Precious and Exotic Materials in Mesoamerica

One of the best ways of getting to know a culture or a people is to understand what they value or consider to be sacred. Thanks to colonial period documents like the Codex Mendoza, we can look at trade records to see which objects and materials ancient Mesoamerican people considered to be precious. 

codex mendoza folio 47 valuable and exotic materials in mesoamerica jade amber jaguar pelt bird feathers
The Codex Mendoza, folio 47.
This page of the Codex Mendoza shows some of the objects considered of value to Mesoamericans, included jaguar pelts, liquid amber (bottom), packs of cacao (to the left of the jaguar pelts), jade beads (top) and bright bird feathers.
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1292883

Here’s a quick list of the most popular Mesoamerican materials and why they were important!

  • Jade and other greenstone: The color of jade and other, less valuable greenstone was considered sacred in Mesoamerica and was associated with the growth of crops, fertility, and water. Green (and sometimes blue-ish) jade was highly valued because of these color associations. Jade was considered an elite material because it originates from only one place in Mesoamerica, in the Motagua River Valley in Guatemala.
  • Cacao: Also known as the “drink of the gods”, cacao beans were used throughout Mesoamerica for drinks, pastes and even currency! For more information about the history of cacao in Mesoamerica, check out my online course here– use the promo code ONLYNINE to register for the full course at a discounted price!
  • Quetzal, lovely cotinga, & macaw feathers: Feathers were used in headdresses of royal and otherwise important people in Mesoamerican society. The more colorful the feather, the more it was valued. Quetzal feathers in particular were valued because of their length, greenish-blue color, and rare occurrence in nature. 
  • Spondylus shell: Seashells were considered an exotic material because of the great effort required to obtain them: traders from inland must go to the coast and barter for the shells, which were retrieved by skilled divers such as those seen in murals at Teotihuacan. Spondylus shell in particular was a valuable shell because of its bright pink, red and orange colors. 
  • Amber: Found in the Soconusco region of Mexico and Guatemala, liquid amber was brought to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan to be further worked or used by the merchants there. Its bright color sets it apart from other substances.
  • Jaguar pelts: The value of these pelts is obvious even to us today. Jaguars are the kings of the Mesoamerican jungle, and are usually the hunter instead of the hunted. However, jaguar pelts were used by Mesoamerican elites to create throne mats, book covers, and clothing. 

Interestingly enough, things that we would consider to be extremely valuable (such as gold and silver) were not ranked as highly by the people of Mesoamerica. Although they did develop strong metallurgical skills in the Postclassic period, the value of gold and copper never surpassed that of jade. For the people of Mesoamerica, objects were valued for their associations with cosmological properties, not merely their aesthetics.

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