The Maya used several different media of exchange and in trading of food commodities the barter system was typically used for large orders. Cacao beans were used for everyday exchange in postclassic times. For more expensive purchases gold, jade and copper were used as a means of exchange.  However, these media of exchange are not "money" in the modern sense. In different sites and cities, these media of exchange were valued differently.  -- Wikipedia
To our modern entrepreneurial brains, this sounds like an irresistible opportunity for arbitrage. Why is it that no one at the time make hay from the price disparities?
It is said that when Columbus's first ships appeared off the coast of what is now Haiti, native islanders could not see them. They had no experience of great ships with sails, and at a deeper level no basis for believing they were possible. There were no categories in their heads for such things, so their minds' gateways would not allow the perceptions to penetrate.
At this same time, a few hundred miles away, the Mayans had marketplaces where goods were exchanged without money, without fixed prices, not driven by a motive to get the better of one's trading partner, or to accumulate wealth and power. The system had lasted hundreds--perhaps thousands--of years. It included barter and a qualitative sense of value. Though the Mayans had discovered zero as a placeholder and had a complete, modern number system for calculation and computing, their mathematics was reserved for land management and astronomy. There was no money to count, and it did not occur to them to quantify the value of resources or manufactured goods.
To this day, we cannot see that there are alternatives to a money system for organizing our productive activity because we have no categories or foundational concepts with which to get purchase upon it, so to speak. We understand capitalism and private ownership all too well. We understand socialism as collective ownership and a redistribution of wealth. But we cannot conceive a society without ownership, without accounting for who owns what, without a precise system of valuation. A culture in which there is abundant opportunity to take advantage of one's neighbor, but no one does it. It does not compute.
Josh Mitteldorf, a senior editor at OpEdNews, blogs on aging at http://JoshMitteldorf.ScienceBlog.com. Read how to stay young at http://AgingAdvice.org.
Educated to be an astrophysicist, he has branched out from there to mathematical (more...)