An Alternative Approach to the Prehispanic Turquoise Trade

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Earth Sciences



Publication Title

Turquoise in Mexico and North America: Science, Conservation, Culture and Collections


The major turquoise deposits of North America are concentrated within the southwestern United States across Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and southern California, and in northern Mexico in the state of Sonora. Turquoise is a blue-green hydrated copper aluminum phosphate (CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)8 4H2O) that was both highly valued and widely exchanged among many prehispanic societies in the American Southwest and Mexico. In the Southwest, turquoise was fashioned into a wide variety of forms, including beads and pendants, as well as nose and lip plugs. It was also used to construct elaborate inlays, as a part of intricate mosaic designs, and carved into zoomorphic forms (Snow 1973; Jernigan 1978). Turquoise appears most frequently in the archaeological record of the Southwest after -- AD 900 (Snow 1973; Windes 1992), and large quantities have long been associated with great house and small house sites in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (Windes 1992; Mathien 2001). Turquoise was also used in Mesoamerica, thousands of kilometres away from the well-known mines scattered across the present-day American Southwest and northern Mexico. In Mesoamerica, blue-green stones, particularly jade, were highly valued and widely circulated for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Although turquoise is reported to have been found in isolated instances in Mesoamerica as early as the Formative Period (e.g. Vaillant 1935), its most widespread use was during the Postclassic (AD 900-1521), when it was employed by the Mixteca and the Mexica to create elaborate mosaics and other ceremonial and status objects (e.g. McEwan et al. 2006; Saville 1922). Because there is little evidence of turquoise mining in Mesoamerica, many southwestern and Mesoamerican archaeologists believe that turquoise may have been acquired through trade with the American Southwest, an idea that has sparked an enduring debate (E.G. Kelley and Kelley 1975; Weigand et al. 1977; Lister 1978; McGuire 1980; Frisbie 1983; McGuire 1993; Wilcox 1986; Doyel 1991; Weigand and Harbottle 1993; Harbottle and Weigand 1992; Weigand 1994).


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