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Ancient Puebloan trade network - Chaco Canyon

Ancient Puebloan trade network much more extensive than previously believed

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For over 2,000 years, ancient Pueblo peoples occupied a vast region of the south-western United States. Chaco Canyon, a major centre of ancestral Pueblo culture between 850 and 1250, was a focus for ceremonials, trade and political activity for the prehistoric Four Corners area. The massive multi-storied buildings oriented to solar, lunar, and cardinal directions, the high level of community social organization, and its far-reaching commerce, created a cultural vision unlike any other seen before or since in the country. Now new research has revealed that the Pueblo people’s source of turquoise for was much more far-reaching than previously believed.  

To the ancient Pueblo people, turquoise gemstones were a precious commodity. They used it to make exquisite ritual masks with turquoise mosaic on wood, shell, and bone, as well as beads and pendants for ornamentation. But the turquoise was also valuable as a trade item and the ancient Puebloans used the turquoise to obtain goods such as parrots, seashells, and other items

Over the years, archaeologists have found more than 200,000 turquoise pieces at various sites in the Chaco Canyon. According to Sharon Hull, an anthropologist at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, the gems were very important to the Puebloan culture, and akin to modern-day diamonds.

A collection of Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) turquoise beads from Chaco Canyon

A collection of Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) turquoise beads from Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. These pieces date from about 1050-1100 CE and show the typical materials used in the ancient Chacoan bead and inlay industry. Public domain image from the National Park Service.

Initially, scientists believed the gems came from the nearest turquoise deposit more than 200 kilometers away — the Cerrillos Hills Mining District near present-day Santa Fe. However, new research reveals that the Pueblo people acquired their turquoise using a large trade network spanning several states, including Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and southeastern California.

"People usually think of the Chaco Canyon as this big center [for turquoise]," said Ms Hull. "But we show that people were bringing the turquoise back and forth between the western and eastern sites."

The study team analyzed the ratios of copper to hydrogen isotopes of 74 turquoise artifacts from Puebloan sites. After comparing the artifacts' isotope ratios with those of the turquoise mines, they were able to accurately identify the geological source of most of the artifacts. They also found that people from different sites used different turquoise procurement strategies.

The results definitively show, for the first time, that the ancestral Puebloans in the San Juan Basin area of New Mexico did not get all of their turquoise from a nearby mining site, as was previously believed.

Featured image: A digital reconstruction of what Chaco Canyon would have once looked like. Image credit: National Park Service .

By April Holloway

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