Historian says ancient trade route was a pre-cursor to modern global economy

An engraved, colored map, dissected and mounted on linen. Map is of Mexico and California, showing Mexican boundary of 1810 to the Mermento River in Louisiana. Insert in lower left shows the Valley of Mexico, from Humboldt map. Insert in center shows Acapulco. Insert in lower right shows Veracruz. "Engraved by E. Jones" is inscribed in the bottom of the title circle.

This map, originally published on October 5, 1810, and currently held at the John Carter Brown Library, illustrates the geographical area that contained the Indian Camino Real.

“Global economy” might be a modern buzzword, but the phenomenon has been around a lot longer. In fact, while Google’s Ngram Viewer indicates use of the phrase “global economy” peaked around the turn of the 21st Century, historian Tatiana Seijas says trade that would today be considered international has been thriving on the North American continent since at least the 10th Century.

Seijas, an assistant professor at Miami University and a 2014-2015 research fellow at Brown University’s John Carter Brown Library, is studying what she calls the Indian Camino Real, an 1800-mile route that linked the Rio Grande Valley to the Mesoamerican Highlands from about the 900s through about 1850.

According to Seijas, the Indian Camino Real was used for trade by indigenous peoples in the pre-Columbian era, including Apaches, Zunis, Janos, Tarahumaras, and Otomis. Evidence of this trade, she says, comes from archaeological data that show goods like cacao, turquoise and macaw feathers, all of which are native to specific areas, turning up in other areas hundreds of miles away.

For instance, Seijas points to a circa 1000 drinking vessel from an archaeological site at the Pueblo Bonito great house in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. This cup contains residue with the biomarker for cacao, a plant that grows only within about 20 degrees of the equator. Its presence in Chaco Canyon means that the ancestral Pueblo people living there at the time must have had contact with people living 1000 miles or more to the south.

Those people, Seijas says, are possibly the Toltecs. Evidence of this connection comes in the form of turquoise found at archaeological sites on the Toltecs’ ancestral lands in Tula, in the Mexican state of Hidalgo. Turquoise is a mineral that – in the New World – occurs only in the Southwest United States, and is strongly associated with the Pueblo Indians.

“All these traders and merchants walked or rode a horse from the central valley of Mexico all the way to New Mexico, back and forth, back and forth, for centuries and centuries,” Seijas says. “So to think about their journeys is to think about how it is that people build trade networks and create markets and maintain connections to other people who speak different languages.“

By the time New Mexico became a Spanish colony in 1595, the Indian Camino Real had been thriving as a trade route for over half a millennium. Seijas says this ancient infrastructure gave the area’s new Spanish settlers access to local indigenous goods like bison hides, as well as global commodities. “They could get olive oil from Europe and Chinese textiles and crucifixes made of ivory.”

Seijas says that even though we may have come to think of access to imported goods as a convenience of the digital age, “trade and connection are constants of human history. It’s human nature to want to make connections with others, and to want stuff from other areas.”

And that’s not the only way in which thinking about the Indian Camino Real challenges our modern assumptions.

“It always struck me that the way U.S. history is taught, the story of the original 13 colonies seems to be the only founding narrative of this country,” Seijas says. “ I want to contribute to a new way of thinking about U.S. history, from a longer perspective.”

Seijas is one of seven long-term faculty fellows currently in residence at the John Carter Brown Library, and she says she’s honored to have been selected from among hundreds of applicants.

“The John Carter Brown Library has the most important collection of maps and old books about the Americas in the world,” Seijas says. “They have every book that has to do with the Americas that was printed anywhere in the world from about 1500 to 1900, so it’s important for any historian of the Americas to spend time here.”

Seijas plans to produce a book from her research on the Indian Camino Real, and has appointments lined up to pitch it to editors attending the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in January. The book, she says, will be of interest to specialists, but – thanks in part to an abundance of maps and illustrations – it will appeal to general audiences too.

“I want it to be a way of helping others to understand some of the connections that people living in the Southwest today have to Mexico and to Latin America.”

Understanding these centuries-old connections, not only helps us understand the politics and culture of a geographical region, but also, says Seijas, “helps us understand why we have an interest in thinking globally today.”

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Photo of map by Aaron Arrowsmith, courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.  Photo of Pueblo Bonito ruins in Chaco Canyon by SkybirdForever via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license.

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