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Camino Real: Ancient Trade to Colonial Commerce

By Kim Suina

Peoples of the Southwest and Mexico used the Camino Real corridor for trade and as a communication network for hundreds of years before the arrival of European settlers. Indian trails encompassing the Camino Real linked the Aztec Empire and other Mesoamerican civilizations with the northern Chihuahuan regional trade center at Paquimé (Casas Grandes), and with other Indian groups throughout the Southwest. These ancient trade routes supplied Southwest Indian tribes with goods from Mesoamerica. From the south came marine shells, parrots, macaws, and copper objects. In return Southwestern peoples sent locally produced items south. Down the trails went turquoise, peridot, serpentine, garnet and other semiprecious stones, pottery, salt, meerschaum, clays and earthen pigments, alibates flints, and processed bison.

Many cultural groups have resided in New Mexico, northern Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado through time. All of these societies maintained well-developed agricultural traditions, and relied on comprehensive systems of trade to disperse goods. Anasazi, Mogollon, and Hohokam trade routes connected trade centers throughout the region. The ancestral Pueblo peoples, or the Anasazi as they are more commonly known, resided in the four corners area, with Chaco Canyon as perhaps one of the most important trade centers of their civilization. The Hohokam, a farming culture from southern Arizona irrigated the basins of the Salt and Gila Rivers, and the Mogollon culture, in west-central New Mexico and south-central Arizona, transmitted Mesoamerican agriculture, pottery, and other objects to groups further north like the Anasazi and the Hohokam.

Mesoamerican cultures, like their contemporaries to the north built an economy based on agriculture and trade. They manufactured a broad range of products, including, obsidian tools, pottery, cotton textiles, bark paper and painted manuscripts. Many years later, Spanish expeditions in search of wealth, adventure, and the souls of the Indians would follow these same trade routes across the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts to the north. Traders traveled by foot on long journeys through difficult terrain to acquire raw materials and finished products for village use or to trade with other communities. Indigenous Southwest peoples did not have wheeled vehicles or pack animals like horses or donkeys but had never the less established significant trade routes. The people of Chaco Canyon built a network of roads with clearly demarcated borders. These roads ranged from eight to ten meters in width and adjusted to the treacherous topography, with stairways and ramps built into the roadway to maneuver over sandstone cliffs. These paths connected the various settlements of Chaco and extended to outlying communities miles away.

At many of the Southwest’s trade centers, archeologists have uncovered artifacts originating from throughout Mexico such as macaw and parrot feathers, copper bells, and shells. These trade goods were highly valued by Southwest Indians because of their rarity and thus their appeal for ceremonial use. Traders carried live macaws originating in the humid tropical lowlands of southern Mexico into the Mimbres Valley and then on north to locations like Chaco and its outlying villages.

The Paquimé culture, circa 1250-1425 A.D., became a central trade center connecting Southwestern tribes and the people of Mexico. Influential Toltec merchant families may have organized the Paquimé area into a trading outpost and center of production (although it has been postulated by some archaeologists that Paquimé was organized by the Chacoans who left the Chaco Canyon about the time of the earliest dates of Paquimé). Paquimé, which stood nearly 400 miles south of Chaco Canyon, became part of the extensive economic network that spread over a large part of Mexico and Central America and covered most of the northern Chihuahuan desert and farther north. Paquimé was the trade center through which luxury items from Mexico and Central America made their way north into Arizona and New Mexico, surpassing previous trade centers in the kinds and numbers of trade goods in which they dealt.

Breeders at Paquimé raised hundreds of macaws to meet the demand of northern cultures, who desired the macaw and its feathers for ceremonial purposes. Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of more than 500 macaws, and have unearthed the sturdy and elaborate pens and perches that housed them. The trade in macaws continued to expand to meet the consistent demand by cultures to the north, and successful breeding techniques made macaws and their feathers one of the most lucrative trade items, and Paquimé a primary center of trade.

Remains from a number of prehistoric sites throughout the Southwest also demonstrate Paquimé’s role as a supplier of copper bells. Again Southwest Native peoples sought out copper bells for ceremonial usage. However, there is no evidence to suggest that other metal products from Paquimé, such as axes, needles, and skewers were traded to the north.

