chapter  1
36 Pages

Before the long sixteenth century

The emergence of the early modern European world-system, according to Wallerstein (1974), represented a sea change in human socioeconomic organization inasmuch as there was a vast increase in the interregional exchange of staple goods, unlike world-empires and mini-systems that principally featured the long-distance exchange of preciosities. The latter, Wallerstein argued, were only elite symbols of conspicuous consumption and hence lacked the system-shaping potential of staple goods that account “more of men’s economic thrusts than luxuries” (ibid.: 42). This argument has been criticized (e.g., in Abu Lughod 1989; Blanton and Feinman 1984; Schneider 1977), and here we elaborate these critiques by developing a goods-centered approach to expand on Wallerstein’s structural opposition of preciosities and staples, before showing how the approach can be applied in the case of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. We trace the long-term history of Mesoamerican goods systems, then identify what we consider to be the central driving force in the emergence of the Mesoamerican world-system, namely, a changing consumer propensity to consume exotic and costly goods that we identify as bulk luxury goods. Lastly, we contextualize bulk luxury consumption in relation to a growing core-zone market economy.