The Maya based their economy mainly on agriculture and trade, but hunting wild animals and collecting forest products were also important activities. Maya agriculture was based on the harvest of maize or corn. Large fields were slashed and burnt, preparing the soil for planting. This type of extensive agriculture requires an abundance of land, since the low productivity of the region’s karstic soil, with a thin layer of humus at the top, made it necessary to change the planting grounds every four years.
The population increase during the Early and Late Classic Periods in Tikal, forced the rulers to find alternatives for high-yielding crops. Intensive methods, which made use of irrigation were thus introduced in Tikal, by means of canals and elevated grounds related to hydraulic agriculture, which were complemented by vegetable gardens, fruit trees and breadnut. Their intensive agriculture, which used special techniques associated with hydraulic engineering, was also carefully planned, as the whole city was built so as to collect water in the vast reservoirs, lined with stucco to prevent absorption into the soil. This was a great feat of engineering powered by an economic endeavor.
Agricultural and storage studies (of chultunes) undertaken in Tikal have demonstrated the continuous use of the breadnut (Ramon, or Brosimium alicastrum), which was used to prepare tortillas, sweet pastries or a thick porridge. Its dietary importance has been proven, as it has a high protein and caloric content. It was also easy to preserve for long periods of time, stored in chultunes, where it didn’t mold as it has only a 6.5% water content. Corn and beans tend to mold much faster than breadnut, due to their higher content of water. Breadnut was a widely accepted product, as well as maize, beans, pumpkin, chili, sweet potato, yucca, jicama and various medicinal and edible plants. These were widely consumed, suggesting that the environment at Tikal was not as hostile as once thought and that other agricultural products must have been cultivated in the region, too.
The daily dietary supplements to their staple of maize, beans and breadnut included animal meat, fish, sea products, root crops and local fruits. This diverse diet, together with products cultivated through both the extensive and intensive agricultural systems, enriched the subsistence of the Tikal population.
Political alliances, arranged through royal marriages, were a means of preserving peace between the different sites but also stimulated the operation of commercial routes established between these city-states. Goods flowed from one place to another, as these alliances increased the degree of interaction between the different polities. This increased interaction, in turn, meant the commercial routes and the exchange and availability of primary and luxury goods from different and distant places were secured.
Trade was a fundamental activity to the Maya of Tikal. Archaeological investigations have demonstrated that since early times popular goods and raw materials circulated through Tikal and other sites in the Maya World region from distant places, such as the Yucatan, the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, where salt, shells, snails and stingray spines were produced, while obsidian, jade, quetzal feathers, grinding stones and other articles came from the Guatemalan highlands.