Merchants from Paquimé also traded marine shells with Southwest Indians. Most of these shells originated in various coastal regions of Mexico including the Sea of Cortez. Archeologists speculate that there were two major systems of distribution and production for marine shells in the greater Southwest. The Hohokam culture was the primary center of the marine shell trade before 1275. Most of the shells processed by the Hohokam went to Chaco. Paquimé dominated thereafter, with many of the shells processed at Paquimé supplying the various Pueblos to the north. The quantity of marine shells uncovered by archaeologists at Paquimé far outnumbers those found at other trading centers like Chaco.

Resources from the Southwest also traveled south. Turquoise primarily from the Cerrillos area in north-central New Mexico, as well as from Cripple Creek in south-central Colorado and southern Nevada, supplied Chaco with a stockpile of the semiprecious stone for processing and as raw pieces for exchange with Mexican traders. Native peoples utilized open pit and tunnel mining, digging away rock with hammers, and pick and scoops made of bone and tortoise shell. Chaco clearly dominated the turquoise trade from A.D.1020 to 1050. Archeologists have excavated numerous workshops, where turquoise products had been processed. Chacoan craftspeople transformed these raw stones into colorful mosaics, beads, pendants, and other forms of adornment for trade. Additional stone products, like flint projectile points and tools originating from the Southwest have been discovered as far south as Central America. These items may have come from quarries in the Texas panhandle, where archaeologists have uncovered tons of stone manufacturing debris. These stones and or tools were traded by or traveled with Prehistoric hunters over vast distances.

Pottery traded among Southwestern peoples and those from Mexico dominated much of the trade from A.D. 700 to 900. At sites like Chaco, archeologists have uncovered thousands of pottery objects such as bowls and shards made with different clays and rendered in many styles demonstrating that pottery trade between distant communities was common. Native peoples also traded materials utilized in ceramic production, such as clays and pigments.

Trade remained very active between the late 1300s and the early 1400s but was increasingly local in nature. Unlike the vast trade networks of earlier periods, trade flowed on narrow corridors along existing waterways. Native people of the Southwest continued to supply Mesoamericans with turquoise until the arrival of Spanish settlers in the 1500s. Between the 1300s and 1500s, the pueblos of the Galisteo basin controlled most of the turquoise trade. Tremendous deposits of turquoise were mined in the Cerrillos Hills of New Mexico, at Mount Chalchihuitl or “turquoise mountain,” as it was known to the Aztecs.

Centers of commerce such as Chaco and Paquimé in northern Mexico served as trading and production areas in a larger network of trade routes. Turquoise, highly valued throughout the Southwest and in Mexico became the principal commodity traded from north to south. In return, macaws, ornamental bells, marine shells, and various kinds of decorative items made their way north. Traders from the Southwest and Mexican merchants likely traveled between redistribution centers to trade these objects. Additionally, the cross-cultural relations between these diverse groups likely led to innovations in architecture, farming procedures, communications, and religion.

Numerous archeological sites along these trade routes tell us about the people who historically traveled these routes. Ancient Native trade routes continued to influence the travel and commerce of far flung social networks in the greater Southwest and Mexico into Colonial times when these routes were appropriated for a new kind of commerce. The main artery of commerce from Mexico to New Mexico in colonial times was known as the Camino Real, the royal road and these same routes of trade and communication continue to be arteries of commerce and cross cultural intersection today.

Sources used:

Kelley, Klara and Harris Francis. “Abalone Shell Buffalo People: Navajo Narrated Routes and Pre-Columbian Archaeological Sites.” New Mexico Historical Review 78, no. 1 (Winter 2003): 29–58.

Lekson, Stephen H. The Chaco Meridian: Centers of Political Power in the Ancient American Southwest. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Alta Mira Press, 1999.

LeBlanc, Steven. Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999.

Schaafsma, Curtis F. and Caroll L. Riley, ed. The Casas Grandes World. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999.

Stuart, David E. Anasazi America: Seventeen Centuries on the Road from Center Place. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.