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READ: Long-Distance Trade in the Americas

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What were some barriers to trade in Mesoamerica?
  2. What made Teotihuacan an important trading center?
  3. What sort of goods traveled across long-distance routes in the Americas?
  4. Why don’t we know very much about merchants in Teotihuacan? Why do we know more about merchants in Tenochtitlán?
  5. What was life like for merchants in the Aztec Empire? What roles did they play in the empire, other than trade?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Think about the region you live in. What environmental features would have made it easier or harder for you to trade with other regions if you had to carry all your trade goods only on your back or in a canoe?
  2. How does the evidence in this article support, challenge, or extend what you have already learned about the Americas in the period prior to about 1500?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Long-Distance Trade in the Americas

A detailed painting depicts a crowded marketplace. All around, people are buying and selling goods like grains and fish. Many people carry large baskets. In the center of the market sits a person in a large, rounded chair, holding a fan.
By Bennett Sherry
All societies in the Americas engaged in trade. Mesoamerica is a great place to start looking for evidence of extensive long-distance trade networks before 1500.

In the middle of everything

When we talk about trade networks in world history classes, Afro-Eurasia gets all the attention. The Silk Road, connecting Europe with South and East Asia, usually hogs the spotlight. It almost feels like long-distance trading in the Americas didn't exist until European colonizers arrived after 1500. But of course, there was plenty of trade. When looking for evidence of long-distance trade networks in the Americas, the best place to start is Mesoamerica (today's Mexico and Central America). It was the most urbanized region of the Americas and, as the "Meso" part of its name indicates, it was kind of in the middle of everything.
Map shows the area that was Mesoamerica.
Map of Mesoamerica. The word “meso” is a Greek word that means that means “middle.” So, “Mesoamerica” means “Middle America.” By Yavidaxiu, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Until recent decades, historians and archeologists assumed that long-distance trade in the Americas was pretty limited. For example, many believed that the Maya economy was controlled by the ruling class. Historians assumed that this control prevented the development of large markets and a merchant class. They also assumed that the Inca in South America had a centrally planned economy with very little commercial activity. Other societies, like those in the Southwestern U.S., the Caribbean, and the Mississippi River valley, were also assumed to have few long-distance linkages.
But don't be too hard on those scholars; there were good reasons to think this way. The Americas in general—and Mesoamerica in particular—wasn't exactly trade-friendly. Mesoamerican societies did not develop sailing technology, and most Mesoamerican societies developed inland, away from seaports. Other than llamas and alpacas in the mountains of South America, the Americas had no pack animals, and hardly any navigable rivers. Most merchants had to carry goods themselves, on their backs. Archeologist Kenneth Hirth claims that "Mesoamerica had the worst transportation system in the ancient world." But Hirth notes that nonetheless, Mesoamerica developed active long-distance exchange networks and huge markets. All societies in the Americas participated in some level of trade. The big question: How extensive were the connections formed by trade? One way to answer this is by comparing two Mesoamerican cities, separated by 25 miles—and by 1,000 years: Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlán.


In the fifth and sixth centuries CE, Teotihuacan was one of the largest cities in the world, home to as many as 200,000 people. During the Classic Period of Mesoamerica (100 – 650 CE), this was the most powerful and most important city in Mesoamerica. It held the largest market of the Classic Period, the center of regional trade networks extending through Mesoamerica and possibly beyond.
Birds-eye view of Teotihuacan showcasing the road that runs through the city, with many impressive pyramid-like structures surrounding.
The Avenue of the Dead in Teotihuacan was a large street that ran through the center of the city. It was named by the Aztecs 900 years after the collapse of the city, but this street was once full of life, with merchants from distant cities carrying goods to the city’s market. By Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Teotihuacan was an important market center and trading power because its rulers controlled access to two of the largest sources of obsidian—a natural glass formed by the cooling of volcanic lava. Since metal-working was rare in Mesoamerica, obsidian was the best option for weapons and other sharp tools… if you could get it. Like iron and copper in Afro-Eurasia, Mesoamerican societies that had reliable access to obsidian had a distinct advantage.
The rulers of Teotihuacan monopolized the region's obsidian, and merchants from Teotihuacan traveled across Mesoamerica and beyond, trading obsidian and bringing back luxury goods. Archeological evidence suggests that Teotihuacan's trade networks reached from today's Southwestern U.S. to Panama. However, its strongest trade was with the Maya city-states (now Mexico). Teotihuacan and the Maya exchanged goods, ideas, and people in times of war and peace. Maya merchants traveled the coast in huge canoes, carrying jade, cacao, honey, and feathers, among other luxury items.
A knife carved from obsidian: a black, shiny rock. The handle is covered in a turquoise mosaic.
Long-distance trade was limited to lighter, high-value luxury goods that were easy for merchants to carry. But staples like salt, grains, cotton, lime, and ceramics moved shorter distances along the same routes. Short-distance trade moved food between different climate zones, helping protect societies from sudden natural disasters like drought. These shorter trade routes probably developed first and laid the foundations for truly long-distance networks during the Classic Period.
You might have noticed we said probably. One of the reasons we hear so little about the long-distance trade networks of the Americas is a lack of sources. We don't have many written sources from Mesoamerican societies. Some societies, like Teotihuacan, left us no records. A lot of the written records from other societies, like the Maya, were burned by Spanish colonizers centuries later. We have some oral histories that the Spanish recorded from the people they conquered. To make matters worse, merchants weren't part of the ruling class, so we don't know as much about them. This is probably why, for so long, scholars assumed that the Maya and Inca never really had a complex commercial economy—the available sources all focus on the lives of the ruling class. Scholars studying this region have had to rely on murals of market scenes and archeological evidence to understand the lives of merchants.
In the center of the city of Teotihuacan, people crowd around an archaeological site. Inside the site we can see remnants of brick structures. The site has a black fence around it.


