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Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 49 (2018) 100–113

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Journal of Anthropological Archaeology

journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/jaa

Ancient monetization: The case of Classic Maya textiles T

Joanne P. Baron
Bard Early Colleges, BHSEC Newark, 321 Bergen Street, Newark, NJ 07103, United States


Keywords: The role played by individuals, markets, and state institutions in the origins of money have been debated by
Money economists, historians, and anthropologists. Two dominant models have emerged: those who see money’s
Currency function arising out of exchange, and those who see it arising out of the operation of state institutions. Curiously,
Economy archaeology has played only a minor role in this debate, with most scholars focused instead on written records
and ethnographic parallels to recent non-capitalist societies. Scholarship on monetization has also focused
primarily on Eurasian currency and the roots of modern capitalism. In this article, I argue that much can be
gained by examining a different context: the origins of textile money in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, particu-
larly among the Late Classic Maya. During this period, textiles underwent a process of monetization that saw
them take on the roles of exchange medium, measure of value, means of payment, and store of wealth. I argue
that neither of the dominant models of monetization is sufficient to describe this process. Instead, elements of
both models operated simultaneously, as households and state institutions negotiated differing economic stra-

1. Introduction Finally, it serves as a store of wealth or hoard that is kept by those who
receive payment, whether in market exchange or outside of it. In many
While the development of money in ancient societies has been the societies, past and present, these various roles do not always co-exist
subject of much casual speculation in Western economic theory, it has within the same objects, nor do certain valuables necessarily get ex-
been difficult for archaeologists to study empirically, thanks to the changed in all social interactions (Dalton, 1982; Grierson, 1978;
perishability of early exchange commodities. Western economic the- Polanyi, 1968; Weber, 1978, p. 78). This has lead to various classifi-
orists have long assumed that the origins of money arose out of ex- catory terms such as “general vs. limited purpose money” (Dalton,
change and the division of labor; as individuals exchanged surplus 1965; Polanyi, 1968), or “primitive valuables vs. media of exchange”
products with one another, they naturally turned to one specific com- (Earle, 1982).
modity to facilitate the exchange and measure the value of their goods. The “chartalist” account posits that money’s origins lie not in ex-
This early money, it is hypothesized, was generally characterized by its change, but in institutional accounting and debt payment (Dalton,
divisibility and transportability, usually in the form of precious metals 1982; Graeber, 2014; Grierson, 1978; Innes, 2004; Polanyi, 1968;
(Marx, 1911; Smith, 1902, pp. 67, 87). This story of money focuses on Smith, 2004, pp. 90–91; Wray, 2004). In part, this view arises out of the
its function as a medium of exchange, in which a physical object cir- substantivist school of economic history championed by Karl Polanyi,
culates among buyers and sellers in ancient market transactions which challenged the importance of exchange in ancient societies. It
(Schneider, 1974; Smith, 2004, pp. 90–91). also challenges the traditional notion that barter was an important
This traditional “metallist” account of money can be contrasted to economic principle prior to money (Dalton, 1982; Graeber, 2014). Yet
approaches that emphasize other functions of money. In addition to a debates about the origin of money suffer from a lack of archaeological
medium of exchange, money is typically defined by three additional evidence (Haselgrove and Krmnicek, 2012, p. 244; Smith, 2004, p. 91).
roles: (1) as a unit of account or standard of value, allowing the cal- Instead, theorists rely on ethnographic accounts from recent societies as
culation of equivalencies outside of market contexts. For example, in a proxy for the pre-capitalist conditions in which early money must
Homer’s epics, the value of gifts and prizes are calculated in terms of have arisen. They also rely heavily on written records while down-
oxen, although oxen are not typically the form that payments take playing wider material patterns.
(Grierson, 1978, pp. 9–10). (2) Money is also used as a means of pay- A good example of this problem can be seen in Hudson’s (2004a,
ment of debts or obligations outside of market exchange, such as tri- 2004b) description of early Mesopotamian money, borrowed ex-
bute, institutionalized gift exchange, or marriage negotiations. (3) tensively by Graeber (2014). Hudson argues that early Mesopotamian

E-mail address: jbaron@bhsec.bard.edu.

Received 26 May 2017; Received in revised form 11 November 2017
Available online 04 January 2018
0278-4165/ © 2017 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
J.P. Baron Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 49 (2018) 100–113

political institutions, particularly temples, played a key role in money’s the subject of research and debate for decades, but has recently seen
origins. Early cuneiform accounting records show that temple scribes renewed interest. While the scale and importance of the Aztec market
developed standardized barley rations given out daily to workers, and economy and the wider Postclassic mercantile system are not in
that they set the value of barley and silver in a fixed ratio. Silver was a doubt—thanks to robust historical evidence on the part of Spanish
prestige metal that was used for jewelry and sacred objects. Im- chroniclers and native informants—the presence of Classic Maya
portantly, though silver eventually became a monetary metal in Me- market systems has been sharply questioned. This is due in part to the
sopotamia, it was not available locally and was instead imported from opacity of the evidence but also to the legacy of Karl Polanyi and his
Anatolia (Potts, 2007). Hudson argues that temple and palace institu- followers (Blanton, 2013; Feinman and Garraty, 2010; King and Shaw,
tions were primarily responsible for the circulation of silver, though the 2015; McAnany, 2010, p. 11; Shaw, 2012; Smith, 2004). This sub-
means of that circulation is unclear (2004b, p. 311). Commodity ex- stantivist school drew a sharp dichotomy between modern Western
change among individuals, he argues, played only a small role in the economies—which they believed to be shaped almost entirely by the
economy. The problem with this argument is that it is based largely on principles of supply and demand—and pre-modern economies, which
written records produced by the scribes of state institutions for ac- they believed were organized mainly through the principles of re-
counting purposes and therefore does not necessarily reflect wider ciprocity and redistribution (Polanyi, 2001; Polanyi et al., 1957).
patterns of currency usage in Mesopotamian society. In fact, there are a Due to these larger debates, Mayanists have faced a high evidentiary
number of written records from the period that show that market ex- bar to demonstrate the existence of Classic period markets (King and
change was far more prevalent than Hudson acknowledges, and that Shaw, 2015; Shaw, 2012). They have met this challenge in a variety of
prices did not always follow the fixed ratio set by institutional ac- ways, and there is now a growing body of evidence for marketplaces
countants (Silver, 2007). While data on the actual distribution of silver and market relationships among the ancient Maya dating back possibly
and other goods among ordinary households might aid in our under- to the Preclassic period (Masson and Freidel, 2012, p. 464; Tokovinine
standing of Mesopotamian currency circulation, it has been under- and Baliaev, 2013, p. 172) and among other early Mesoamerican groups
emphasized in theoretical models of the origins of money. (Feinman and Nicholas, 2010; Stark and Ossa, 2010; Sullivan, 2007). A
Another problem with debates about the origin of money is that number of lines of evidence now strongly suggest the presence of
each side assumes a single motivation for monetary forms across time market-like relationships deep in the Maya past. Tokovinine and
and space. The metallist account sees money always arising out of the Baliaev (2013, pp. 171–173), for example, pull together linguistic evi-
natural inconveniences of market exchange, with buyers and sellers dence to show that Mayan terms such as ∗k’aay (sell) ∗man (buy) ∗p’ol
spontaneously standardizing a monetary form to increase market effi- (trade for profit) and ∗k’iwik (market) can be reconstructed for the
ciency. Chartalists, on the other hand, see money, by definition, as an second and first millennia BC. Various authors have also inferred
outgrowth of state control of the economy. Graeber’s (2014) meta- market relationships from the distribution of exotic and luxury goods
history of debt, for example, proposes that rulers relied on the relative across households of different social strata (Garraty, 2010; Hirth, 1998;
scarcity of precious metals like silver to manipulate their economies. By King and Shaw, 2015; Shaw, 2012). For example, Masson and Freidel
simultaneously paying debts in silver and demanding it back in the (2013, 2012) compare exotic material such as obsidian, greenstone and
form of taxes, he argues, rulers forced their subjects to create exchange shell at Postclassic Mayapan and Classic Tikal to argue that their rela-
networks in order to pay their dues to state institutions. This, in turn, tively even distribution across households suggests broad access fa-
gave silver its exchange value. Neither theory addresses how the cilitated by a marketplace. Archaeological remains of marketplaces
competition between the interests of state actors and other economic themselves can be ephemeral. Yet features such as chemical signatures
participants might itself contribute to monetization. of perishable items, stone alignments possibly indicating stalls, and site
The ancient Americas have been conspicuous in their absence from configurations such as wide causeways opening into large plazas have
these theoretical accounts. Yet pre-Columbian Mesoamerica provides been identified at numerous sites (Becker, 2015; Cap, 2015; Dahlin
an overlooked case study that can further contribute to cross-cultural et al., 2007; King and Shaw, 2015; Shaw, 2012; Shaw and King, 2015).
comparisons. While Mesoamerica’s most important currencies—cacao Masson and Freidel (2012, p. 462) provide a list of ten sites where such
and textiles—are difficult to study due to their perishability, decades of features suggest the presence of a market, while King’s (2015) edited
archaeological research now allows us to trace marketplace exchange volume can add at least three additional examples to this list. In two of
back into early periods. As I will show, this information, together with these cases, which I will discuss below, evidence for large, permanent
available data on textile production and circulation, indicates that marketplaces has been found in the form of architectural complexes and
woven cotton took on the four typical roles of currency among the mural scenes (Jones, 2015; Martin, 2007a).
Maya over the course of the Late Classic.1 I argue that this process was
shaped by politically motivated market centralization and commodifi- 2.2. Comparisons to the Aztec World
cation. Neither the traditional metallist nor the chartalist accounts of
money alone sufficiently describe this process. Instead, the monetiza- With this growing body of evidence, it is now possible to begin to
tion of Classic Maya textiles shows elements of both of these models. make comparisons between Classic Maya markets and those of the
Therefore, further attention to this and other New World case studies Postclassic mercantile world, especially of the Aztecs. Three features of
may contribute substantially to cross-cultural comparisons of currency’s the Aztec economic system stand out in particular: the first is the pre-
origins. Rather than a single underlying motivation for monetization, sence of marketplaces. Aztec marketplaces were managed by political
such comparison may reveal a variety of competing economic strategies authorities to keep them safe from crime and well organized (Hirth,
by economic actors, which contributed to the diversity of monetary 2016, pp. 65–66), and laws dictated that goods should only be bought
forms through time and across space. and sold within the marketplace (Duran, 1971, pp. 273–75). As I have
discussed above, there is good evidence that such venues existed among
the Classic Maya, some with greater infrastructural outlays than others.
2. Background on Mesoamerican economies
Second, the Aztec marketplace saw a high degree of commodifica-
tion—that is, a diverse array of goods that might otherwise have existed
2.1. Debates about the Classic Maya economy
in different spheres (such as household subsistence or elite gift ex-
change) were brought together to the marketplace where they could
The role of trading and marketing in the Maya economy has been
stand in exchange for one another (whether directly or indirectly). A
number of Spanish chroniclers commented on the great variety of goods
A separate article (Baron, in press) discusses the Classic Maya use of cacao as money. offered in the Tlatelolco marketplace, which ranged from foods, to raw

