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Mexico City 2000
Searching for the source of Mesaoamerican jade

by Chueck Tebor

Mast all af us are familiar with the wealth af jadeite artifacts left by the peaples af Mesoamerica; the brilliant green omaments and sculptures have been the focus of archeological investigation and wonder for centuries. Though identifying and cataloguing worked Mesoamerican jadeite was and continues to be a challenging chore for archeologists, finding the source of jade in the Americas was another: it kept even the best in the field mystified for years.
Jadeite, one of the two distinct minerals commonly referred to as jade (the other being nephrite), has never been an easy stone for scientists to find a source for anywhere in the world. Prior to the 1952 discovery of jadeite in the Americas, one of the few known fountainheads of the mineral was Burrna, where a source of the precious stone was located in the 18th century.
The Burrna discavery 1ed many imaginitive scientists to hypathesize that trade routes once existed between Mesoamerica and the Far East. The theory was also used to explain some of the apparent similarities shared by Mesoamerican and Oriental facial designs such as slanted eyes and adomed noses.
Younger and more disceming scientists challenged the theory, saying the existence of such trade routes was almost impossible. If this were the case, the scientists of the old school argued, where did Mesoamericans get their jadeite from?
Sources of nephrite had been found in the Far East, the westem United States and New Zealand, among other places, but no renmants of jadeite's kindred mineral were
ever found in Mesoamerica. Sources of hard green stones used by Mesoamerican cultures such as serpentine, chryroprase, green slate, muscorite and blue-green chalcedony were found by archeologists, but no mineral discovery of jadeite, the green stone of preference of the peoples of Mesoamerica, had been found well into the last century.
Dr. William Foshag was one of those young refuters of the Mesoamerica-Far East trade route theory. When it seemed that most had given up on finding a source of Mesoamericanjadeite, he and a handful of other scientists were still dedicating much of their time and energy to the search for this mineral in Mesoamerica.
As Head Curator of the Smithsonian Institution's Department of Geology, Foshag had conducted countless studies in various regions of Mexico and Central America in search of jadeite. Though he never found the elusive green mineral, he had accumulated plenty of evidence indicating that jadeite could exist in certain areas oesoamerica.
Dr. Foshag was a close friend of Edwin Shook, one of the most revered authorities of Mesoamerican studies. Shook was famed for managing the restoration of the Mayan ruins of Tikal, Guatemala, a five-year program which was spearheaded by the University of Pensylvania.
Prior to taking on the restoration project, Shook introduced Foshag to Robert Leslie, an amateur geologist who was managing an agricultural project in Guatemala's Motgua River Valley. The valley is bordered on the north by the Sierra de las Minas, an area which Foshag considered a jadeite discovery was waiting to happen. Foshag advised Leslie to be on the lookout for jade-like minerals while working in the area.
Excited by the possibility of being the first person to find jadeite in the Americas, Leslie accepted the challenge wholeheartedly. He spent countless weekends and much of his free time searching for a source of the mineral, determined to leave no stone untumed.
One day the hard work paid off. While trekking around the Finca Trujillo in the Sierra de las Minas in 1952, Leslie discovered a twenty-pound jadeite boulder. The stone appeared to have been chipped away to obtain smaller, more workable fragments of jadeite. Near the boulder Leslie discovered vestiges of an ancient building and numerous fragments of jadeite and quartz. All indications led Leslie to believe the area was a pre-Hispanic work site.
Elated by the discovery, Leslie conducted subsequent excursions to the Sierra de
las Minas foothills. He eventually located a vein of jadeite in situ and finally laid the Mesamerican jadeite mystery to rest.
The finding was published in American Antiquity, Vol. 21, No. 1, July 1995; William F. Foshag and Robert Leslie, U.S. National Museum Washington D.C., August 1954. A fragment of the jadeite boulder was given to the Smithsonian Institute in 1954, under item number 201238.