Mesoamerica and the American Southwest

How far do you think ancient Mesoamerican trade routes expanded? Discoveries in the American Southwest are giving a clear view into the huge expanse of Mesoamerican trade routes during the late Classic and Postclassic periods. 

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the value of bird feathers, stones and other materials. Previous posts have also mentioned how far people were willing to go to obtain those materials. Today, however, we’re going to talk about one of the most extensive cases of trade of Mesoamerican valuables: the scarlet macaws of Chaco Canyon. 

Image by Matthew Romack – Originally posted to Flickr as Parrots., CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4320411

In case you haven’t heard of Chaco Canyon, it is a large ancient center located in New Mexico, within the American Southwest. Although it was inhabited from 900 BC onwards, the greatest arc of its occupation was from about 490 AD – 1200 AD, after which the society began to take a turn for the worse. 

One of the most fascinating finds unearthed by archaeologists is a total of over 30 scarlet macaw skeletons, found buried in the ruins at Chaco Canyon. Scarlet macaws are not native to this part of the world, and after careful analysis, scientists have confirmed that these birds came all the way from the Maya lowlands. 

What else do we know about these birds? 

Careful carbon 14 dating confirmed the origin of these birds; it also provided a date range for when they would have lived: one group between 885 and 990 AD, the second group between 970 and 1035, and the final group between 1015 and 1155 (see Messer article). That’s easily 100 years earlier than we previously thought! This means that as early as 885 AD, people were trading for materials (in this case, macaws) that had travelled over 3500 kilometers! 

What else has been found? 

Besides the macaws, researchers have also uncovered turquoise, shells from the ocean, and even cacao beans! Interestingly enough, it is around this time that turquoise starts showing up at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula– it looks like the trade routes went both ways. 

What does this all mean? 

The most important takeaway from this discovery is that societies in the Americas were so much more complex than we sometimes give them credit for! These were not nomadic people living under the stars, whittling sticks: they were traveling long distances, trading, interacting, and building large cities. Just as we import items that we consider to be valuable (like diamonds, gold, and more), ancient Mesoamericans and Chacoans engaged in long-distance trade relationships to gain access to those things that were worth it to them. 

Sources: 

“Early procurement of scarlet macaws and the emergence of social complexity in Chaco Canyon, NM” by Watson et al., https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/112/27/8238.full.pdf

“Scarlet macaws point to early complexity at Chaco Canyon” by A’ndrea Elyse Messer, https://news.psu.edu/story/361255/2015/06/22/research/scarlet-macaws-point-early-complexity-chaco-canyon#targetText=There%20are%2035%20known%20scarlet,fell%20between%20885%20and%20990.

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