J.P. Baron Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 49 (2018) 100–113

materials, to crafts, to precious stones and feathers (Hirth, 2016, pp. representations of economic activity allow us to address their produc-
65–70). This contrasts with a system of more restricted markets pro- tion and circulation. I will argue that these pieces of evidence reveal a
posed by Polanyi, in which marketplaces only existed at the edges of pattern of increasing monetization that began in the 7th century and
political systems—never infecting local subsistence economies—to continued into the Terminal Classic (9th century) and likely beyond.
allow traders to exchange exotic valuables at the behest of the state
(Polanyi, 1963). The degree of commodification present in the Classic
Maya market economy is still a matter of debate, but as I will discuss in 3. Mesoamerican cotton cultivation
this article, there is good evidence that it expanded during the 7th
century. 3.1. Cotton varieties and cultivation requirements
A third feature of the Aztec system is the importance of money in
market exchange. Though barter was also an important operating The cotton genus Gossypium has multiple species, though the one
principle in Aztec markets (Berdan, 1975, p. 217; Hirth, 2016, p. 248), most commonly found in Mesoamerica is Gossypium hirsutum.3 Within
money commodities were widely used in exchange. The two most im- this species there are many different varieties. Brubaker and Wendel
portant of these were woven cotton textiles of standardized sizes (1994) suggest that the wild ancestor of Mesoamerican cotton was G.
(quachtli) and cacao beans (Berdan, 1975; de Rojas, 1998; Hirth, 2016, hirsutum yucatense, which grows on the coastal Yucatan Peninsula. The
pp. 249–253; see Millon, 1955). According to Sahagun (1959, p. 48), earliest domesticated form may have been the variety punctatum, which
the two operated together in a fixed ratio, with different sized quachtli grows further inland. From this variety, Mesoamerican farmers devel-
representing 65, 80, and 100 cacao beans. Both items could be used to oped numerous others, of which palmeri, morrilli, richmondi, and lati-
purchase other goods in the marketplace, with cacao operating as a folium, are found in the Maya area. The latifolium variety eventually
smaller denomination and cotton textiles for larger purchases. While gave rise to the “upland” cottons grown today in the United States and
the Aztecs also produced textiles out of maguey fiber, cotton was clearly across the world. It must be noted that all of these varieties are capable
of higher status. Indeed, for part of Aztec history, sumptuary laws re- of cross breeding with one another, leading to considerable genetic
stricted cotton textile consumption to nobility, while commoners were variation.
required to wear maguey (Duran, 1994, p. 209). Of these Mesoamerican varieties, all but latifolium are perennial
In addition to a medium of exchange, there is evidence that textiles plants. That is, they grow and produce cotton for many years in a row.
served the other three archetypical purposes of money among the The latifolium variety is an annual crop, meaning that produces cotton
Aztecs. Various Colonial-era sources list the value of other commodities for a single year, and has to be replanted each growing season. (A la-
in terms of cotton textiles, indicating their use as a standard of value tifolium plant technically can produce fiber after its first year, but the
(Berdan, 1975, pp. 210–16). This was probably facilitated by size quantity decreases, making re-planting a more productive strategy.)
standardization of the kind described by Sahagun. Quachtli could also This variety has some advantages over its perennial cousins: it has large
be used as a means of payment of certain debts. For example, they bolls, and the amount of usable fiber per seed is high. It also has a long
served as restitution for theft, ransom for captives, and credit loans fiber, reaching an average length of 30 mm (Hutchinson, 1951), thus
(Berdan, 1975, p. 224). But the cotton payment of greatest importance making it easier to spin into thread. Today it is most frequently found in
was tribute to political authorities. According to Aztec tribute rolls, the northern Guatemala and Chiapas, though it is cultivated in other areas
quachtli was the most widely levied item, with conquered provinces of Mesoamerica as well. In modern times, annual latifolium cotton has
paying 217,600 each year. Other textile products were also levied, in- typically been grown in fields, while perennial cotton is grown in house
cluding 14,400 loin cloths, 20,800 women’s huipil tunics, and 1600 yards or on the edges of cultivated areas.
tunic and skirt sets (Berdan, 1987, pp. 239–40).2 Of the textile tribute Annual cotton needs certain conditions in order to germinate, fruit,
demanded by Tenochtitlan, only 10% was of maguey fiber, while 90% develop a sufficient quantity of bolls, and for the fiber to elongate and
was cotton (Berdan, 1978, pp. 239–40, n. 5). This does not include mature properly (Gipson, 1986; Oosterhuis and Snider, 2011). Cotton
tribute to local lords or textiles that were woven for personal use or as a also requires a fair amount of water, though the exact amount varies
means of exchange in the market. The large tribute amounts paid in with heat and soil conditions. Water needs peak around 90 days after
textiles also indicate that quachtli served as a store of value. The textile planting, then fall as the plant matures. Heavy rain can ruin mature
demands outlined in Aztec tribute lists are clearly larger than the bolls and make them difficult to harvest. These requirements are sum-
amount needed to clothe the royal court—instead, these items were marized in Table 1.
likely warehoused, where they could be later used as payment for goods Given these requirements, cotton grows best in tropical lowland areas
or services by the state (Brumfiel, 1980, p. 466; D’Altroy and Earle, of Mesoamerica. Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans had two options with
1985, p. 188). This use continued for a time under the Spanish colonial respect to cotton’s water requirements: the first was to grow during the
administration, in which both the crown and individual encomenderos rainy season, at the same time as corn, and rely on rains to provide the
collected tribute from indigenous people in the form of textiles, which necessary water. With this strategy, planting would probably be timed so
they then exchanged in the marketplace for other necessary goods (de that boll maturation took place during the waning of the rainy season, so
Rojas, 1998). Thus, there is evidence that cotton textiles served all four as not to lose mature bolls to rain. A cotton plant usually takes about
basic functions of money in the Aztec economic system. 5 months from planting to the maturation of the last bolls. Planting would
The evidence for similar monetary role of textiles among the Classic thus occur in June or July with harvest in October and November. The
Maya is more opaque. However, while the Classic Maya economy lacks other option is to rely on irrigation. Using this strategy, cotton could be
tribute lists, price lists, and Spanish eyewitness accounts, there is a grown during the dry season, leaving fields clear for corn planting during
growing body of relevant archaeological evidence with which to ad- the rainy season. Cotton could theoretically be irrigated by hand in any
dress the question of Classic Maya textile money. Textiles themselves field, but wetland raised fields would have been the ideal environment.
remain frustratingly perishable, but as I will discuss, the botanical re- Close to canals, the plants would have retained more soil moisture, and
mains of cotton, the tools used to spin and weave cloth, and artistic watering them would be less labor intensive. As I will show, there is his-
torical and archaeological evidence for both types of cotton agriculture
reaching far back in Mesoamerican history.
An even higher estimate is furnished by Drennan (1984, p. 109), who argues that
each unit of tribute in the lists represents a bundle of 20 finished textiles rather than a
single piece. This would have the effect of multiplying the total number by 20, for a total The cotton cultivated in South America and parts of Central America is a different
of over three million pieces. Berdan (1987, pp. 240–41) disagrees with this assessment species, Gossypium barbadense, and was domesticated separately (Brubaker and Wendel,
based on historical grounds. 1994). Old World cottons are also genetically distinct.

