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HISTORY - Trade Routes of the Americas: The Myth of the Ancient Turquoise Road

Updated: Nov 24, 2023



The ancient trade route that extended from Oasisamerica near Chaco Canyon to the southernmost corners of Mesoamerica's ancient Maya cities began around 700 CE and lasted until after the Europeans arrived. The trade routes passed from the Anasazis through Mogollon territory in what is now Chihuahua, continuing southward to trade hubs along the way, including Chicomoztoc in modern Zacatecas, Tollan-Xicocotitlan in Hidalgo, El Tajin in Veracruz, and south through Zapotec cities to the ancient Maya Empire. Archaeologists believe the turquoise trade went beyond the Maya, to the far reaches of Columbia.

The Anasazi of Chaco Canyon controlled routes between parts of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, with trade for turquoise with the Cahokia of Northern Illinois, and control of Cerrillos Mines, which not only possessed a high output of turquoise, but also some of the most varied and valuable in the world. Noting the discovery of Mesoamerican artefacts, including Macaw bird bones & feathers, cacao, salt, seashells, copper bells and other commodities among the archaeological record of the Anasazi, it was also confirmed through scientific analysis that the largest currency for this route was turquoise, which helped establish the wealth of the Anasazi, and supplied ancient Mesoamerica with turquoise.

One of the reasons archaeologists were determined to place turquoise sources in Oasisamerica, as opposed to Mesoamerica, was due to a lack of turquoise mines in the territories of the southern cultures who coveted this gorgeous stone, and utilized it for ceremonial masks and murals for their elite. The absence of any visible turquoise sources in Mexico contributed to nearly 150 years of research about "The Turquoise Road," which though existent, is now thought to have been less prominent than previously thought, and which was used less for turquoise than other goods.




From the 1970's to the 1990's, archaeologists used chemical analysis by neutron activation to test turquoise from both the Southwest and Mesoamerica. These studies tested geological comparisons of trace and major elements between turquoise artefacts and the material found in the mines, but the tests were limited, and the data unpublished.

In 2018, Scientists shaved the turquoise edges of 38 mosaics from the ancient Mexica capital of Tenochitlan, and 5 Mixteca tiles. Using modern techniques, they dissolved the samples in acid and were able to study the lead and strontium isotopes. They concluded their signatures not only didn't match the copper deposits and geology of Oasisamerica, but also had no relation to the geology of America's Southwest. Of course it should be noted that these studies have only been conducted on 43 artefacts, which hailed from only two cultures. No such tests have yet been conducted on the ancient turquoise used by the Maya, Toltec, P'urepecha etc, all of whom prized turquoise.

Five years later, there is almost no information as to whether or not anyone has recently located any turquoise mines in Mexico, but there are some theories about which geological areas may be worth exploring. In Zacatecas, there are findings near Concepcion del Oro and Mazapil, while even older documentation mentions Puebla and Jalisco. It is unknown whether any of these mines have ever been located, whether they were mined into oblivion, or simply destroyed.

The state of Michoacan has a history of copper mining, dating back to around 650 CE, which includes at least one copper-smelting site at Itziparátzico. This region was under control of the P'urepecha during this era, and this group was known for their copper bells and proficient metal-working skills. Though a simplistic explanation, turquoise is found in arid regions, and is described as a hydrated copper and aluminum phosphate. A secondary mineral, turquoise forms when mineral-rich water percolates through copper and aluminum, filtering into rock cavities. Over time, the minerals are left behind as turquoise, which gets it's desirable blue-green shades from the copper. This makes Michoacan a candidate for turquoise exploration, due to the wealth of copper in her territory. Even-so, it's also theorized the turquoise may have been exhausted, as the deposits generally sit at less than 20 meters (66 feet) below the surface, and are less difficult to access than other minerals.

The Codex Mendoza, which was commissioned in 1521, makes mention of turquoise arriving in the lands of the Mexica from Guerrero, Puebla and Oaxaca. One last state of interest is Veracruz.

Though the concept of the Turquoise Road has lost some romantic luster as an economic force between the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon, and the Maya of Mexico's south, what remains to be discovered is enough to leave history and geology lovers bewildered and full of anticipation.




CITED WORKS

Daley, Jason - Where did the Aztecs get their Turquoise? Smithsonian Magazine, Smart News, 2018 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/aztec-turquoise-was-probably-locally-sourced-180969375/

King Hobart M - Turquoise - Geology.com https://geology.com/minerals/turquoise.shtml

Maldonado, Blanca E - Tarascan Copper Metallurgy at the Site of Itziparátzico, Michoacán, México - Famsi.org 2005

Thibodeau, Alyson M; Lujan, Leonardo Lopez, Killick, David J, Berdan, Frances F, Ruiz, Joaquin - Was Aztec and Mixtec turquoise mined in the American Southwest? - Science Advances 2018 https://www.mesoweb.com/es/articulos/sub/Turquoise.pdf


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