By Danielle Olivia Tefft
Long before Columbus landed in America (nearly 300 years before the birth of Christ), the Mayans flourished in Mesoamerica. Their territories included the regions now known as Belize, the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. As with the Olmec civilization which preceded them, jade played an important role in Mayan society for many reasons.
There are two types of jade known to exist in the world: jadeite and nephrite. Nephrite jade is the lesser quality stone. Nephrite has never been found in Mesoamerica. The jade available to the Mayans was high quality gemstone jadeite jade. The Mayans called this jadeite jade “yax tun.” It was revered and traded by the Mayans and is still considered to be the finest quality jade by modern gemologists.
The Mayans did not have one central government but instead distributed power between several independent city-states. Each city-state had a king. Within each city-state were different classes of people. These classes included royalty, court officials, priests, tradesmen, farmers and finally the slave class. The seats of Mayan power lie in the city-states of the Guatemalan highlands. These city-states oversaw the trading of jade throughout Mesoamerica and along trade routes to the Pacific Ocean.
Most Mayan written records were destroyed during the Spanish conquests of the 16th century and beyond. But archeologists have deciphered glyphs (carved pictures that symbolize words) from the remnants of their jade jewelry and ornaments, as well as from their stone temples and other structures. These glyphs reveal how advanced the Mayan civilization was for their time in world history. Because of this we can still admire elements of the Mayan civilization today, even though their culture had its gruesome side. Human sacrifices to Mayan deities were commonplace.
The Mayans had very unusual perceptions of human beauty. These perceptions were much different than those we value in modern society today. From birth, they fitted their babies with large wooden head gear designed to flatten their foreheads and elongate their skulls. They considered these artificial deformities to be signs of utmost beauty. In addition, they admired inward focused eyes. To achieve this look, they placed attractive dangling objects on young children’s noses to train their eyes to become cross-eyed. They also filed their teeth to sharp pointy ends. Those of high social status had jade imbedded in their teeth, as well.
Both Mayan men and women adorned themselves with jewelry. Much of it was made of jade, an all powerful stone in the Mayan culture. Both men and women had their ears pierced with tubular beads of jade. These tubes were replaced periodically with wider pieces so their earlobes would eventually stretch to accommodate large cylindrical, hollow ear spools that were three inches in diameter. These spools are called “ear flares” by archeologists.
Jade was used for much more than to create Mayan jewelry. Prior to the introduction of metal, it was used to make tools like axe heads. This is because jade is an extremely hard material. It scores a 6.8 to 8 on the Mohs mineral hardness scale. (Diamonds weigh in at 10). Forming rough jade into useful and desired objects was not an easy task but the Mayans became experts at cutting, carving and polishing it. They fashioned their tools and weapons from lesser quality jade until the introduction of metals, especially copper. Then they began trading jade for copper and other metals.
Jade also held a spiritual significance in Mayan culture. The Mayans associated jade with the cycle of life from birth to death. It was also a symbol of the sun, wind and water. These were all life giving forces to the ancients. Mayan royalty and the wealthy were buried with elaborate jade jewelry, headdresses and body adornments. They were also buried with a piece of jade under their tongues. These jade beads were vessels through which their souls were transported to the afterlife. Along with jade beads and jewelry, archeologists have discovered carved jade artifacts of humans and deities in ancient Mayan tombs.
Because of the many uses for jade in Mayan culture, the Mayans revered it more than gold. When the Spanish explorers of the 16th century first made contact, they were more than willing to trade gold for more jade. The Spaniards rejoiced in the fact that they could acquire gold by trading pretty emerald-green stones that were worthless to them. The Spaniards called jade “piedra de hijada.” This term meant “stone of the loins.” This was because in ancient times jade was thought to relieve kidney ailments. Our modern name for jade is derived from “piedra de hijada.”
The Mayan civilization was already in decline by the time the Spaniards arrived on their shores. Those who didn’t perish from newly introduced diseases could not mount very formidable defenses. They found themselves under attack and were eventually conquered by the Spaniards. The sacred Mayan jade mines were subsequently abandoned and eventually forgotten.
Modern researchers believed the sole sources of Mayan jade to be located in the Rio Motagua valley in Guatemala for many years. Then, in 1998 a devastating typhoon hit the area. After the floodwaters receded, more jade deposits and evidence of ancient jade mines were discovered in a rugged area in the highlands. The area was roughly the size of Rhode Island. In addition to the emerald-green jade revered by the Mayans, it included outcrops of vivid blue jade which was revered by the ancient Olmec civilization before them.
Today, the rediscovered highland jade fields are protected to keep looters away. Meanwhile, down in the Rio Motagua valley area, archeologist Mary Lou Ridinger and her husband continue to run a business called Jade Maya. After discovering additional jade deposits in the valley in 1974, they decided to sell high quality reproductions of ancient Mayan jade artifacts and jewelry. The pieces are all carved by modern descendants of the ancient Mayans.
The Ridinger’s goal is to discourage looters and educate the world about Guatemalan jade and its history. Tourists are encouraged to purchase reproductions of ancient Mayan artifacts from Jade Maya and other ethically conscious local businesses. They seek to stop the looting of actual ancient artifacts and provide a means of economic growth for the indigenous peoples of the region. Illegal trade of looted artifacts still crops up but is being stamped out by the sale of these museum quality reproductions.