J.P. Baron Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 49 (2018) 100–113

Table 1 Next in descending order of quality is the cotton from the hot
Cotton growing requirements. country and the west, probably referring to the Gulf Coast and Pacific
Coast respectively. (Recall that Aztec tribute rolls recorded tribute in
Germination Growth Fiber elongation/
boll maturation raw cotton only from these regions.) Again, the relatively high value of
cotton from these regions may be due to their ideal moisture and
Low temperature 12 °C (53 °F) 20 °C (68 °F) 20 °C (68 °F) temperature, thus allowing for consistently long fibers. Cotton from the
High temperature 35 °C (95 °F) 32 °C (90 °F)
desert follows these, presumably with lower quality fiber due to the arid
Water (as measured in a 1.3 mm/day Rising to Falling to 3.0 mm/
field in Mississippi) 7.1 mm/day day environment. Finally, “tree cotton” (quahuichcatl) which is described as
being of Totonac origin, probably refers to some variety of perennial
cotton, and may have had no geographic association because it was
3.2. Aztec cotton cultivation more widely available in household gardens.
Color was also a factor in assessing cotton quality. Tawny cotton
The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan—in fact all three capitals of the (coyoichcatl) was not a prized color, and its price was adjusted down.
Triple Alliance—were located in areas too cool and dry for effective Unfortunately, descriptions of tawny cotton cannot be linked to one
cotton cultivation. Conquest, however, gave them access to more sui- specific variety. All of the domesticated cotton varieties grown in
table areas. Though Berdan (1987) identifies many cotton cultivation Mesoamerica today—both annual and perennial—can be found in dif-
areas among the Aztec provinces based on the analysis of place names, ferent hues (Hutchinson, 1951, p. 174). While latifolium and punctatum
the regions of highest yield were the Gulf Coast and Pacific Coast, are often bright white, they can also be various shades of cream or
owing to their hot and wet climates. Both the Codex Mendoza and the brown. The other varieties tend to be creamier, though they can also be
Matricula de Tributos indicate that Tenochtitlan received tribute in the found in white.
form of raw cotton from only four provinces on these coasts (Berdan Apart from fiber length and color, the passage also indicates that
and Anawalt, 1997; Berdan and de Durand-Forest, 1980). The Veracruz broken or stretched fibers were of low value. These were likely fibers
provinces of Quauhtochco, Atlan, and Tzicoac paid an annual tribute of that had been damaged during the cultivation or transportation process.
white cotton in the combined amount of 3600 bundles. Though the
weight of a bundle is difficult to assess, Drennan (1984) estimates 30 kg 3.3. Colonial era Maya cotton cultivation
as a reasonable weight for a bearer to carry. So a rough estimate of the
total annual cotton tribute from these areas would be 108,000 kg. The Unlike the Aztec highlands, much of the Maya region is very well
fourth province, Cihuatlan, in modern-day Guerrero, paid twice a year suited to cotton cultivation. The Pacific coast, Yucatan Peninsula, and
for a total annual tribute of 800 bundles, or 24,000 kg. This cotton is Southern lowlands of what is today Peten, Guatemala and Belize, all
depicted in the documents as yellow. The accompanying texts in provide necessary temperature and rainfall requirements. The excep-
Spanish label it as algodon leonado and Nahuatl as coyoichcatl, both tion, as I will show, is a band of highlands, where high elevations make
referring to its tawny, “coyote-like” color. The fact that it was paid cotton cultivation less suitable (Fig. 1). The widespread cultivation of
twice a year suggests that it was perennial cotton rather than annual, cotton across most of the Maya area is demonstrated in Colonial records
since annual cotton was likely only harvested once a year at end of the in archaeological remains, which I will discuss below.
rainy season. At the time of the Conquest, Diego de Landa wrote of the Yucatec
The Aztecs appear to have classified the value of cotton based on Maya, “they gather a very great amount of cotton, which grows in all
cultivation methods, region of production, and color. In the Florentine parts of the country, there being two sorts. One is sewn each year and
Codex, Sahagun’s informants describe the cotton seller: does not last over, and the tree of this is small; the tree of the other kind
lasts five or six years” (1978, p. 106). This indicates that both annual
“The cotton seller is a field owner, a cotton field owner; [he is] a
latifolium and perennial varieties were grown within this region.
worker of the soil, a planter of cotton, or an importer, or a retailer.
Colonial-era documents indicate that woven cotton was a standard
The cotton which he sells [is] round, fat, full-bodied, double-bodied.
form of tribute among Yucatec Maya communities. The Relaciones
The good cotton, the precious, the irrigated land variety, comes
Histórico-Geográficas de la Gobernación de Yucatán, a collection of re-
from irrigated lands [amilpampa]. That which comes from the hot
ports on colonial towns issued in response to a royal survey in 1577, list
countries follows. Also that which comes from the west follows.
cotton mantles as a tribute item for every single indigenous community
Finally comes that which comes from the desert lands, from the
whose tribute is described (de la Garza et al., 1983a,b). While we
north. That which is like the Totonac variety—tree cotton—[qua-
should be cautious about assuming an equation between cotton-culti-
huichcatl] comes last of all. Separately the good man sells these. And
vating communities and textile-paying communities, 21 of the Re-
he adjusts their prices. Separately he sells the yellow [coyoichcatl],
laciones from Yucatan explicitly describe cotton cultivation in the towns
separately the broken, the stretched. The bad cotton seller takes
under their authority. From these reports, we learn that Yucatec Maya
some cotton from each section; he fluffs the cotton with a needle;
communities grew and wove cotton not only for their own use and for
into each cotton boll he introduces [other cotton]; he fluffs it with a
tribute, but also for long-distance trade (sometimes in exchange for
other textiles). For example, in his account of the communities of Kizil
Sahagun, 1961, p. 75.
and Sitilpech, encomendero Juan de Paredes gives a typical description
The description of the cotton seller as a field worker suggests that of the local economy.
we are dealing with the annual latifolium variety. This passage also
“Trade in this land is principally among the natives, and is of cotton
indicates which properties of cotton were considered most valuable in
mantles, wax and honey and salt that is brought to Mexico,
market exchange. The most prized cotton comes from the amilpampa,
Honduras, and other parts, from which they bring cacao and clothes
the “well-watered land.” This is probably a reference to irrigated or
for the Indians. This cacao is a grain like an almond that is used as
raised field cotton. The fact that this cultivation strategy increased
money in this land and from which they make a brew. The natives
cotton’s value may be related to the farmer’s ability to control water
pay their tribute in cotton mantles, maize, and chickens, wax and
precisely, thereby achieving consistently long fibers. The fact that
honey, which is the harvest of this land”.
amilpampa cotton was contrasted favorably to other types indicates that
de la Garza et al., 1983a, p. 202, my translation.
farmers in the Aztec provinces must also have practiced rain-fed cotton
cultivation. The Relaciones Geograficas also mention the cultivation of cotton in
Tabasco: “native trees include cacao, which is the principal wealth of this

J.P. Baron Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 49 (2018) 100–113

Fig. 1. Map of the Maya area showing the location of cotton cultivation in Colonial and Pre-Columbian eras.

