Pre-Columbian Jade: the most precious stone of ancient Mesoamerica

(ORDO NEWS) — Jade occurs naturally in very few places in the world, although the term “jade” is often used to refer to various minerals used since ancient times to produce luxury goods in a wide variety of regions of the world such as China, Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Neolithic Europe and Mesoamerica.

The term “nephrite” is correctly applied to only two minerals: jade and jadeite. Jade is a silicate of calcium and magnesium, which can be of different colors, from translucent white to yellow and all shades of green.

Jade does not occur naturally in Mesoamerica. Jadeite, a silicate of sodium and aluminum, is a hard and highly transparent stone that ranges in color from blue-green to apple green.

Sources of Jade in Mesoamerica

The only known source of jadeite in Mesoamerica today is the Motagua River valley in Guatemala. Mesoamericanos debate whether the Motagua River was the only source or whether the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica used multiple sources for the gemstone. Possible sources being studied are the Rio Balsas Basin in Mexico and the Santa Elena region in Costa Rica.

Jade archaeologists of the pre-Columbian era distinguish between “geological” and “social” jade. The first term refers to jadeite proper, while “social” jade refers to other, similar stones, such as quartz and serpentine, which were not as rare as jadeite, but were similar in color and therefore served the same social function.

Cultural Significance of Jade

Jade was especially prized by the inhabitants of Mesoamerica and Lower Central America because of its green color. This stone was associated with water and vegetation, especially young, ripening corn. For this reason, he was also associated with life and death.

The Olmec, Maya, Aztec, and Costa Rican elites especially valued jade carvings and artifacts and commissioned fine pieces from skilled artisans. Jade was traded and exchanged among the elite as a luxury item throughout the pre-Hispanic world of the Americas.

It was replaced by gold very late in Mesoamerica and around 500 AD. in Costa Rica and Lower Central America. In these places, frequent contact with South America made gold more accessible.

Jade artifacts are often found in elite burials as personal adornments or related items. Sometimes a jade bead was placed in the mouth of the deceased. Jade objects are also found in dedicatory offerings at the construction or ritual completion of public buildings, as well as in more private living quarters.

Ancient jade artifacts

During the formation period, the Olmecs on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico were among the first Mesoamerican peoples, who around 1200-1000 years. BC. votive Celts, axes and bloodletting tools began to be made from jade.

The Maya achieved mastery in jade carving. Mayan artisans used drawing cords, harder minerals, and water as abrasive tools to work stone. Holes were made in jade objects with bone and wood drills, and finer notches were often added at the end. Jade objects varied in size and shape and included necklaces, pendants, pectorals, ear ornaments, beads, mosaic masks, vessels, rings, and figurines.

The best-known jade artifacts from the Maya region include the Tikal funerary masks and vessels, Pakal’s funerary mask, and decorations from the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque. Other funerary offerings and dedication caches have been found at major Maya sites such as Copan, Cerros, and Calakmul.

In the Postclassic period, the use of jade in the Maya region declined sharply. Jade carving is rare, with the exception of items recovered from the Sacred Cenota at Chichen Itza.

Among the Aztec nobility, jade jewelry was the most prized luxury, partly because of its rarity, as it had to be imported from the tropical lowlands, and partly because of its symbolism associated with water, fertility, and preciousness. For this reason, jade was one of the most valuable tribute items collected by the Aztec Triple Alliance.

Jade in Southeast Mesoamerica and Lower Central America

Southeastern Mesoamerica and Lower Central America were other important regions for the distribution of jade artifacts. In the Costa Rican regions of Guanacaste-Nicoya, jade artifacts were distributed mainly between 200 and 600 AD.

Although a local source of jadeite has not yet been discovered, Costa Rica and Honduras have developed their own jade processing traditions. In Honduras, in non-Maya areas, jade was preferred to be used for building dedications rather than for burials.

In Costa Rica, by contrast, most jade artifacts have been found in burials. The use of jade in Costa Rica seems to have ceased around 500-600 BC. AD, when there was a transition to the use of gold as a luxurious raw material; this technology originated in Colombia and Panama.

Problems of studying jade

Unfortunately, jade artifacts are difficult to date, even when found in a relatively clear chronological context, as this particularly valuable and hard-to-find material has often been passed down from generation to generation as a relic.

Finally, because of their value, jade objects are often looted from archaeological sites and sold to private collectors. For this reason, a huge number of published items of unknown origin are deprived of important information.


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