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Stories From a Trader's Life Introduction

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 and Juchitan.

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 purple dye.

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 rock.

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 inaccessible.

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 mother of pearl 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 at Cibola-Zuni.
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 was the singular most treasured and 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 Commitment

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 and Indonesia; corals from the Mediterranean and Sea of Japan. 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.

Jeffrey Lewis

Santa Fe, New Mexico

July 1, 2000

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