land…there is no other; among the Natives they trade some things for The only apparent restriction on cotton cultivation the Maya area
others, such as cotton, chili, beans, and other necessary things that are was elevation in certain parts of the highlands. Restriction on cultiva-
grown in this land” (de la Garza et al., 1983b, p. 371, my translation). tion did not mean that highlands towns did spin and weave however.
The Peten region of the southern Lowlands was not brought under Colonial records indicate that they imported cotton from lower eleva-
Spanish colonial authority until much later, and there are only scanty tions, often on the Pacific coast. By examining these tribute records, it is
accounts of the economic affairs of the Itza kingdom located in the possible to discern the specific elevation limitations in the Maya high-
interior. Visiting friar Avendaño y Loyola wrote in 1696 that they grew lands. In the Verapaz region, three towns cultivated cotton: San Agustin
Lanquin, Santa Maria Cahabon, and Tequecistlan, near Salama (Acuña,
“much cotton, cochineal, and indigo, which makes up an abundance
1982, p. 209; 320). All three of these towns are located in valleys with
of clothing that they have and give to the Kejaches [in northwestern
hotter temperatures than the surrounding mountains. The Avisos de lo
Guatemala] and Indians of Tipu [Belize] in exchange for axes and
Tocante a la Provincia de Guatemala, written in 1595, describe the
machetes. And it was all very neatly woven, with a variety of colors
commerce between different indigenous communities and the tribute
of cotton thread; this clothing is very durable, because it is like a
obligations of those beholden to the crown. Describing the inhabitants
felt, although the colors of these works are not very permanent…”.
of Tecpan Atitlan (Solola) for example, the Aviso states, “the inhabitants
Avendaño y Loyola, 1996, p. 44, my translation.
of this town gather much maize, chilis, and beans…. They make white
These historical records indicate that cotton was widely cultivated mantas, petticoats, and huipiles…. And with all of these things, they go
and made into textiles across the lowlands of Yucatan, Tabasco, Belize, to the Zapotitlan coast, which is day’s walk away… and then sell them
and the Peten. in exchange for cacao and cotton. And the cacao they sell to the

J.P. Baron Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 49 (2018) 100–113

Table 2 Because cotton relies on insects rather than wind for pollination, cotton
Colonial era Maya cotton growers and buyers by elevation. pollen generally finds its way into the soil only immediately below
where the plant grew. This characteristic means that cotton cultivation
Town or Region Raw Cotton Procurement Elevation above
sea level (m) was probably much more widespread than its limited contexts of re-
covery might suggest. Sampling bias may also play a role in the ob-
San Juan Ostuncalco, Bought from Soconusco 2504 served distribution of cotton remains—much research has been done on
wetland agriculture in Belize, but less investigation of ancient rain-fed
Totonicapan Bought from Zapotitlan 2495
Patzun, Chimaltenango Bought from 2200 agricultural fields has taken place.
Suchitepequez These archaeobotanical data demonstrate that the ancient Maya
Tecpan Atitlan (Solola) Bought from Zapotitlan 2114 grew cotton in raised fields contexts, but that they also used other en-
Santiago Sacatepequez Bought from Soconusco 2018 vironments—like the volcanic soils of Joya de Ceren and the Karstic
Santiago Atitlan Bought from Zapotitlan 1567
lowlands of Campeche—for its cultivation. These regions display con-
Antigua Guatemala Bought from Izcuintepec 1530
and Guazacapan siderable differences in rainfall as well (Joya de Ceren receives ap-
Nestiquipaque (Santa Maria Bought from Guazacapan 1285 proximately 500–600 mm more than Edzna annually) (Harris et al.,
Ixhuatan), Santa Rosa 2013). Thus, it is likely that soil and rainfall were not severely limiting
Santa Ana Ines (Lake Amatitlan) Bought from Guazacapan 1277
factors for ancient cotton cultivation.
Tequecistlan (Salama Valley, Grown locally 940
Baja Verapaz) Thus, historical and archaeological data both indicate that cotton
Guazacapan, Santa Rosa Grown locally 650 was probably grown across the entire Maya lowland region, with ele-
San Francisco Zapotitlan, Grown locally 650 vation the only major restriction on its cultivation.4 Raised field agri-
Suchitepequez culture likely allowed farmers to control for moisture and produce
Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas Grown locally 420
higher quality fiber, but conventional field and garden agriculture was
San Agustin Lanquin, Alta Grown locally 380
Verapaz also practiced across regions where raised fields were impractical.
Santa Maria Cahabon, Alta Grown locally 250 Unlike highland central Mexico, where cotton had to be imported, it
Verapaz could be cultivated by virtually any lowland Maya household with a
Izcuintepec (Escuintla) Grown locally 315
plot of farmland or a kitchen garden. This situation also contrasts to the
Santo Domingo Suchitepequez Grown locally 213
Soconusco Coast Grown locally –
relative scarcity of silver in the early cities of southern Mesopotamia
that first established equivalents between silver and barley. This silver
had to be imported from Anatolia (Potts, 2007). Cotton might be more
Spaniards in exchange for money, and from the cotton they turn it into closely compared to staple crops—also used as a standard of account in
more clothing … and they return again and sell it” (Acuña, 1982, pp. early Mesopotamia and in Egypt (Henry, 2004; Hudson, 2004b). But
310–11, my translation). These documents reveal a clear distinction unlike barley, cotton cannot be eaten. Its emergence as a measure of
between towns that grew their own cotton, all 950 or fewer meters value therefore cannot be attributed to its necessity in keeping laborers
above sea level, and those that bought it, all 1200 m or higher (Table 2). healthy and fed. To further the comparison between Mesoamerican and
These records can also be compared to those of towns held in en- Old World currencies, it is necessary to now turn to the production
comienda. Lovell et al. (2013) compile tribute lists from various com- process by which raw material was turned into textiles.
munities in the 1530 s and 1540 s. Records indicate that encomenderos
in general did not require tribute in raw cotton. Curiously, the only
exception was a tribute list from Huehuetenango compiled in 1549. The 4. Spinning and weaving
encomienda, which at this time consisted of only about 500 families in
Huehuetenago itself (1900 m) and the nearby community of Chiantla 4.1. Aztec textile production
(2000 m), was required to supply the harvest from planting six bushels
of cotton (Lovell et al., 2013, p. 142; 261). The actual yield of this While the cultivation of annual cotton in fields was probably a male
harvest remains unreported. So while it may have been agriculturally activity, along with other field crop agriculture, the spinning and
possible to grow cotton at these high elevations, Colonial documents weaving steps of textile production among the Aztecs were exclusively
suggest a strong preference for obtaining it from lower areas—such as female. Textile production took place in domestic sphere, rather than in
river valleys or the coast—where the yields were higher and more separate workshops. This remained true throughout the Colonial
predictable. period. In fact, Aztec female identity was so closely tied to competence
All of these Colonial documents indicate that the most important in textile arts, that baby girls were given spinning and weaving im-
factor in growing cotton in the Maya area was temperature, as de- plements at birth (Sahagun, 1969, p. 201).
termined by elevation. Indigenous towns over about 1000 m above sea These implements offer archaeologists the best material evidence
level preferred to obtain their cotton through trade rather than through for pre-Columbian textile production patterns. Cotton and other fibers
cultivation. In lower areas, however, cotton cultivation was wide- were spun into thread on drop spindles, or spindles supported by small
spread, without major limitations due to rainfall. bowls. A spindle is simply a stick around which completed thread is
wound. Close to one end, the spindle pierces a whorl, which acts as a
counterweight. As the spinner rotates the spindle, the whorl transfers
3.4. Archaeological evidence for Maya cotton cultivation angular momentum into the fiber, twisting it into thread. Whorls were
made of ceramic, stone, or perishable materials, and were generally
Archaeobotanical remains of cotton have been recovered from sites disk-shaped or hemispherical with a hole for the spindle pierced
in the Maya area dating from the Middle Preclassic period to the Early through the middle. These whorls are recovered in abundance at Aztec
Postclassic (Table 3). sites.
The fact that cotton pollen has been recovered from wetland field In an influential study, Parsons (1972) collected hundreds of spindle
contexts indicates the importance of the raised field strategy of cotton whorls in the Teotihuacan valley from Aztec and mixed component
cultivation among the Maya. Though most of these cotton remains have
been recovered from northern Belize and adjacent northeastern Peten, 4
Readers may be interested to know that the highest point of the Maya Mountains in
Guatemala, other regions of the Maya area clearly cultivated it as well, Belize is 1124 m above sea level. The site of Caracol is at about 500 m, well within the
as shown by archaeobotanical remains at Edzna and Joya de Ceren. acceptable elevation range for cotton cultivation according to the Colonial data.

J.P. Baron Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 49 (2018) 100–113

Table 3
Archaeobotanical remains of cotton from Maya sites.

