Mesoamerican Commerce: The Phoenicians of Middle America

Mesoamerican Commerce: The Phoenicians of Middle America

By Tim Hazell


By the time of the Spanish conquest, in the Mesoamerican Post-Classic (A.D. 950-1539), the Maya were participants in a widespread network of trade and exchange reaching as far south as Panama and as far north as central Mexico. 


Columbus, on his fourth voyage in 1502, encountered an Indian canoe near the Bay Islands off of Honduras, as long as a western galley and 8 feet in width. The vessel was filled with cotton cloth of many hues and designs, shorts that reached the knees, flint knives, swords of wood with flakes of obsidian set along the edges, copper axes, bells, and cacao beans, a standard unit of Mesoamerican currency.


Contemporary analysis of the contents suggests a connection with central Mexico for the copper implements, Yucatan for the cotton clothing, and Belize for the cacao beans, which had probably been picked up on the way down the coast for shipment back to Yucatan on the return voyage. The trip had likely begun in the Gulf of Mexico at the great Maya-Aztec hub of Xicalango on the Laguna de Términos, where land, river, and sea routes meet.


Merchants and crew would probably have been Chontal Maya from the Laguna de Términos area, sometimes dubbed the “Phoenicians of Middle America.” Mayan sites with gold alloy metalwork from this isthmian area indicate that an extensive trans-peninsular movement of goods had become commonplace by the Mesoamerican Classic period (circa A.D. 200-900). 


Local and regional markets benefited from land and sea trade. Fish and seafood were sought-after staples long before the conquest. This hearty Mexican fish stew has as many variants as there are traditional kitchens. Create your own version!


Mexican Fish Stew



1-1/2 lbs. (680 grams) firm fish fillets such as red snapper, cut into large dices

(optional: add medium shrimp, cleaned and deveined, tail on)

3 tbsp. oil 

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 bunch coriander leaves, rinsed and finely chopped

1-inch (2-1/2 cms) peeled, grated ginger root

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 tsp. ground cloves

1/2 tsp. ground cardamom 

2 tsp. ground cumin seeds 

2 tsp. ground coriander seeds

1 tsp. cayenne pepper

2 bay leaves

3 tomatoes, chopped

2 tsp. sugar

1 15 oz. (440 ml) can coconut milk

1 cup fish stock or water



Chopped coriander leaves

Sliced radish (optional)

Lime wedges



Heat oil in a large saucepan. Gently brown the onion, coriander leaves, ginger, and garlic. Add ground cloves and cardamom, ground cumin and coriander seed, cayenne pepper and bay leaves. Fry gently for another 2 minutes. Add tomatoes and sugar and stir. Pour in the coconut milk and stock, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook for 15 minutes. Add the fish and simmer an additional 8 minutes. Add shrimp, if used. Turn off the heat and place a lid on the saucepan, allowing the contents to rest an extra 10 minutes. Ladle into deep bowls. Garnish with chopped coriander leaves, radish, and lime wedges. Serve with warm corn tortillas and pico de gallo salsa or your favorite hot sauce!

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