Oct 152012

In an earlier post, we looked at the benefits brought by Mexico’s street markets (tianguis) to both vendors and consumers, and mentioned their long history.

But where, when and why did the first street markets emerge in Mexico?

While there is ample evidence of long-distance trade at least as far back as the Olmec (1500 BC to 200 BC), and we know that there was regular long-distance trade during Aztec times, this trade did not necessarily involve market places and market activity.

Richard Blanton and his co-authors in Ancient Mesoamerica: a comparison of change in three regions offer some insights into how markets may have developed in the Oaxaca region of Mexico.

They point out that relatively little archaeological work has been done on finding the origins of market systems. The major reason for this is because of the paucity of direct archaeological evidence of market activities. Finding “exotic” items (those originating from outside the area) is a clear indication of barter or trade, but does not prove that there was a regular market.There is little or no evidence of the former market stalls and activities for archaeologists to work with.

Ceramic items in a Oaxaca street market. Photo: Tony Burton

Ceramic items in a Oaxaca street market. Photo: Tony Burton

However, several million ceramic pieces found in the Oaxaca area have been collected, and systematically cataloged by complexity of form, and hence, difficulty of manufacture and likely “value”. Blanton and his colleagues explore the idea that the distribution of these ceramics can be used to map ceramic production sites and provide a “faint image of the structure of the region’s marketing system”.

In their words, “Presumably, producers would have  distributed themselves in such a way as to maximize their access to potential customers, and to minimize costs. As the clays needed for ceramic making were available virtually everywhere, potters should have therefore tended to locate themselves close to the marketplace or marketplaces where their goods would be sold, to minimize their costs of moving the pottery.” [p 37]

Echoing central place theory, they write that, “A market system and its specialized producers can’t be supported if the producers can’t make a living. They have to be able to supply a sufficiently large number of households that are willing and able to consume a sufficiently large quantity of their goods.” The “demand threshold” is the minimum demand sufficient for a particular product to be worth producing. People will travel further to purchase a higher cost or rarer item (which has a higher demand threshold), which will be produced in only a single or very small number of locations.

According to Blanton and his colleagues, the data for ceramic types in the Valley of Oaxaca confirm that as early as 500 B.C., only one site contained evidence for the most costly (intricate; many steps involved in production) form of ceramics. This site was located in the center of the valley. On the other hand, a larger number of production sites for less costly ceramics were found, scattered around the valley, each site apparently supplying a small local area. While this is not conclusive proof of regular markets, it is certainly strongly suggestive that this is how markets originated in this region.

More than two thousand years later, the Oaxaca Valley still has some of the most colorful and vibrant markets in Mexico. The map shows the market day for major markets in the area around the city of Oaxaca. For more details, see Markets in and near the city of Oaxaca.


Blanton, Richard E., Stephen A. Kowalewski, Gary Feinmann and Jill Appel. Ancient Mesoamerica: a comparison of change in three regions. Cambridge University Press, 1981.

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