Above: Professor Daniel Pierce of the Department of Anthropology holds an obsidian arrow point from San Felipe Aztatán, Mexico (Courtesy of Janeece Woodson/The Current)

By Janeece Woodson, Staff Writer

More than one thousand years ago, a culture on the western coast of Mexico developed tools that surpass many of today’s tools in precision. Some blades made of the igneous rock obsidian have points that are one molecule wide and can cut through skin or eye tissue without leaving scars.

Professor Daniel Pierce of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Missouri—St. Louis is so interested in such tools that he has published an article in the 40th volume of the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology about them. The article, titled “Visual and Geochemical Analyses of Obsidian Source Use at San Felipe Aztatán, Mexico,” focuses primarily on obsidian tools of the Aztatlán culture on the western coast. An extensive trade network emerged from Aztatán in approximately 500 to 750 CE. Pierce has studied nearly 1,600 obsidian samples from the site. “In my opinion the root of culture is status differences, and everyday objects tend to reflect that,” Pierce said.

Not only are these volcanic glass tools a reflection of the genius of human innovation, they are also a reflection of how material goods can reflect a culture’s economic principles.

“It’s just different access to resources; today everyone doesn’t have the same access to stuff,” Pierce said. “Some people have a lot more money than others and that’s unfortunate, but that’s going on for thousands of years.” He believes that studying the objects left behind by individuals can reveal how they related to each other. For example, a particular type of obsidian was likely viewed as highly valuable, because it came from inland Mexico at Pachuca, which was much further away from the common obsidian sources on the Pacific Mexican coast. Pachuca obsidian was found only in a particular area of the settlement at Aztatán, which means it could have been available only to the elite of the community. “I think that it was the same as it is now; people who have a lot—at times, they don’t want to share or they don’t want other people to rise up either. I think that people in the past did the same thing,” said Pierce. According to the article, there are parallels between class differences in their culture and in modern society: “By excluding the lower classes from certain trade networks, elites can effectively make the traded obsidian more valuable due to its limited dispersal.”

The method of using artifacts to uncover the fundamentals of a culture is not new to archaeology, but Pierce uses a different approach. “A lot of times, history is written by the victors and so we only hear the rich guy’s side of everything,” he said. Pierce has taken an interest in using everyday objects to identify the roots of a culture like the Aztatlán. He noted that the site and its people had been understudied because they did not leave behind structures like the iconic stone temples and pyramids in South America. “I’m trying to get at the use of class issues without relying on the tombs, relying strictly on the big fancy mounds […] trying to use the everyday good to get a better idea of class differences,” Pierce said.

These social structures could also have affected the way the Aztatlán interacted with outsiders through their trade networks. Pierce’s article suggests that, with a desire to obtain rare items and raise their own status, Aztatlán traders were inclined to open as many advantageous trade routes as possible. This allowed people on the western coast of Mexico to achieve a substantial influence on communities hundreds of miles away. For example, chocolate residue on clay pottery and the remains of Macaw birds have both been found in the deserts of the southwestern United States, several hundred miles from where they are typically found in Mexico. “This culture might be the link between Mesoamerica and the United States from a thousand years ago,” said Pierce.

Such pieces of evidence about vast Aztatlán trade routes could not have been found without employing techniques from other fields. For example, obsidian can be identified from different volcanic sources visually—some stones have a greyish hue, while others are greener. Yet a geochemical analysis yields very applicable results when identifying the source of obsidian tools. Using the chemical structure of obsidian has allowed Pierce to pinpoint the beginning of many obsidian tools, determining their alleged value based on how far people traveled to acquire them.

Another benefit of combining theory with hard science is that archaeologists can more fully appreciate the ingenuity of preceding cultures. Pierce said that systematically studying the culture of the people indigenous to the Americas led some early European visitors to hold them in a higher regard. The same holds true today, as technology lends archaeologists more information about the pieces of the past. Sourcing certain substances to origin points a thousand miles away, understanding the mathematical accuracy of prehistoric architecture, and studying the precision of ancient tools can alter the way a person perceives his or her predecessors. Pierce said, “They weren’t savages; they did way more than we give them credit for.”