Maya Property and Commercial Law
Limited information is available on the Maya property system. Communal lands were owned by the nobles and ruling class, and were worked by commoners. Commoner families were also permitted to own small parcels of land that they used for subsistence agriculture. This land could be passed down to the owner's sons. Commoners were required to pay tribute to the ruler, their local elite lords, and to the gods in the form of labor, goods, offerings, and a portion of their harvests from their communal and private lands. They were also required to work on annual labor projects, such as building temples, palaces, and causeways.
In addition to the agricultural industry, the Maya produced cacao, cotton, salt, honey, dye, and other exotic goods for trade. The Maya had traveling merchants, but very little is known about them. There is evidence that they traded across the Maya region and Central Mexico, and conducted trade by sea. The Maya had markets to sell their surplus crops, but it is not known how the markets functioned or were governed. The Maya did have a currency system, and used cacao beans, gold, copper bells, jade, and oyster shell beads as forms of money. Counterfeiting was a problem, and occurred when unscrupulous individuals removed the flesh of cacao beans and replaced it with avocado rinds or dirt. The Maya additionally conducted business using the barter system.
The Maya used contracts, which were formalized when the parties drank balché (a mild alcoholic drink) in front of witnesses. Interest was not charged on loans and there were no criminal penalties for going into debt. Individuals who could not pay their debts would become slaves of the people who they owed money to. If a debtor passed away, his family would assume responsiblity for paying his debts.
Sources: Foster (2002), Salcedo Flores (2009), and Sharer (1996).
Image Information: Payment of tribute to Maya ruler (Reents-Budet, ceramic vase).