Tlatelolco ca , with a population ranging from 50 to thousand drew maize, cotton, cacao, beans and precious feathers from a wide swath of territory that broadly extended from the Pacific to Gulf coasts that supported an upper stratum of priests, warriors, nobles, and merchants. It was this urban complex that sat atop the lagoons that filled the Valley of Mexico that so awed the arriving conquerors. These embrace a wide range of geographic features ranging from rugged volcanic highlands and even higher snow-capped volcanoes to marshy, humid coastal plains.
Even today, travel through these regions is challenging. Lacking both the wheel and draught animals, the indigenous peoples relied on human transport, or, where possible, waterborne exchange. However we measure the costs of transportation, they were high.
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In the colonial period, they typically circumscribed the subsistence radius of markets to 25 to 35 miles. Under the circumstances, it is not easy to imagine that voluntary exchange, particularly between the coastal lowlands and the temperate to cold highlands and mountains, would be profitable for all but the most highly valued goods.
In some parts of Mexico—as in the Andean region—linkages of family and kinship bound different regions together in a cult of reciprocal economic obligations. Yet absent such connections, it is not hard to imagine, for example, transporting woven cottons from the coastal lowlands to the population centers of the highlands could become a political obligation rather than a matter of profitable, voluntary exchange. The relatively ambiguous role of markets in both labor and goods that persisted into the nineteenth century may perhaps derive from just this combination of climatic and geographical characteristics.
It is what made voluntary exchange under capitalistic markets such a puzzlingly problematic answer to the ordinary demands of economic activity.
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Mexico was established by military conquest and civil war. In the process, a civilization with its own institutions and complex culture was profoundly modified and altered, if not precisely destroyed, by the European invaders. The catastrophic elements of conquest, including the sharp decline of the existing indigenous population, from perhaps 25 million to fewer than a million within a century due to warfare, disease, social disorganization and the imposition of demands for labor and resources should nevertheless not preclude some assessment, however tentative, of its economic level in , when the Europeans arrived.
Recent thinking suggests that Spain was far from poor when it began its overseas expansion. The reaction of the Europeans was almost uniformly astonishment by the apparent material wealth of Tenochtitlan.