Site Context Form Date Reference

Pulltrouser Swamp, Belize Wetland field Pollen N/A Wiseman (1983)

Albion Island, Belize Wetland field Pollen N/A Wiseman (1990)
Aguada Los Loros, Peten Hinterland reservoir Pollen Early Postclassic Ferrand et al. (2012)
Tikal, Peten Domestic context Seed Early Classic Lentz et al. (2014, p. S.I. 10)
Joya de Ceren, El Salvador Domestic contexts Seeds Classic Lentz et al. (1996)
Aguada Chintiko, Peten Hinterland reservoir Pollen Classic Ferrand et al. (2012)
Cerros, Belize Architectural; Sub-plaza midden Pollen; seeds Late Preclassic Crane (1996)
Cuello, Belize Architectural fill; chultun Seeds Late Preclassic Miksicek (1991)
Edzna, Campeche Architectural Pollen Late Preclassic Fish 1978 in Pohl (1985)
Cobweb Swamp, Belize Wetland field Pollen Middle Preclassic Jones (1994)
Aguada Tintal, Peten Hinterland reservoir Pollen Middle Preclassic Ferrand et al. (2012)

sites. Measuring the weight and size of the whorls, she noted a bimodal Chase et al. (2008, p. 131) note a general trend toward smaller whorls
distribution between smaller whorls, with a weight under 20 g and a in tombs near the site’s epicenter and larger whorls in outlying areas
spindle hole diameter under 7 mm, and larger whorls with weights and in Terminal Classic floor assemblages. They suggest that these
reaching up to 140 g and spindle hole diameters as high as 14 mm. She differing dimensions may indicate a range of different fibers spun as
proposed that the lighter whorls with the thinner spindles were used to well as different plies for different decorative techniques. Another
spin the fine cotton fibers, while the larger whorls and thicker spindles possibility is that this range of dimensions reflects a wider variety of
were used to spin maguey. Follow-up ethnographic work among cottons available to Maya spinners from either different genetic strains
modern spinners in Mexico (Parsons and Parsons, 1990) supported this or variations in quality due to rain fed agriculture. In contrast to the
hypothesis. Informants owned maguey whorls ranging from 16.2 to cotton whorls analyzed by Parsons (1972), which were used to spin
45.2 g in weight, and were able to comfortably spin fine maguey fiber imported cotton, Maya spinners would likely have been using a wider
on whorls weighing between 12.5 and 30 g. They refused to attempt to variety of cottons available from their own gardens or from nearby
spin maguey at all on anything smaller, indicating that smallest whorls cultivators.
found at archaeological sites were very likely used for cotton.5 Another important pattern is the presence of centrally perforated
sherd discs (CPSDs) at many Maya sites, often in greater abundance
4.2. Classic Maya textile production than spindle whorls themselves. These objects were made of broken
pottery, which was cut into a disk shape, then drilled through the
As among the Aztecs, Classic Maya spinning and weaving was middle. Whether these sherds were used for spinning or for other
probably a primarily female activity and an aspect of the domestic purposes has been debated. Chase et al. (2008) found two CPSDs at-
sphere.6 There are two notable differences between spinning tools tached to jade and obsidian ear ornaments at Caracol, and argued that
among the Classic Maya and those among the Aztecs discussed above. they are best interpreted as earflare backings rather than weaving im-
First, Classic Maya lowland sites yield very few spindle whorls as plements. On the other hand, Parsons and Parsons (1990) document an
compared to Postclassic central Mexico (Chase et al., 2008). And ethnographic context in which a CPSD was used as a spindle whorl.
second, while the literature is inconsistent in reporting weight and di- Kidder (1947) also notes that some CPSD were shaped to imitate spe-
mensions, Maya spindle whorls do not show a bimodal distribution and cially made whorls. Additionally, interpreting these objects as spinning
instead cluster on the small and light-weight side of Parsons’s spectrum. tools helps to explain the relative paucity of Maya spindle whorls as
This suggests that most Maya whorls were used to spin cotton rather compared to central Mexico. A similar pattern was observed by
than maguey, consistent with the more widespread availability of Carpenter et al. (2012) at the Classic Period site of El Palmillo in
cotton among the lowland Maya than among the highland Aztecs Oaxaca, where they recovered 136 CPSDs across the site and only 41
(Arroyo, 1993; Beaudry-Corbett and McCafferty, 2002).7 specially-made whorls. At that site, as in Kidder’s (1947) example,
Compiled data from a number of sites in the southern lowlands specially-made whorls were formed to strongly resemble CPSDs.
reveal whorls with a diameter range between 1.6 and 4.4 cm, a hole Why would a spinner go to all the trouble of drilling and shaping a
diameter range between 3 and 10 mm, and a weight range between 0.8 pottery sherd rather than simply forming a whorl out of wet clay before
and 32 g (Chase et al., 2008; Cossich, 2008; Halperin, 2008; Hendon, firing? Likely because the construction and firing of an open-air kiln for
1997; Kidder, 1947; Moholy-Nagy, 2007; Willey, 1965, 1972; Willey pottery production was probably not an everyday occurrence and may
et al., 1965)8 (see Table 4). Examining spindle whorls from Caracol, have demanded outlays of time, concentration, and wood that were
only available occasionally. Thus, it would have been more convenient
for a spinner to shape a pottery sherd than to wait for the next firing. As
Unfortunately, to my knowledge, the upper limits of whorl size for the spinning of such, the use of CPSDs at Classic Maya sites suggests an ad-hoc nature
cotton have not been established ethnographically.
to the activity which contrasts with the more institutional or planned
Brumfiel (2006) suggests that spinning may not have been a strongly gendered ac-
tivity among the Classic Maya, since spindle whorls have been found in several male use of specially made, fired, and often decorated whorls from clay and
burials. However, other lines of evidence suggest its strong female association. Ethno- stone. As I will discuss below, CPSDs also appear earlier in the Maya
graphically, Maya textile production is still tied to female identity, while spinning and archaeological record, suggesting a chronological shift in the organi-
weaving in pre-Columbian times were associated with the female Goddess O (Taube, zation of thread production.9
1992, pp. 101–3). Thus, spindle whorls in male tombs may not have been indexical of the
occupant’s spinning activities, but rather his ability to take textile wealth to the grave in
the form of spindles loaded with thread (of which only the whorl survives).
There is strong evidence that the lowland Classic Maya also grew maguey, especially (footnote continued)
for pulque, an alcoholic beverage (see Houston et al., 2006, pp. 116–122; Tokovinine, overlap with the smallest of Parsons’ (1972) proposed maguey whorls for the Teotihuacan
2016). Researchers at Joya de Ceren recovered the remains of a maguey plants in a Valley, this overlap is small, and the Maya whorls for which detailed data are available do
garden as well as a maguey textile used to cover a pottery vessel (Lentz et al., 1996). It is not present the same bimodal distribution. This suggests that specialized maguey whorls
therefore likely that maguey was used for utilitarian household fabrics, but there is no did not exist, and that Maya whorls were either exclusively for cotton or perhaps used
evidence that it was used as money. occasionally for other fibers (Chase et al., 2008).
8 9
While the dimensions of the largest of the lowland Classic Maya spindle whorls The largest of the lowland Classic Maya CPSDs might have been used to spin maguey.

J.P. Baron Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 49 (2018) 100–113

Table 4
Number and size of specially made spindle whorls and Centrally Perforated Sherd Disks at Classic Maya sites of the southern lowlands.

Whorls CPSDs Reference

n Diameter (cm) Hole Diameter (mm) Weight (g) n Diameter (cm) Hole Diameter (mm) Weight (g)

Aguateca 61 N/A N/A N/A 3 N/A N/A N/A Inomata (2014)

Altar de Sacrificios 31 1.8–3.8 5–7 N/A 64 2.4–10.3 1.5–7 N/A Willey (1972)
Barton Ramie 5 2.2–3.5 6–9 N/A 29 3.1–6.0 Ave. 7 N/A Willey et al. (1965)
Caracol 59 1.6–4.4 3–10 0.8–24.6 N/A N/A N/A N/A Chase et al. (2008)
Copan (Sepulturas Group) 26 1.8–3.8 N/A N/A 66 1.8–6.0 N/A N/A Hendon (1997)
Motul de San Jose 13 1.8–2.4 4–8 5–10 68 2.7–8.2 3–12 5–44 Halperin (2008)
Piedras Negras 8 2.5–2.7 5–7 N/A 3 N/A N/A N/A Coe (1959)
San Jose, Belize 15 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A Thompson (1939)
Seibal 10 2.3–3.1 5–9 N/A 78 3-? 7–10 N/A Willey (1965)
Tikal 51 2.0–3.2 N/A 6.0–22.0 287 1.7–6.3 N/A 1.1–32.3 Moholy-Nagy (2007)
Uaxactun 17 2.2–2.5 N/A N/A 39 2.5–8.5 N/A N/A Kidder (1947)
Peten Atlas Project (various sites) 41 1.9–3.8 N/A 9.1–32 N/A N/A N/A N/A Cossich (2008)

