Man has always traded for desirable items: goods
that he could neither produce for himself nor take from others
by force. Trade relations between the inhabitants of the Americas
predate recorded history. Interregional trade within Mesoamerica
is well documented to 1500 BC. However, trade between the
Americas is a subject whose documentation has led to much
discussion, conjecture, controversy and various conclusions.
Essentially, there are two academic schools
of thought: Mesoamericanists are anthropologists and archeologists
who believe that there was a complex and predictable system
of trade occurring between the prehistoric peoples of Mesoamerica
and the Southwest; and, that the Southwest was a far-flung
outpost of Mesoamerica. This system was allegedly operated
by a sociopolitical trader caste called Pochteca.
Other academics, referred to as Southwesternists,
believe that the Southwest was a cultural world of its own.
Trade was more casual and consisted of prestige goods, and
was controlled by village headmen. Items such as feathers,
shells, bells, natural dyes, ceramics, weavings, etc., were
being traded north via a system of barter from one center,
or gateway, to another. There was no organization, specific
time schedule or manifest list of required goods. It must
also be noted that along with the exchange of physical goods
came a transfer of information, knowledge and ideas: practical,
economic, cultural and religious.
A hypothetical route could have begun in the
Mayan jungles and highlands of Guatemala. From there, Scarlet
Macaw and Quetzal feathers, jade and ceramics could be traded
to, perhaps, the Olmec of the Veracruz area, for their ceramics,
figurines, tortoise shell, vanilla and cacao beans. Then,
across the Isthmus of Tehuantapec, to the villages of Tehuantepec
The treasure here was a rare and exotic purple
dye. The procurement of this dye was a very secretive process.
They would go to isolated Pacific coves, and with infinite
delicacy, gather a certain type of snail off of the rocks.
The snails were then made to secrete their unique and majestic
This dye could be traded for feathers, cacao,
ceramics and figurines. The Tehuanas would keep some of these
items for themselves and then redistribute feathers, cacao
beans, figurines and their own ceramics, along with the dye,
up to Monte Alban…the Mixtec and Zapotec region in the
Oaxaca Valley. The weavers of this region would trade their
woven goods and ceramics, as well as their brilliant red cochineal
dye (made by boiling the dried bodies of this native American
tropical insect), for feathers, ceramics, purple dye and cacao.
Other exotic goods that may have been included along the way
are hematite, mica, serpentine, obsidian, salt, lime and volcanic
From the Valley of Oaxaca, the feathers would
continue, along with some cacao, weavings, red dye, purple
dye, and always the local ceramics and figurines (a replaceable
trade item), to the Aztec center in the Teotihuacan Valley.
This was an enormous center that could absorb almost any quantity
of trade goods arriving. Due to the competition for these
prestige goods, here is where they gained greater value before
being redistributed to the north. This is also where the copper
bells may have entered the route.
The Proverbial Fork In The Road
At this point, there is the proverbial fork
in the road: the central route, which led along the eastern
fringe of the Sierra Madre Occidental, where Central Mexico
could be served. Although the most direct route, it was dry
and sparsely populated and thus the roads were poor. Some
of these regions were also affected by strong and independent
local politics. If a village headmen could muster enough support,
he could control trade by causing an entire region to become
The more desirable route was the Pacific coast
route. It was well populated, so the roads were better maintained
by the local population; travelers had better access to basic
necessities. The other factor was that trade goods and commodities
could be partly moved on water by boat or raft. Local political
control issues, similar to those of the central route, also
existed on the Pacific route. The Tarascans, in the Michoacan
region, for example, exerted great control of the route. Archaeological
excavations at sites such as Tzintzuntzan, have yielded a
large amount of worked turquoise items. This indicates an
accumulation of wealth, either through tribute of raw material
or of worked pieces.
Along the Pacific route, the trade items continued
north, through various coastal regions, where conch, olivella
and other shells were added to the repertoire of commodities.
The feathers of the green wing macaw, the thick-billed parrot
and the blue and gold macaw were collected. Finally, the goods
arrived in Casas Grande, the furthest outlying pueblo center
to the south.
In this scenario, no one group came the entire
distance with an enormous load of goods. Rather, it was a
system of relays; goods heading north were traded in the different
trade centers, or gateways, along the way. New local goods
were added to the commodities heading north; other items were
returned with the traders heading back south, making the exchange
reciprocal. It should be noted that the most important of
all the reciprocal prestige items, both in the Southwest as
well as those returning to Mesoamerica from the Southwest,
was turquoise. This will be discussed in more detail later.
Trade Of Goods, Philosophies, Belief Systems
As I mentioned earlier, it is very important
to remember that these trade relationships were more socially
complex then just the exchange of goods; along with that exchange
came the exchange of philosophical ideas and religious beliefs.
We can only assume the passing of cultural icons and designs,
such as the plumed serpent (known as Ko' loowisi at Zuni),
macaw, rabbit, jaguar and other mutual images. Examples of
these mutual images can be found on cave walls as well as
in pottery motifs throughout the Americas. The other verifiable
exchange is in the area of community layout, structural design
and house building techniques. Building techniques, such as
a rubble core and veneer walls, first occur in the southwest
at Chaco Canyon, and are clearly of mesoamerican origin.
