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6 The Importance of Trade and Commerce at Blue Creek In this chapter, I examine Blue Creek’s wealth and how it was obtained. In previous chapters, I have argued that Blue Creek based its economy upon the community’s access to high-quality and large-scale agricultural lands. However, the presence of this agricultural resource,alone,is not adequate to explain how Blue Creek acquired material wealth. In order to convert such a resource into wealth, Blue Creek also required access to outside markets, trade, and interaction with other Maya polities. The focus of this chapter is jade at Blue Creek. Jade is commonly seen as a proxy for ancient Maya wealth and power. While other exotic goods could also be used and are broadly found at Blue Creek, jade is easily recognizable and recoverable in field settings. Further, its source is well understood and it was clearly important to the ancient Maya. The Maya Coastal and Riverine Trade System While Blue Creek’s agricultural productivity gave it the means to acquire wealth, its location at the headwaters of the Río Hondo enhanced the community’s ability to transport products to other markets (Figure 1.6).1 The Río Hondo is the farthest north of the rivers draining the Maya lowlands. It is a slow-moving stream that also provided canoe access to Chetumal Bay,the Caribbean Sea,and,ultimately, populations in northern Yucatán who had fewer and less reliable agricultural resources .Experimental canoe trips show that a dugout canoe requires approximately three days to reach Chetumal Bay from Blue Creek (Figure 6.1).2 Chetumal Bay linked the coast with a series of important accesses into the interior of the Maya lowlands. Not only do the Río Hondo and the New River drain into Chetumal Bay, but also there is an artificial canal that links the large Bacalar Lagoon to the north end of the bay. Further, the Xkalak Peninsula and Ambergris Caye protect the bay from the open sea. As a consequence, it was easily accessible to canoe travel. Importance of Trade and Commerce at Blue Creek 103 Archaeologists have long known that the coastal trade system was operating at the time of contact.3 However,its complexity and intensity in the Postclassic period was only begun to be understood in the mid-1970s, when research on Cozumel Island was undertaken.4 Other research has shown that a robust trade in commodities such as salt existed, in addition to the well-known status-reinforcing exotic objects such as jade, obsidian, and ceramics.5 In the 1980s, intensive field projects established that well-organized coastal trade incorporating specialized port-oftrade and transshipment ports were in place at least as early as the middle of the Classic period.6 Further, the site of Cerros was established in the Late Preclassic at the mouth of the New River on Chetumal Bay’s southern extension, Corozal Bay.7 Cerros was likely to have also controlled access to the Río Hondo, only a few miles north. From that time on, a succession of polities controlled Chetumal Bay and the linkage between the coastal and riverine trade systems.8 Further, by a.d. 600, Ambergris Caye had been separated from the Xkalak Peninsula by a narrow channel.9 Figure 6.1. Construction of a dugout canoe used to navigate the Río Hondo. 104 Chapter 6 Despite debate as to whether this channel was artificial, it certainly shortened the distance a canoe would need to travel up the northern coast by about a hundred kilometers. Further complexity in the system has been revealed by Heather McKillop ’s research.10 She has demonstrated that small-scale salt production on the islands off the coast of Belize augmented the existing long-distance trade from the large northern Yucatecan coastal salinas, lagoons where salt can be collected. Importantly , this occurred at the same time inland populations reached their peaks in the Late Classic. The coastal and riverine trade system was in place by the Late Preclassic period , and by the mid-Classic period its complexity included transshipment ports, probable canals, and small-scale production of coastal goods for inland consumption . Confirming that Blue Creek was directly linked to this system via the Río Hondo, we have identified a dock feature at the terminus of the navigable portion of the river, and several other likely landing locations exist within the Blue Creek polity.11 Blue Creek, at...


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