Weaving implements are rarer in the archaeological record at Maya

sites than are spinning tools. This is likely due to their more delicate, Table 5
perishable nature. Classic Maya weavers used a variety of tools such as Densities of spinning and weaving tools in different group ranks at Motul de San Jose
(after Halperin, 2008, p. Table 5).
picks, pins, needles, awls, and spatulas during the process of weaving
and or other decorative techniques such as embroidery. Such weaving Group Total Spinning Spinning Total Bone Total
tools made of bone have been recovered from household contexts, but Rank Tools (Whorls tools/1000 Bone tools/ sherds
also in tombs of elite women, where they are sometimes finely carved and CPSDs) sherds tools 1000
with images of heads and hands, and incised with inscriptions naming
their female owners (Bell, 2002; Dacus, 2005; Halperin, 2008; Houston 1 49 0.91 57 1.06 53,687
and Stuart, 2001). The paucity with which bone weaving and textile 2 21 0.57 2 0.05 36,684
working tools are found suggests, however, that these tools were more 3 16 0.52 6 0.20 30,732
often made of perishable wood, as they are today among traditional
Maya weavers. As such, the distribution of bone weaving tools at Maya
sites, while suggestive of wider patterns, does not represent the original Table 6
Densities of spinning and weaving tools in different group ranks at Tikal (Moholy-Nagy,
complete assemblage.
The relative social status of Classic Maya textile workers has been a
matter of debate. Some have noted the prevalence of textile production Group Total Spinning Total Bone Bone Total Lots
tools in elite contexts (e.g. Brumfiel, 2006; Chase et al., 2008; Rank Spinning Tools/100 Perforators Perforators/
McAnany, 2010, p. 117), but a careful examination of available data Tools lots 100 lots
(whorls and
suggests that Maya commoners also spun and wove, though perhaps at CPSDs)
a different ratio than their elite counterparts. Halperin’s (2008) study of
textile production tools at Motul de San Jose indicates that spinning 1 79 1.92 107 2.59 4124
tools—including whorls and CPSDs—appear in similar abundance in 2 52 4.17 15 1.20 1248
3 200 5.38 14 0.38 3720
households of different status. This holds true across all three reported
spinning tool categories: specially-made whorls, small CPSDs, and large
CPSDs. On the other hand, Halperin found that bone implements such activity, the pattern at these sites suggests that weaving was more
as needles, pins, and awls occurred in higher densities in elite house- common among elites, possibly because, as argued by McAnany (2010,
holds, though they occur in low density in lower status structures as p. 119), commoners had to devote their time to other responsibilities
well (Table 5). such as food and craft production. In addition, because elites signaled
At Tikal, with a much larger sample size, spinning tools were re- their higher status through their clothing, elite households probably
covered in greater abundance in lower-status households, while had greater demands for producing large textiles in a variety of dif-
weaving tools were recovered in greater abundance in higher-status ferent colors and styles for different occasions. The high frequency of
households (Moholy-Nagy, 2007) (Table 6).10 Thus, while it would be a spinning tools among lower-ranking households may be partially due to
mistake to view weaving or spinning as an exclusively class-based the ease of multi-tasking with spinning—which can be accomplished
while walking around, for example—as compared to the greater con-
centration required for weaving. It is likely that surplus thread pro-
duced by lower-ranking women was mobilized upward to elite women
(footnote continued)
The largest I am aware of was recovered at Motul de San Jose and weighed 44 g
to meet their greater household textile demands.
(Halperin, 2008) and overlaps with Parsons’ (1972) proposed maguey whorls. However, The fact that spinning and weaving was carried out within the
this overlap was minimal and Maya CPSDs do not show a bimodal distribution. Carpenter household by women across the social spectrum is another major dif-
et al. (2012) observed CPSDs weighing as much as 66 g at El Palmillo, Oaxaca and in- ference between textile currency and Old World metal currencies.
terpreted spinning tools to be used for cotton and maguey fibers. However, their sample
Metallurgical processes such as refining, smelting, and striking were not
does not show a bimodal distribution either, and it is difficult to definitively categorize
them based on fiber. everyday domestic activities but were instead dominated by specialists
Halperin’s study of Motul de San Jose calculates the density of textile production in workshops (Lehner and Yener, 2014). Maya textile production, on
tools with sherd counts. For Tikal, I used Moholy-Nagy’s reported number of textile the other hand, was not limited by technological difficulty but rather by
production tools in each of four categories of structure group: civic-ceremonial, range
labor time. Textile production was labor intensive but did not require
structure (both taken as elite groups), intermediate- and small-structure (taken as middle-
and low-status groups). These numbers were divided by the total number of reported lots
technological specialization. Indigenous weavers today still use similar
for each group, since total sherd counts were unavailable. The reader should note that the techniques with simple tools in domestic settings. Thus, even before
two data sets are not directly comparable without sherd-count data from Tikal. their monetization, Maya textiles were valuables with a far wider

J.P. Baron Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 49 (2018) 100–113

production base than many other ancient value objects. This production Table 7
process played a direct role in monetization.11 Number of spinning and weaving tools in different time periods at Tikal (Moholy-Nagy,

5. Classic Maya textile monetization Time Period Specially-made CPSDs Bone weaving
whorls tools

While both textile production and market exchange among the low- Terminal Classic (850–950) 10 16 21
land Maya are often analyzed synchronically, a closer examination of Late Late Classic (700–850) 11 51 21
their chronological development reveals an extended process in which Early Late Classic (550–700) 6 17 6
Unspecified Late Classic (550–870) 6 72 7
textiles gradually took on attributes of currency over a period of about a
Late Early Classic (400–550) 1 6
century. During this time, the use of textiles transitioned from primarily Early Early Classic (250–400) 1 2
articles of clothing to a proto-currency displaying—to a greater or lesser Unspecified Early Classic (250–550) 12 4
extent—all four attributes traditionally assigned to money. Terminal Preclassic (150–250)
Late Late Preclassic (1–150 CE) 1 3
Early Late Preclassic (350 BCE–1 CE) 1 4
5.1. Changing spinning tools Late Middle Preclassic (600–350 BCE) 3
Early Middle Preclassic (800–600 BCE) 2
Unspecified Late and Middle Preclassic 6 14
It has long been noted that specially made spindle whorls do not (800 BCE-150 CE)
appear in abundance Maya lowland contexts until the Late Classic
(Kidder, 1947, pp. 39, 68). This is considerably later than the first use of
spindle whorls on the Pacific Coast (Arroyo, 1993; Cossich, 2008) and
on the Gulf Coast of Veracruz (Hall, 1997).12 Yet it is clear from ar- households. Spindle whorls do not appear to have replaced CPSDs in the
chaeobotanical evidence and the depiction of woven textiles in monu- archaeological record of Late Classic Tikal—CPSD density did not di-
mental art that the lowland Maya cultivated cotton and wore it far minish (it actually increased considerably), and their average diameter
earlier. Bone weaving implements have been recovered in Early Classic remained unchanged.15 Instead, specially made spindle whorls point to
and Preclassic contexts at Copan and Tikal (Bell, 2002; Moholy-Nagy, a new organization of spinning activity—existing alongside the tradi-
2007). Significantly, CPSDs also pre-date spindle whorls, and are found tional system—in which households of all different ranks participated.
in Preclassic and Early Classic contexts at Barton Ramie, Seibal, and Rather than using this higher-quality thread for everyday clothing, it
Tikal (Moholy-Nagy, 2007; Willey, 1965; Willey et al., 1965). was likely used to produce cloth for circulation within the market. In
The archaeological site of Tikal provides an excellent representative this new context, lumpy or uneven thread was no longer adequate, as
sample of textile production tools over time, given its large sample size textiles were compared and their exchange value calculated. While the
and chronological and contextual information (Moholy-Nagy, 2007 distribution of bone tools and CPSDs remained unequal across house-
appendices). The first specially-made spindle whorls documented at hold ranks, spindle whorls were found in similar densities across social
Tikal date to the Early Late Classic (550–700 CE), and continued to be groups (Table 9 and Fig. 2). The fact that households of different ranks
used through the Terminal Classic (Tables 7 and 8).13 all produced some of this new finer thread (though in lower quantities
Why the sudden new use of spindle whorls in the Late Classic, and than the traditional thread for household use) suggests that this was an
how was the thread spun with these tools different from that of CPSDs? entrepreneurial response to changes in market exchange practices.
An important feature of specially-made spindle whorls is the increase in
thread quality afforded by their use. Another look at the data in Table 3
5.2. Widening political and exchange networks
demonstrates that CPSDs have a wider range of weight, diameter, and
hole size than spindle whorls, which would have yielded more variable
Other changes in the archaeological and historical record give a greater
thread tightness.14 Furthermore, CPSDs with shape irregularities or off-
context in which to consider this change in thread production. In the 7th
center spindle holes would yield lumpier thread, while better-balanced
century, two powerful kingdoms—Tikal and Calakmul—maintained an
whorls would yield smoother thread. Thus, prior to the introduction of
intense political rivalry that shaped the loyalties and economics of much of
specially-made spindle whorls, thread was produced on an as-needed
the Central Lowlands (see Martin and Grube, 1994, 2008). Though never
basis by shaping CPSDs from readily available broken pottery. While
consolidating a territorial empire, Calakmul amassed a network of vassals
the resulting thread may not have been perfectly smooth or consistent,
and allies that encircled Tikal, which experienced a diminishment in ex-
it was adequate for the production of clothing, including for elite
pensive construction projects and inscriptions during this time (often re-
ferred to as the Tikal Hiatus). Tikal recovered in the mid 8th century, at-
It should be noted that Mesopotamia had an important textile production industry tacking a number of these Calakmul allies and seeing a resurgence of
that was overseen by state institutions and which produced textiles for local consumption monumental art and architecture.
and export (Silver, 2007). Yet it was barley, rather than textiles, that served as the main
Importantly, each of these kingdoms undertook large infrastructure
accounting unit, with silver gradually becoming monetized as well (Hudson, 2004b). The
organization of land and labor differed between Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica, however projects aimed specifically at housing marketplaces in the shadow of
(McCorriston, 1997), likely contributing to the divergent circulation patterns of textiles in their royal courts. The earlier of the two was Calakmul’s Chiik Nahb
these societies. Acropolis. This complex features elongated structures—still largely
The early introduction of spindle whorls in these regions is likely a result of their unexcavated—that may have served colonnades or as rows of stalls
relationships with the central Mexican city of Teotihuacan (Bove and Medrano, 2003;
(Jones, 2015; Martin, 2007b). The most striking structure in this group,
Hall, 1997; Stark et al., 1998). Evidence suggests that the Pacific and Gulf coasts spun
cotton thread that was sent to Teotihuacan for weaving or finishing (Manzanilla, 2009). however, is a small radial pyramid. It was constructed in eight episodes,
Though the lowland Maya also had a relationship with Teotihuacan (Stuart, 2000; Taube, the third of which is decorated with stunning murals apparently
2003), the lack of earlier spindle whorls suggests that cotton thread was not one of the
products they traded.
13 15
One spindle whorl, (Catalog Number 136F-002/007u) is coded as belonging to the Fewer Early Classic and Preclassic lots were excavated at Tikal than Late and
Early Classic period (Moholy-Nagy, 2007, p. Appendix G Table 7.6). A review of the lot Terminal Classic lots. The resulting lower sample sizes of CPSDs and bone weaving tools
card in the Penn Museum Tikal archive revealed that this context was in fact the top make it difficult to analyze distribution across household ranks in these earlier periods
20 cm of a test pit and yielded mixed ceramics from Preclassic to Late Classic times. The with much certainty. For what it’s worth, bone tools appear with greater frequency in
whorl was therefore discarded for the purposes of chronological analysis. rank-1 groups all the way back into the Preclassic, while CPSDs are more evenly dis-
Carpenter et al. (2012, p. 389) note that specially-made whorls at El Palmillo, tributed across household ranks. This data, while inconclusive, possibly indicates that
Oaxaca, were also more uniform in size. upward mobilization of thread was a longstanding Maya tradition.

