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Merchant Trade in Prehispanic Mesoamerica

Kenneth Hirth, Pennsylvania State University, Summer Fellow 2010

The goal of my 2010 summer fellowship was to study the structure of intermediate scale trade in staple goods using archaeological and ethnohistoric sources. Its primary purpose was to broaden our understanding of how far staple goods that were the focus of trade by pochteca merchants actually moved across the Pre-Columbian landscape. The pochteca were a privilege class of traders who specialized in the purchase and movement of high value wealth goods and raw material used by artisans to produce craft goods for the state and its social elite. Instead of dealing with wealth goods, my project sought to identify spheres of distribution for goods within the control of commoner households. Ethnohistoric sources indicate that commoners took both the crops they raised and the craft goods they produced to sell in regional marketplaces. The question was whether they also trafficked in these goods between regions. This project examined commercial behavior at the lower end of the merchant spectrum. Trade at local and inter-regional level was not a topic that Sahagun's pochteca informants discussed. Instead they chose to emphasize their valiant history of long distance trade and service to their Aztec overlords

The methodological approach employed was simple but appropriate for the task. The idea was to identify source areas for specific products and link them to the areas where these products were consumed. Producer and consumer locales were then entered into a GIS spatial database for depiction and pattern recognition. No attempt was made to plot the specific routes over which products moved. This will be a separate level of analysis and will be calculated using GIS techniques.