Economy of the Aztecs and Mayasby Rit Nosotro
Economic systems include ways to obtain goods and services. Religion plays a significant role in placing value on items. Compare the economic system between the Aztec and Mayas.
The Aztecs and Mayas, despite their pagan religions, managed wonderful economic systems.
There were two empires in Mesoamerica, the Aztecs (1250?-1521) and Mayas (ca. 1,000 B.C.-1697 A.D.), who left behind extraordinary ruins of temples, palaces, and sporting venues are an indication of a flourishing economic system. These systems were based on trade, irrigation, and the tribute system, and religion played a very important role.
The word "empire" conjures up images of great rulers, perhaps ruthless rulers. Sometimes the images summoned are those of great battles, wars, and conquest. Oftentimes swept under the rug in the studies of empires is an empire's economic system. An economic system is very important though, for that is what enables great empires to become what they are now known as. Archaeological evidence is usually not a body count of enemies, rather immense architectural and artistic achievements created by massive wealth. There were two empires in Mesoamerica, the Aztecs (1250?-1521) and Mayas (ca. 1,000 B.C.-1697 A.D.), who left behind such evidence. Their extraordinary ruins of temples, palaces, and sporting venues are an indication of a flourishing economic system. These systems were based on trade, irrigation, and the tribute system, and religion played a very important role.
The trade of Aztecs was divided into three sectors. The first was that of "guild-organized professionals."1 These professionals dealt with luxurious items such as jade, animal skins, shells, feathers, and other special state gifts. Feathers were an important commodity probably because of the legend of the civilization's foundation. It is said that the ancestors of Aztecs were being guided by a sun god when they came to an island on a lake. They saw a vision of an eagle landing on a cactus and eating a snake, which they believed was fulfillment of a prophecy and an indication to settle in the land.2 Thus, the eagle, and its relatives, is of great importance to the Aztecs. Gold was actually of little value, while cacao was much desired. Often these men had to ship their merchandise with a considerable amount of guards to protect the goods from thieves. Also, they could only ship a few items at a time. The "professionals," known then as pochtecas, were pretty important political figures in their day, usually taking charge of their guild. It was obvious that these pochtecas were wealthy, but it was impermissible to show it. The only chance they had to spend their money was on a festival or holiday. Still, everyone basically knew who these pochtecas were and thus treated them nicely. Next, the regional merchants traded less lavish and more agricultural items such as maize, cotton, turkeys and salt. One interesting item that was traded by these men was that of hairless dogs. In the city of Aculma, a dog market existed where people could find these three breeds of canines for consumption and sacrifice to gods.3 The regional merchants were not political figures, which allowed them to more easily maneuver in and out of the city-states. The last sector was made up of small-scaled producers. These producers did not really trade, instead mainly produced for themselves. However, they are included in the trading system because it is their work that allows the two other sectors to function.
Maya trade covered long distances but was not as large as that of the Aztecs. The Maya traded, "in Mesoamerica and possibly further lands."4 Similar to the Aztecs, this civilization traded cacao and salt extensively. They also traded spices, dyes, wood, and ceramics.5 Another item they traded is obsidian. The value of obsidian to the Mayas is similar to the value of steel to the modern world.6 First known to be a lavish item, it eventually turned to be common among all classes. Obsidian is a volcanic, glassy rock used for blades and tools. The rock also came to be used in religious rituals such as burials, blood-letting ceremonies, and as offerings. Finally, it could be used as jewelry and art, such as sculptures. Quite a few of the Maya markets and fairs were held on important religious days.7 Most of the citizens were common farmers, just like in the Aztec Empire. What were these farms like?
Farms, of course, are based on agriculture. That is the second sector of the economy, also known as the "irrigation sector". There is clear evidence that irrigation systems existed in Tenochtitlan, the founding city and capital, many years before the Aztecs installed their civilization. Evidence also shows that as population rose, so did the number and size of irrigation systems. It is believed that a great deal of this construction was ordered by the rulers. Irrigation systems play a crucial role in the economy because they are essentially the means to get subsistence, ensuring that farmers have sufficient water with which to grow their crops. Agriculture was especially important in Aztec society because of the polytheistic religion of the Aztecs. "Tonatiuh the sun god. Xipe Totec the god of springtime and growth, Tlaloc the rain god, and Centeotl the corn god were some of the most important gods of the Aztec religion because they represented the most important things of the culture-life."8 Thus it was important to have crops not only to survive, but to please these important gods.
The Mayas also had a polytheistic religion including gods of agriculture, so farming was equally important to them. They discovered various methods to effectively raise their crops. One such method of the Mayas was the "permanent raised fields" technique. Photographs today show how raised fields were irrigated by a canal system. Terracing was another method, a technique where the fields would appear as steps, slowing down the run-off of the irrigation water. Fallowing, also practiced by Mayans, is the practice of letting soil sit, in order to regain its nutrients. Forest gardens and wild harvesting were two other techniques used in agricultural farming. Crops cultivated included maize, manioc, sunflower seeds, and cotton. Agriculture played an important role spiritually, but, economically, another aspect of the system was far more important.
The last and probably most important part of Aztec economy is their tribute system. The Aztecs went along conquering other city-states, and then exacted goods or money from those territories, much like what is known today as taxes. Aztec society contained four types of tribute. The first and most well-known is the tribute the Aztec Empire was forced to pay to Spain. The currency was clothing, grain, and sometimes their soldiers. Another type of tribute is the textiles that were paid by the conquered states to their conquering-states. This textile tribute was usually the reason for warring amongst city-states. Sometimes feathers were paid as well. The third type of tribute was payment by nobles to their local rulers. Owen Morris writes, "There is less information about this tribute being paid, but it is clear that they did in fact pay considerable amounts to their superiors."9 The last type of tribute was that of the common citizens being taxed by their nobles. They would usually have to give up such things as food, cotton, and textiles.
A tribute system for the Mayas actually did not begin until about the ninth century. Even so, it became a crucial part of the economy. The two systems were the citizens giving labor and food to their nobles, and exacting tribute from their conquered neighbors. Citizens gave labor by building public works, serving in the military, and working on state farms. Similar to the Aztecs, tributes became a great reason to go to war. The usual goods were required from enemies, but the conqueror would also take artists, soldiers, and even use the conquered rulers as vassals. At first, Maya rulers were not very interested in war, and thus the fighting was relatively small. Ironically, an excess of warring is what most likely led to the downfall of Maya civilization.
There is a Proverb, "Honor the Lord with your possessions, and with the first fruits of all your increase; So your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine."10 Many read this verse and conclude that following God results in physical wealth, while ignoring God and his commands results in, at best, mediocrity and, at worst, poverty. In quite a few instances, history proves this thinking to be incorrect. The Aztecs and Mayas are such instances, for with their pagan religions, they still managed wonderful economic systems. Therefore, history, God, or man's interpretation must be incorrect. Then clearly the fault lies with man. The verse is not a promise, but more of an observation. The wise follow God 11, and usually those who are wise manage their possessions astutely. God's promise for riches is not material; instead it is spiritual.12 So, although the Aztecs and Mayas managed successful economies, most were still, unfortunately, dead in their sins.
For another such comparison, see also Chinook and Apache
up1,9 Morris, Owen. "The Aztec Economy and its Inevitable Relation to the Modern Economy." <http://www.utexas.edu/courses/wilson/ant304/projects/projects98/morrisp/morrisp.html>
up12 Romans 11:33. "Oh,
the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable
are His judgments and His ways past finding out!" (NKJV)
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