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Mayan economy: BYU scientists unearth new clues

Discovery indicates advanced marketplace, questioning former theories

Using improved methods of chemical analysis, BYU environmental scientists have unearthed clues that may prove the existence of a marketplace economy among the ancient Maya civilizations of the Yucatan peninsula and not a tax and redistribution system, as is the widely-held belief.

As reported in the December issue of Latin American Antiquity, a quarterly journal published by the Society for American Archeology, BYU professor of environmental science Richard Terry and his team of students have confirmed that a large open area surrounded by thoroughfares located in the northwestern region of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula was actually an ancient marketplace. This provides powerful new evidence for understanding the advanced civilization's economy.

Professor Terry's specialty is analyzing soil from archaeological sites to find chemical traces that indicate what took place there. Such methods are useful in tropical areas where 90 percent of inhabitants' possessions were made from organic material that has since decomposed.

"It's the first way of confirming that an area that looks like a marketplace, is a marketplace," said Bruce Dahlin, lead author on the new study and archaeologist with Shepherd University.

In past studies about the Maya of the Classic era (about A.D. 300 to 900), scientists had found large, open areas within settlements of the period, but no indications of the areas' purposes. Professor Terry's soil analysis revealed outlines of use clearly consistent with the last remaining modern open-air market built on soil in Antigua, Guatemala.

"All food materials contain phosphorus, and a common denominator of all humans is that they bring food to places where they live," he said. "Over time, the organic matter is ground into the soil and rots, but the phosphorus holds to the soil particles even in a tropical rain forest that gets a meter or two of rain every year."

Results from the ancient city of Chunchucmil showed concentrations of phosphorus up to 40 times higher than in ancient patios and streets.

Dr. Dahlin explained that he and other archaeologists had recognized that many Maya cities appeared to have held more people than the regions' agricultural capacities could have supported. For years, researchers sought evidence of sophisticated farming or irrigation techniques to explain this.

The idea of a market economy that facilitated the importing of food and other goods wasn't taken seriously, in part because it would be difficult to distinguish from most archaeologists' belief that the Maya elite had a tax and tribute system and effectively paid their underlings for loyalty by passing goods down the social ladder.

But proof of the existence of a market would certainly prove a market economy.

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