it is possible to study how ancient Maya economic systems worked by making the argument that it was a market-based society and what this could mean for our interpretations of the past. It would be impossible to address all important points made in each of the chapters so I will present the main overarching arguments of the compilation.

The first section presents the analytical framework that the authors will use as a connecting thread that to put the argument and evidence of their respective chapters in dialogue with the others. The evidence is diverse in time and space given that it encompasses the pre-Classic period to the early Post-Contact period in the different territories of the Maya civilization. The compilers of this collection begin by stating that the book will go beyond the dichotomous assertion that societies were market or non-market based and that there is the recognition of spectrums of institutional variability. It contributes to the scholarship that moves away from Betty J. Meggers’s environmental limitation theory. Additionally, there is a constant comparison with the civilization of Central Mexico and how market systems operated in the Aztec Empire, emphasizing how the two regions are very different and therefore inviting Mayanists to draw their conclusions and their own empirical data rather than receiving wisdom from comparative treatises.

The following sections are composed of chapters that present case studies of specific archaeological sites that examine household and community economies and resources; agriculture, climate, and land; political elites and economic administration; and spheres of economic exchange.

On the topic of autonomy, interdependence, and labor specialization, the authors examine their evidence in relative rather than in absolute terms. This is how autonomous and self-sufficient communities were compared to each other. The findings in different localities show that interdependency levels would coexist with various exchange modes so they could adapt them to the resources they had at hand and to potential climatic calamities while leaving the possibility to trade surpluses. Food shortages could be supplemented by imports or exchanges with other communities. Archaeological evidence shows the existence of gardens that served different purposes. Home gardens could be cultivated as a risk reduction mechanism but they could also be expressions of wealth. Although maiz was ubiquitous, a diversity of other plant species were cultivated, with variety corresponding to the different ecosystems. Researchers suggest the importance of maiz for the Maya may have been overstated by researchers due to the influence of post-1491 chronicles. That presented the opportunity for local specialization and exchange between environmental zones. So there was occupational specialization, exchange, and interdependencies.

Labor is often defined as the relationship between humans and land. In the case of Ancient Maya communities there is a variety of forms of landownership and cultivation, much more complex that than what Spanish colonial accounts would describe as communally held land. Farmers would cultivate land for both self-subsistence and a surplus to exchange. Salt-workers or fishers and those working in other subsistence industries, including slaves, could also engage in other forms of labor for part of the year, which could be for service to the community, voluntary or cooperative. There was a diversity of service occupations including corvée labor, masons, soldiers, non-crafting commoners, and market vendors. Labor was important for household production and exchange but also as a commodity in its own right.

On the topic of markets and merchants, archaeological evidence shows a circulation of various goods of different values, attesting to the existence of an integrated complex economic system. This does not negate the probability that goods were exchanged in other way such gifts or distributions. Additionally, findings move away from the argument that in ancient civilizations peripheries were uniformly impoverished and underdeveloped. Authors in different chapters show the existence of trading ports and affluent well-connected peripheries and core commercial nodes across regions. Ceramics are used as a proxy, albeit an imperfect one, for the exchange of other goods. The intricacies and variable traditions of ceramic economics in the different regions are recognized as a useful analytical tool that still has a lot of information to uncover. Markets and exchange also reflect the balance of power between merchant elites and royal elites in different regions. Merchant elites were important and their relationship with royals could at times be contentious. Surviving paintings and others records depict merchants as having less relevance, but it was royals who commanded these works. Studies also find that in places where merchant elites were stronger, the commoners were poorer. Still, the levels of inequality were not the same in every location. In terms of regional diversity, evidence makes clear that northwest Yucatán Mayan society was distinctive compared with the southern lowlands. The northern regions had a different economic trajectory that manifested in its architecture and pottery.

The Real Business of Ancient Mayan Economies offers no definite conclusions that would close a debate. It rather concludes by showing where research stands now and where it still needs to go. In that sense it is an invitation for scholars to make their contributions and further our understanding of the Mayan economy. This book will be an invaluable reference for an audience interested in the economic history of ancient civilizations, environmental studies, archaeology, and strategic management. It leaves the reader with lingering questions and promises more findings in a promising field.


Moramay López Alonso is Associate Professor of History, Adjunct Associate Professor of Economics, and Lecturer in Management Studies at Rice University. She is the author of Measuring Up: A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850-1950 (Stanford University Press, 2012).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Environment, Climate, and Disasters
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):Ancient