The distributional approach: A new way to identify marketplace exchange in the archaeological record

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Archaeologists working in Mesoamerica have long recognized the importance and antiquity of marketplaces and market exchange in the organization and integration of pre-Hispanic society. Most approaches currently employed have, however, had difficulty in identifying pre-Hispanic marketplaces using material remains. This study introduces a new way to identify marketplace exchange based on the composition of domestic assemblages and how they are affected by market-based provisioning strategies. It identifies three distinguishing features of marketplace exchange: that households provision themselves independently of one another, that exchanges are concentrated in a centralized locale, and that economic interaction takes place without regard to social rank. The distribution of imported ceramics and locally produced obsidian tools in domestic contexts at the archaeological site of Xochicalco, Mexico, is compared with the expectations for marketplace exchange. The study concludes that marketplace exchange was an important feature of economic activity at Xochicalco between A.D. 650 and 900 and illustrates the potential value of the distributional approach for identifying prehistoric economic behavior in the archaeological record.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)451-476
Number of pages26
JournalCurrent anthropology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 1998

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Archaeology
  • Anthropology
  • Archaeology


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