J.P. Baron Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 49 (2018) 100–113

Table 8
Densities of spinning and weaving tools in different time periods at Tikal (Moholy-Nagy, 2007).

Time Period Specially-made whorls/100 lots CPSDs/100 lots Bone Perforators/100 lots Total Lots

Terminal Classic (850–950) 3.47 5.56 7.29 288

Late Late Classic (700–850) 1.56 7.24 2.98 704
Early Late Classic (550–700) 1.82 5.18 1.83 328
Unspecified Late Classic (550–870) 1.02 12.18 1.18 591
Late Early Classic (400–550) 0.49 2.94 204
Early Early Classic (250–400) 4.17 8.33 24
Unspecified Early Classic (250–550) 1.64 0.55 733
Terminal Preclassic (150–250) 44
Late Late Preclassic (1–150 CE) 1.01 3.03 99
Early Late Preclassic (350 BB-1 AD) 0.98 3.92 102
Late Middle Preclassic (600–350 BCE) 9.09 33
Early Middle Preclassic (800–600 BCE) 50.00 4
Late and Middle Preclassic (800 BCE-150 CE) 5.41 12.61 111

Table 9
Distribution of spindle whorls, CPSDs, and bone weaving tools across household ranks in Late Classic Tikal (Moholy-Nagy, 2007).

Group Rank Total Spindle Whorls Spindle Whorls/100 lots Total CPSDs CPSDs/100 lots Total Bone Perforators Bone Perforators/100 lots Total Lots

1 5 0.66 11 1.46 20 2.65 756

2 2 0.54 18 4.89 3 0.82 368
3 11 1.22 63 7.01 2 0.22 899

and salt as well as non-foods such as clay jars, weaving pins, mats,
textiles, a figurine, an ear flare, and a macaw (see Carrasco Vargas,
2012; Golden et al., 2012, back cover; Martin, 2012). Hence, these
murals depict one of the three important features evident in the later
Postclassic market system: the commodification of a variety of eco-
nomic products such that they circulate side by side and may be ex-
changed for one another. Yet these scenes do not depict a monetized
marketplace. Rather, most scenes depict the “vendor” offering a good
without immediate payment, perhaps as a form of credit. Several others
depict what appear to be barter transactions. For example, a vegetable
appears to be traded for salt, (Martin, 2012, figure 19, Martin, 2007a),
maize dough for some sort of frothy liquid, possibly hot chocolate,
(figure 21) and jewelry for figurines (figure 33).
Textiles appear in four scenes. Two of them show individuals ma-
nipulating decorated textile strips—possibly belts or hair-wraps
(Carrasco Vargas, 2012, figure 37; Martin, 2012, pp. 68, 72–73). No-
tably, one of these two scenes depicts a man of high-status dress, in-
cluding the “jester god” headband of the royal court. He unravels a
decorated strip in front of a seated woman. She sits in front of a basket
or bowl that contains an unidentified object, and gestures toward the
man, possibly in an act of barter exchange. In another scene (Martin,
Fig. 2. Distribution of spindle whorls, CPSDs, and bone weaving tools across household 2012, figure 31), two men manipulate unidentified objects with a
ranks in Late Classic Tikal (Moholy-Nagy, 2007). bundle of white textiles between them, possibly as part of a negotiation.
The “buyer” is labeled with the glyph man, meaning “to buy” in many
Mayan languages (Martin, 2012, p. 73; Tokovinine and Baliaev, 2013,
depicting market activity (Carrasco Vargas, 2012; Martin, 2012, p. 173). Finally, in a fourth image (Carrasco Vargas, 2012, figure 11),
2007b). Ceramics from the first five phases point to a date between 420 an elite man displays an unfurled polychrome cloak, as if to examine it
and 620 CE (Boucher and Quiñones, 2007), yet the murals themselves or demonstrate its dimensions. Thus, textiles in these scenes, while not
contain stylistic detail only common after the mid-7th century (Martin, serving as an exclusive medium of exchange, clearly served as a fre-
2012, p. 62). Thus, it is likely that the initiation of the building (and quent exchange valuable, even for members of the royal court. No size
possibly the whole complex) occurred during the early years of the 7th or color standardization is evident in these scenes—textiles of various
century using a variety of earlier ceramic refuse (Boucher and sizes and decorative elaborations appear in different transactions. But
Quiñones, 2007, p. 34). The pyramid continued to be refurbished into textiles are unraveled for inspection, which would very likely have
the Terminal Classic (Boucher and Quiñones, 2007, p. 29). included tightness of weave and quality of thread.
Most of the mural scenes from the third phase feature an individual The mural phase of Calakmul’s radial pyramid, and possibly the two
or individuals with consumable products (“vendors”) and individuals in earlier phases as well, correspond to the rapid expansion of its networks
conversation or interaction with them (“buyers”). “Vendors” are la- of political patronage overseen by rulers Yuknoom Ch’een and
beled glyphically as “[product] person”, as in aj ixim, “maize person” Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’. This infrastructural and artistic investment
(Martin, 2012). Also included are individuals carrying heavy loads in may represent an “effort to centralize regional exchange networks” as a
packs or jars. Products depicted in the murals include a variety of facet of political strategy (Martin, 2014, p. 217) (Simon Martin, per-
foodstuffs such as maize grain, atole, tamales, tamale dough, tobacco, sonal communication, 2017). In 695, Tikal defeated Calakmul in battle,

J.P. Baron Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 49 (2018) 100–113

Fig. 3. Timeline of textile monetization.

