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Mayan systems of transportation

Mayan ceremonial centers were connected by a series of roads. The exact extent of the ancient road system will likely never be known, as much of it has been destroyed by centuries of vegetation growth and modernization.

The Mayans called them sacbe (“white road”). These “white roads” were built from large stones covered with rubble. After laying the rubble, large cylindrical stones were rolled out over the surface, compacting the roads.

Then a smooth layer of stucco or cement was applied to them. The “white roads”, also called “sacbeobs” (plural of the word “sacbe”), rose from 0.6 to 1.2 meters above ground level and ranged from 3.7 to 9.8 meters in width.

Sacbeobs often connected important buildings and complexes in city-states. They also connected major ceremonial centers with remote areas. It is believed that the longest Mayan road was more than 100 kilometers long.

The sacbeobs held cultural and religious significance, often being used for pilgrimages and important processions.

The ancient Mayan civilization’s city-states covered an enormous area of about 840,000 sq km. In such a vast region, there were many products and raw materials, abundant in some areas and completely lacking in others.

Mayan trade networks covered vast regions throughout Mesoamerica and beyond. These trade routes, crossing dense jungles, mountains, and vast waterways, formed the basis of the Mayan economy and cultural exchange.

For example, cocoa grew well in the Tabasco region, and highly prized quetzal feathers were found along the border of Chiapas and Guatemala. All this required extensive commercial trade to cover long distances.

Honey, cotton fabrics, rubber, dyes, tobacco, ceramics, feathers, and animal skins were regularly exported to Chiapas, Guatemala, and Salvador. Coastal groups supplied inland groups with salt, dried fish, shells, and pearls.

Salted and dried meat was especially valued.

Somewhere around 900, turquoise, gold, and copper objects began to appear. Almost all trade was controlled by wealthy merchants. These traders used cocoa beans as currency, and the beans had a fixed market price.

While canoes were essential for coastal and river trade, land routes relied on human porters and slaves to transport goods on foot. Porters traversed dangerous terrain, transporting goods over vast distances of the region.

Mayans did not have pack animals or wheels to transport heavy loads. Instead, trade goods were transported on the backs of slaves who traveled along established routes. Many traders found it much easier to use canoes.

The canoes were caned out from huge tree trunks and were about 15 m long.

Canoes carried goods to towns along the coast, never going very far inland. From the coastal areas, goods were then transported to the inland city-states. This method of trade was still in effect when the Spanish arrived.

Archaeological excavations at key Maya sites have provided valuable information about the Mayan transport and trade. Artifacts provide tangible evidence of networks of long-distance exchange and cultural interaction.

Interdisciplinary research combining archaeological data with ethnohistorical accounts and linguistic analysis has helped to understand Maya trading practices, revealing the multifaceted nature of Mesoamerican trade.

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