for National Geographic News
An ancient marketplace once stood in Chunchucmil, a pre-Columbian Maya city that was located in the Yucatán Peninsula, a new study says.
The research sheds light on the ancient Maya economy and challenges prevailing theories that food was taxed and dispersed by Maya rulers during the culture's Classic era, which lasted from about A.D. 300 to 900, rather than traded in markets, experts said.
Food and other organic matter degrade quickly in such wet climates. So scientists studying how the ancient Maya traded, bought, and sold food have had to work with little archeological evidence, pointed out research team member Richard Terry, an environmental scientist from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
Food and organic matter do leave behind a chemical footprint, though—faint traces of phosphorus that cling tightly to soil particles even in heavy rains.
By comparing phosphorus levels in Chunchucmil soil to dirt from a modern market in Antigua, Guatemala, Terry and colleagues concluded that the Maya city likely contained a vibrant market.
"Soil chemical analysis provides additional lines of evidence that have changed how we think of the ancient Maya's trade patterns," said Terry in a telephone interview.
"Traditionally we've thought the tax-tribute system was responsible for distributing goods. But this shows that the Maya not only had a marketplace and a market economy but an important middle class of merchants as well."
(Related: "Maya Rituals Caused Ancient Decline in Big Game" [November 15, 2007].)
To perform their analysis, the researchers extracted phosphorus from 0.07-ounce (2-gram) soil samples with acid, mixed the solution with other chemicals, and measured the resulting blue glow.
The technique revealed a streak containing low levels of phosphorus, with concentrations 40 times higher on either side.
A similar pattern was detected in Antigua's modern market—at the time the only market in the area that had not been paved over—the study says.
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