seeing a resurgence of expensive public works thereafter. The Calakmul various households in the production of quality thread on specially
political network remained firm until the mid-8th century, when Tikal made whorls makes sense as an economic strategy.
began military campaigns against its members.
It was likely during this period of ascendancy that Tikal built its own 5.3. Standardization through tribute collection
architectural market complex. The Tikal East Plaza has been extensively
excavated (Coe, 1967; Jones, 1996, 2015). Constructed as a quadrangle After market centralization at Tikal and Calakmul had already
of gallery buildings fronted by piers resembling a colonnade, Jones begun, their rulers, as well as those of client kingdoms began to collect
interprets the complex as a series of vendor stalls with ready access to tribute in the form of textiles. As a result, textile monetization in-
the site’s broad Mendez and Maler causeways. While Jones (2015, pp. tensified, as textiles took on the functions of means of payment, store of
82–83) places the construction of this complex at the end of the 7th wealth, and measure of value. Whereas the Calakmul murals had shown
century, there is reason to propose a later date. The floor on which the textiles as non-standardized and non-exclusive exchange media, evi-
market complex is built is also associated stratigraphically with a dence shows that textile tribute arrangements began to standardize
nearby ballcourt, which contains a fragmented hieroglyphic text (Jones, textiles by size and color.
1996, pp. 83–84; chart 1). Jones proposes a date of 697, but the poorly This trend is reflected in the sudden popularity of scenes in Maya art
preserved calendrical section is ambiguous. Stylistically, the text and an representing tribute payments to lords. In order to date this expansion
associated ballcourt marker bear stronger resemblance to the monu- of tribute collection, I collected a total of 180 examples, all of which
ments of ruler Yik’in Chan K’awiil who came to power in 734 (Simon could be dated to the Late Classic period. Eleven examples could be
Martin, personal communication 2017). Furthermore, the floor asso- dated more precisely by glyphic dates or styles, all ranging from the
ciated with these structures probably also corresponds to the floor of very end of the 7th century through the eighth, thus post-dating the
the nearby Mendez causeway, which leads directly to Temple VI (Jones, construction of the Calakmul marketplace and the introduction of
2015, p. 73, 1996, p. 83; Martin, 2015, p. 9). A hieroglyphic text on this specially-made whorls at Tikal (though partially pre-dating the archi-
temple conveniently refers specifically to the paving of the causeway in tectural marketplace at Tikal) (Fig. 3). The earliest of these scenes dates
735 by Yik’in Chan K’awiil (Martin, 2015, p. 9; Stuart, 2007). Thus, the to 691. Significantly, it depicts a messenger from Calakmul interacting
East Plaza market complex likely also dates to the same period. A with the ruler of Dos Pilas, one of Calakmul’s political clients. The Dos
midden associated with the market dates to the Imix Ceramic Phase Pilas lord sits with a bundle of cloth, feathers, and a sack of cacao be-
(700–850 CE) (Jones, 2015, pp. 82–83).16 hind him; whether these are gifts to or from his patron, or simply meant
The dates of the proposed Calakmul and Tikal market complexes to display his kingdom’s wealth, is unclear. Later tribute scenes appear
date to a period of regional dominance and intense political rivalry: across the Central Lowlands, as rulers from a variety of kingdoms ac-
Calakmul’s earlier market corresponds to its consolidation of political quired textile tribute.
networks, while the market of its rival Tikal corresponds to a period of Woven cloth is the most prevalent among the tribute items offered,
its own military success and political network expansion. In both cases, appearing in 88 scenes. While these textiles are usually plain white,
the investment in market infrastructure would have benefitted each they occasionally show color or decoration. Usually bundled into
kingdom in its quest for regional dominance. First, formal marketplaces stacks, some scenes show cloth unfurled for the ruler’s inspection. These
likely encouraged wider market participation among geographically cases demonstrate that these tribute cloths were large cloak-sized items,
diverse populations at the expense of rival market networks. Wider not the wide variety of sizes shown on the Calakmul murals. In 12 cases,
participation by outlying communities and long-distance traders would white tribute cloth is worn by visiting dignitaries, along with spondylus
have made exotic goods available to rulers and commoners through shell necklaces and other tribute items. Houston et al. (2006, p. 247)
taxation or purchase. It would also have expanded each city’s catch- argue that these courtiers represent walking tribute bundles, who left
ment area of marketable agricultural products, thereby sustaining a their finery behind on display at the palaces of their overlords.
higher urban population (here it is worth remembering the presence of The presentation of cloth tribute shows that textiles could now serve
various food vendors in the Calakmul murals, including a family of as a means of payment in institutional debts. Sometimes, textile pre-
maize sellers). This in turn, would have allowed each kingdom to sus- sentation accompanies the display of war captives, possibly re-
tain higher population numbers for defense and labor. In short, market presenting ransom payment (McAnany, 2010, pp. 278–83, 296–97).
formalization and centralization would have benefitted Tikal and This indicates that textile debts could also be incurred across enemy
Calakmul in a number of ways.17 In this climate of widening market lines. The scenes also suggest that textiles served as a store of wealth.
participation and increasing commodification, an investment by Some tribute scenes include the presentation of over a dozen white
cloaks, suggesting a mobilization of cloth in larger quantity than ne-
cessary for practical needs. Plain white cloth was also unlikely to have
The similarity between the Tikal East Plaza market and features at Yaxha has also been used as clothing at royal courts, whose members demonstrably
been noted (Becker, 2015; Jones, 2015, 1996, p. 86). As at Tikal, an area with causeway preferred more colorful attire. Finally, standardization of size and color
access features a series of elongated buildings arranged in quadrangles. However, the
facilitated the use of textiles as a measure of value. By the Postclassic
buildings have not been excavated and no dates are available. Relevant for this discussion
is the fact that Yaxha is a very large site, of similar scale to Tikal and Calakmul. period, such standardized sizing allowed prices to be calculated in
My thanks to an anonymous reviewer of this article for pointing out a number of terms of textiles in the marketplace (a feature not yet evident in the
potential political benefits of market centralization. Calakmul scenes). While multi-colored cloth was likely regarded as

J.P. Baron Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 49 (2018) 100–113

having a higher value, Classic Maya rulers may have preferred a larger pyramid—direct access to many commodities in exchange for the tex-
quantity of plain white fabric in order to serve this expanding quanti- tiles produced by royal women.
tative function. Yet these bottom-up processes of textile exchange and market
As rulers manipulated textiles in this way, they mobilized an ex- commodification did not themselves produce standardization by size or
change valuable from a broad production base, guaranteeing their color, nor necessitate the creation of an exclusive currency. Instead,
courts access to an increasingly centralized market system. The in- rulers demanded white cloth in large sizes as a means of tallying the
creased reliance on this particular commodity—already an exchange- obligations of their vassals, allowing textiles to function as a standard of
able valuable—as a means of payment, measure of value, and store of value, means of payment, and store of wealth. Thus, over the course of
wealth, indicates that the monetization of textiles was well on its way approximately a century, these strategies widened the role of textiles
during the 8th century. from that of clothing and display to that of money.
This Mesoamerican case study demonstrates that monetization
cannot be fully explained without considering the differing strategies of
6. Conclusions
regimes and households, as well as the conditions in which valuables
are produced, circulated, and consumed. A focus on Eurasian coinage
The available evidence indicates that (1) at Tikal, increased in-
and pre-coinage metal currency may help us understand the history of
vestment in the production of high-quality thread across all household
European money and the origins of capitalism, but it does not go far
ranks preceded both state investment in market infrastructure and the
enough in delineating the various factors that may produce money and
state’s collection of textile tribute; (2) at Calakmul, the exchange of
money-like systems across time and space. Nor do the metallist or
textiles in the marketplace by people of different social strata preceded
chartalist theories of money alone account for the development of
the collection of textile tribute by state institutions as well18; and fi-
Mesoamerica’s textile currency. Instead, as this case study has shown, it
nally, (3) tribute collection in the late 7th and 8th centuries standar-
is important to consider how the various functions of money empha-
dized textiles in terms of size and color, facilitating additional monetary
sized by these two models came to adhere to particular commodities
functions (see Fig. 3).
through the strategic interventions of economic actors.
These observations force us to critically evaluate both the metallist
and the chartalist theories of the origins of money. The latter proposes
that money began as a means of payment and as a measure of value in
economic transactions between political regimes and subjects (Wray,
I would like to thank Naomi Miller, Jeremy Sabloff, and Jaime
2004). By paying armies, attached specialists, and laborers with specific
Forde for their comments on an early draft of this paper. I would also
commodities, and by simultaneously demanding tribute/taxes from all
like to thank the participants of the 2017 Society for Economic
subjects in the same form, the state spurred the creation of exchange
Anthropology meeting for their comments and conversations helping
networks as subjects sought to obtain the material with which to pay
me think through Classic Maya monetization. Participants in the Penn
their required tribute (Graeber, 2014). This theory relies on the relative
Museum’s “Plants, Animals, People” working group and “Mesoamerica
scarcity of metal money, which would have forced tribute payers to
Coffee Hour” also contributed to many fruitful discussions. Simon
obtain it through exchange in order to pay their taxes to the state.
Martin and Virginia Greene assisted me greatly in accessing the relevant
Classic Maya textiles do not fit this account for two reasons: first, with
materials in the Museum’s Tikal archive. Simon Martin’s thoughts on
the widespread availability of cultivated cotton and the ability to pro-
Tikal’s inscriptions were crucial for re-thinking the dating of the Tikal
duce textiles themselves, households would not have needed to create
marketplace. Finally, I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers
exchange networks in order to pay textile tribute. Secondly, the ar-
whose constructive comments on this article improved the final version.
chaeological record of the Classic Maya shows that textiles served as an
This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies
exchange medium in the marketplace prior to their collection as tribute
in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.
On the other hand, the traditional model of market participants
naturally choosing and standardizing a common exchange medium
without state interference is also flawed in this case. Calakmul’s murals
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