The Highland Maya Cargo System

The Highland Maya have an economic system called a cargo-system that encourages the re-investment of wealth back into the community. This system is made up of a number of levels of prestige. Each level has a prescribed set of responsibilities and prestige tied to it. (Searles and Lee, 2002, p. 158). The purpose of such a system is to act as a leveling mechanism. A leveling mechanism, as defined by Haviland, is “a societal obligation compelling a family to distribute goods so that no one accumulates more wealth than anyone else.” (Haviland, 2002, p. 191). The prevention of the accumulation of wealth by an individual member of the society, and the subsequent distribution of the wealth of the culture to all of its members, should create an egalitarian society, however, in the case of the Highland Maya Cargo System, this is not the case.

At the lowest level of the Highland Maya Cargo System are young men who are entering into the cargo system for the first time. This term lasts one year. At this level the young men are required to do menial tasks for older males in the system, running errands, and tending to higher members’ beck and call. Each successive level requires a greater financial burden from the member, however in exchange for undertaking this burden, greater prestige is granted to the man. (Searles and Lee, 2002, p. 158).

As the members of the cargo system progress, they host more elaborate festivals and feasts for the community. The level of celebration and financial debt these celebrations create, commensurate with the level of prestige and honor that is generated. Therefore, even though financial wealth is not accumulated, prestige and social status is. The addition of prestige and social status give members of the cargo system a social advantage over non-members, and over lower level members of the system. (Searles and Lee, 2002, p. 159).

Although the cargo system may have the initial intent to act as a leveling mechanism it does not seem to act as one in the case of the Highland Mayas. First those members of society with more wealth are better able to afford their financial burdens incurred by hosting elaborate festivals and feasts. (Searles and Lee, 2002, p. 159). Because they can afford to throw more elaborate and more frequent festivals, feasts, and bullfights, they gain more prestige than a poorer member of the cargo system, and it is because of this ability that they gain a social advantage over the other members of Mayan society.


Haviland, William A. (2002). Cultural Anthropology. (10th ed.). Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers.Lee, Valerie L., and Searles, Richard T. (2002). Study Guide for the Telecourse Faces of Culture. (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

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