A Mother Lode Of Jade Solves Maya Mystery
Hurricane exposes ancient mines
By WILLIAM J. BROAD THE NEW YORK TIMES
For half a century, scholars have searched for the source of the jade that the early civilizations of the Americas prized above all else and fashioned into precious objects of worship, trade and adornment.
The searchers found some clues to the source of jadeite, as the precious rock is known, for the Olmecs and Mayas. But no lost mines came to light.
Now, scientists exploring the wilds of Guatemala say they have found the mother lode -- a mountainous region roughly the size of Rhode Island strewn with huge jade boulders, other rocky treasures and signs of ancient mining. It was discovered after a hurricane tore through the landscape and exposed the veins of jade, some of which turned up in stores, arousing the curiosity of scientists.
The find includes large outcroppings of blue jade, the gemstone of the Olmecs, the mysterious people who created the first complex culture in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, which encompasses much of Mexico and Central America. It also includes an ancient mile-high road of stone that runs for miles through dense forests.
The deposits rival the world's leading source of mined jade today, in Myanmar, formerly Burma, the experts say.
The implications for history, archaeology and anthropology are just starting to emerge.
For one thing, the scientists say, the find suggests that the Olmecs, who flourished on the southern Gulf Coast of Mexico, exerted wide influence in the Guatemalan highlands as well.
"We were thunderstruck," said George Harlow, a jade specialist at the American Museum of Natural History. "This is the big one."
In part, the discovery is a result of the devastating storm that hit Central America in 1998, killing thousands and touching off floods and landslides that exposed old veins and washed jade into river beds.
Prospectors picked up the scraps, which found their way into Guatemalan shops and, eventually, to astonished scientists.
"'Lordy,' I said, 'this is Olmec type,'" recalled Russell Seitz, who decades earlier directed a jade hunt in Guatemala for the Peabody Museum at Harvard. "Where did it come from?"
Led by Seitz and local jade hunters, scientists scoured the forested ravines of the Guatemalan highlands for more than two years.
In the end the scientists made a series of discoveries culminating in bus-size boulders of Olmec blue jade, some astride creeks.
"It kept getting better and better," said Virginia Sisson, a geologist at Rice University, who has recently examined jades in Myanmar as well as Guatemala. The blue jade, she said, "is all over the hillsides."
The exact location is not being given, to protect the site.