Just 25 miles south of Teotihuacan sits the capital of the Aztec Empire—Tenochtitlán. Well, it used to be Tenochtitlán. Today, it's Mexico City, itself a center of global trade and home to almost 21 million people. But beneath the concrete of this modern city lie the ruins of Tenochtitlán. Almost 1,000 years after the collapse of Teotihuacan, the huge markets of the Aztec empire dominated trade in Mesoamerica.
Map shows the vastness of the regions ruled by the Aztec empire.
The extent of the Aztec Empire in 1519 (shown in green). By Giggette, CC BY-SA 3.0.
After Teotihuacan collapsed around 550 CE, other societies rebuilt regional trade networks. By the fifteenth century, the Aztec Empire controlled extensive trade routes across most of Mesoamerica. The Aztec Empire was formed by an alliance among three powerful city-states in the early fifteenth century. The empire's capital city, Tenochtitlán, sat on a lake. Its huge markets, straight streets, and monumental architecture contained over 200,000 people—larger than London, Paris, or Madrid at the time. The nearby market of Tlatelolco was visited by tens of thousands of people every day.
Trade was central to life in the Aztec Empire. Their pantheon – the group of gods they worshipped – had a god of commerce, named Yacatecuhtli, who protected faithful merchants and travelers. Aztec merchants were called pochteca and they traveled all over Mesoamerica, carrying their goods on their backs. They walked through the empire and beyond, buying and selling luxury goods like turquoise, quetzal feathers, cacao, obsidian, and jade. Pochteca also carried information. They acted as spies for the empire, gathering information about rivals, which the Aztecs used for military expansion.
A model of a marketplace made out of clay. The marketplace is crowded with people trading goods like baskets, fish, vegetables, pottery, and textiles.
A model of the Tlatelolco market. Tlatelolco was Tenochtitlán’s sister city. By Joe Ravi, CC BY-SA 3.0.
We know a bit more about the Aztec merchant class than we know about Teotihuacan or Maya merchants. We have more sources from the Aztecs and the Spanish colonizers. The pochteca formed their distinct social class and developed a complex hierarchy, from minor merchants who sold goods at local markets that they made at home to incredibly wealthy individuals who employed dozens of minor merchants to carry luxury goods beyond the border of the empire. Like merchants in Europe and China, many pochteca were forced to hide their wealth to avoid angering the nobles.
On the left, a picture of a bird with brightly-colored feathers. On the right, a picture of an Aztec headdress made of the same, brightly colored feathers in shades of blue-green.
Decorative quetzal feathers were a valuable trade good that was light and could easily be transported long distances. They were often used for ceremonial purposes and in clothing, like this Aztec headdress. Left: By Harleybroker, CC BY-SA 4.0. Right: By Thomas Ledl, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Long-distance networks in the Americas

So far, we've focused on Mesoamerica, but other regions of the Americas also had long-distance trade. Extensive road systems linked societies in the Andes Mountains, today's Southwestern U.S., and in the Maya lowlands. Llama caravans traveled the Inca highlands to the Pacific coast. In the Mississippi River valley, trade networks stretched from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico. Caribbean societies traded with communities in South America.
The Puebloan peoples in today's Southwestern U.S. traded turquoise across a vast network stretching from California to Colorado to Northern Mexico. Puebloan turquoise has been found in Aztec sites, and Aztec cacao and feathers have been found in the American Southwest. This is all evidence of long-distance trade. The two societies were separated by 1,200 miles—about the same distance as that between Rome and Egypt.
A drawn depiction of two merchants, walking along a road, their backs bent from the heavy packs they are carrying.
Pochteca merchants carrying trade goods. Public domain.
Technologies moved along with goods. Agricultural methods for farming maize might have traveled to North and South America from Mesoamerica along trade routes, and South American metal-working technology probably arrived in Mesoamerica along the same routes in the opposite direction.
Probably. Yes, there's that word again. A lot of our historical knowledge about trade in the Americas before 1500 CE is based on educated guesses, which are based on incomplete evidence. Now, this is true of many historical narratives, but the relative lack of written sources about trade in the Americas especially clouds our understanding.
We know that trade within Mesoamerica was common, complex, and widespread. We know the same for the Andean highlands in South America, the Caribbean Islands, the Southwestern U.S., and the Mississippian societies. What we're not sure about, and what scholars continue to debate, is how interconnected these different regions were with each other. Were Mississippian merchants connected to Aztec markets by way of Caribbean canoes? Was the Inca economy tied to the western coast of Mexico by routes along the Pacific coast? Did Amazonian people get any trade goods from the Caribbean islands?
The lack of sources limits our knowledge, but not our curiosity. Archeologists and Anthropologists at Teotihuacan and other sites across the Americas have only begun to trace the paths of exchange before 1500. The debates will continue as discoveries are made and new connections revealed.
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in History from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a Research Associate at Pitt's World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

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