Here's some interesting info about the ancient Andean-Mexican seagoing trade, bringing into focus especially the importance of metalwork for tracing these cultural links.
All the best,
ANCIENT MARINERS: Strong evidence of Andean-Mexican seagoing trade as early as 600 A.D. by David L. Chandler
The Boston Globe, August 14, 1995. Pp. 25-27.
Archeologists studying the ancients empires of Central and South America have long noticed similarities in some pottery designs and food crops and wondered whether mariners from the Andean coast traded with their counterparts 2,000 miles to the north. Now, an MIT researcher says she has strong evidence they did.
Sophisticated and unique metalworking techniques, developed in South America as far as 1200 B.C., suddenly appeared in Western Mexico in about 600 A.D. - without ever being seen anywhere in between. The only reasonable explanation, according to archeologist Dorothy Hosler, is seaborne trade.
As far back as the Spanish conquest it was clear that the South American cultures had the capability for such trade. When Francisco Pizarro approached Peru in 1527, he saw large sailing rafts traveling along the coast. But until now, there was little evidence of how far they travelled, or the fact that there was any significant contact between the two great civilizations of that era, the Mesoamerican (including the Mayans and other groups) to the north and the Andean (including the Incas) in South America.
It took Hosler's innovative, detailed metallurgical analysis of ancient bronze and copper artifacts to provide the convincing evidence that this trade ranged over thousands of miles.
Hosler, an associate professor of archeology and ancient technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has spent years studying the composition, design and metalworking technologies used to make a variety of bells, ornaments and small tools found in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Western Mexico.
Centuries after their development in South America, metal objects appeared suddenly on Mexico's west coast. But the absence of any metal artifacts from that period in all of Central America in between, or in the interior and east coast of Mexico, indicates that these casting methods, alloys and designs could not have been exported via overland trade.
"Her findings have been very important, I think, in the New World picture," said Gordon Willey, professor emeritus of Mexico and Central American, archeology at Harvard University. "What she has shown without much doubt is that metallurgical technologies were diffused from the south, probably carried by travelers on rafts."
"There has always been a lot of speculation on the relationship between Mesoamerica and the cultures further south," Wiley added. "But to pin anything down as tightly and specifically as this metallurgical technology is very unusual."
The fact that the South American civilizations had coastal trade and fishing routes is well known from the writings, and at least one drawing, of 16th century European voyagers. They described oceangoing balsawood sailing rafts, capable of carrying anywhere from a dozen to40 people and laden with goods, plying the coasts of present Peru and Ecuador. Some archeologists had speculated, on the basis of similarities in pottery designs, that these South American marine traders made it as far north as Mexico, but the evidence was ambiguous because pottery-making was so universal at the time.
"The Mexican case is very interesting," Hosler said last week in an interview at MIT, during a brief break from her fieldwork in Mexico. "It's one of the few places where advanced civilization arose without metallurgy.
"And then suddenly, around this area which was not a primary area of state-level society" - that is, not part of one of the great empires but rather a region of smaller chiefdoms - "metal artifacts start to show up around 600 to 700 A.D."
At the time, she said, there was "nothing with respect to metallurgy going on in eastern Mexico or Central America," where Mayan civilization, among others, was in its heyday, whereas the peoples of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia had thriving metallurgical traditions.
Unlike the use of metals elsewhere in the ancient world, where the focus was usually on weapons and agricultural tools, much of the emphasis of both the Mexican and Andean metallurgists was on decorative and ceremonial objects such a bells and jewelry, and small tools such as needles and tweezers.
That emphasis led them to develop metal alloys quite different from those found in other areas. Their bronze, for example, appears to have been formulated specifically for its color and sound qualities, rather than for mechanical strength, Hosler found. Bronzes used for ornamental bells and other items were formulated to give the appearance of gold (by adding larger than necessary amounts of tin to copper) or silver (by adding more arsenic than necessary to the copper).
Among the extraordinary similarities Hosler found between metal working in the two regions:
The use of the "lost wax" technique for casting distinctive ceremonial bells, a method that allows greater control over the thickness and sound properties. This involves carving the bell's shape from beeswax, then casting a hard mold (sometimes of clay and ash) around it. Molten metal poured into the mold melts away the wax and assumes its shape inside the mold, which is broken away after the metal hardens. Identical techniques and designs are found in Columbia and Mexico.
-- The design and manufacturing methods for producing items such as needles and tweezers out of hammered copper or bronze.
Distinctive methods, which Hosler describes as "very idiosyncratic," such as the way a needle's eye is made by folding, are found in both places. And unique designs of tweezers, used by men to pluck beard hairs, also are found in both regions. In Mexico, the tweezers became ceremonial objects, worn by priests as pendants.
"There's a whole constellation of artifact designs that were common to both areas," Hosler says. "They were used the same way, and the objects were fashioned the same way."
Hosler's detailed analysis of the metals themselves proved that it was mainly the knowledge of metallurgical techniques, rather than the metal objects themselves that was transported from the civilizations to the south; virtually all the objects found in Mexico were made from native Mexican ores.
"We know they weren't trading in ores," Hosler said,"because Ecuadorian and Mexican ores are very different in their isotope ratios. What seems to have been introduced was technological know-how."
In order to have imparted such detailed technological knowledge, she concludes, the visits must have been much longer and more extensive than would have been needed simply to trade finished goods.
What motivated the far-flung trading? Hosler speculates that the South American mariners may have been searching for a much prized bright-orange seashell, the spondylous, that was used to make beads and ornaments and for rain-making rituals.
The idea gets some support from Spanish records. Pizarro's chief pilot, Bartolome Ruiz de Estrada, describes capturing off the Ecuadorian coast a balsa raft carrying 20 men and trade goods that included "tiaras, crowns, bands, tweezers and bells, all of this they brought to exchange for some shells."
Another possible trade item was the hallucinogenic peyote cactus, which is prevalent in Mexico and may have figured in religious ceremonies among the South American people, where the use of psychoactive substances was widespread.
The evidence for extensive trade could affect the whole picture of how the great civilizations of Mesoamerica and the Andes developed, said Hosler, whose analysis of her evidence is detailed in a book, "The Sounds and Colors of Power," published by MIT Press this year.
"One of the aspects that's very interesting for archeologists," Hosler said, "is that we tend to think these two great civilizations"
- the Mesoamerican and the Andean - "grew without much influence from one another... This is fairly unambiguous evidence that there was more extensive interaction than was thought."
Others who specialize in Pre-Columbian American archeology agree. Michael Smith, associate professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, says "the evidence she has, the evidence from metallurgy, is the strongest evidence. I don't doubt at all what happened... I don't know what more you could hope for, other than finding a boat with a sign that says 'this way to Acapulco'."
Yuri Kuchinsky in Toronto -=O=-It is a far, far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense than to put out on the troubled seas of thought -=O=- John K. Galbraith