Casas Grandes appears to have been the most
important of any trade center to the peoples of the prehistoric
southwest. In their effort to exploit the markets to the north,
the inhabitants of Casas Grandes imported the technologies
of both macaw aviculture and copper metallurgy from the south.
The remains of more than 500 macaws have been found, as well
as almost 40 kg. of copper. The nearly 4,000,000 shell items
that have been unearthed here leave no doubt that Casas Grandes
was a trade center heavily involved in the exportation of
goods north, into the southwest. It is also suspected that
they held a strong control over the turquoise being traded
south, back into mesoamerica.
Fabled Seven Cities Of Cibola
From the Casas Grandes gateway, the goods flowed
north, to the pueblos that were to become the proverbial "Crossroads"
of the trade routes: Hawikuh, the largest of the seven ancient
cities of Cibola (now known as Zuni Pueblo).
So far, this hypothetical route appears to be
of singular dimension; when, in fact, it is vastly multi-dimensional.
We have discussed the meandering routes north from mesoamerica,
and I have made the story simplistic. Also to be considered
are the many other indigenous groups to the East and West.
They also had a desire to acquire their share of these prestige
goods, and had their own bounty of esoteric items to trade
for what they wanted.
Cibola-Zuni was considered the geographic center
of the North-South Route, as well as the East-West Route.
This was a transshipment center and controlled the redistribution
of goods in all directions, which I will discuss shortly.
The people of Cibola-Zuni kept what they needed of these goods,
and, along with salt from their sacred lake, moved the goods
north, to the Hopi Mesas; and east, over to Chaco Canyon.
The route then went further east, over to the
peoples of the Rio Grande, via Acoma and Zia Pueblos. The
easiest route from the Rio Grande went north of the Sandia
Mountains, through the Cerillos Mining District and then over
to the Galisteo Valley. Finally, the route went to the Pecos
Pueblo and the upper Pecos River and to Taos, the edge of
the plains. The feathers, shells, bells, and other prestige
goods were absorbed by the people of this entire region in
considerable quantity, with enough left over to be traded
further eastward to the Great Plains and into Texas, for goods
desired by them as well as their neighbors to the west.
From the eastern plains came buffalo hides and
robes. Fresh water shells came from the mound builder culture
of Mississippi and Arkansas. Also, fibrolite axes (a sillimanite
or aluminum silicate), from either the Truchas Peaks or, alternatively,
the Texas Panhandle, were an important trade item. Pecos was
the gateway trade center for the transshipment of these goods
to the West. They eventually found their way, via the same
route discussed in the previous paragraph, to the trade center
The Pacific Route
The routes from the Pacific Coast were active
ones. The route from the lower Sonora Coast, bringing Glycmeris,
Oliva, Turritella, Haliotis, Sponyelus princeps and Conus
shells, and the route from the mid-California Coast, primarily
bringing Red Abalone (Haliotis sp.) and Olivella biplicata,
converged upon the middle Gila area, home to the Mimbres.
From there, they moved northward, up along the current Arizona-New
Mexico state line, following the present Route 666 (sometimes
referred to as the Coronado Trail); then eastward into Hawikuh,
in the Zuni-Cibola region. From there the goods were absorbed
and then transshipped as previously discussed.
Turquoise: The Most Treasured Commodity
Turquoise was the singular most important item
for which all these goods were ultimately traded. Probably
used as a unit of exchange (money), along with strings of
Olivella shell. Traders going East from Cibola-Zuni or West
from Pecos made the Cerrillos district the primary point of
passing. Turquoise mined in what is now known as the Cerillos
Mining District of New Mexico, has been found as far south
as in the Mayan city of Yachilan, on the Rio Usamacinta, the
contemporary Mexican-Guatemalan border.
A sacred symbol of earth and sky, turquoise
was one of the most prized items in the Americas. the Anasazi
of Chaco Canyon buried their dead with turquoise beads. The
royal crowns of the Mixtec kings at Monte Alban in Oaxaca
were inlaid with turquoise from Cerillos. It has been overlaid
onto images by the Aztec; and worked into beads, pendants
and earrings by every culture in between. Moctezuma II, the
last Aztec ruler, wore necklaces and pendants made from Cerillos
turquoise, as protective amulets.
My role in the revitalization of these ancient
routes has been a blessed one. I have brought macaw feathers
from the Mayan jungles and worked to preserve that species.
I have traded for weavings from the highlands of Guatemala
and southern Mexico; shells from as far away as southeast
Asia; corals from the Mediterranean. I have crawled into the
mines at Cerillos and recovered turquoise; worked to re-establish
the Zuni fetish trade.
All of this I have done. My commitment has always
been that of preservationist…to preserve and protect
the cultural rights of indigenous people: to practice their
religion as well their long and rich heritage as artists.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
July 1, 2000
Next Chapter: Prologue