A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
In a letter to King Charles V dated December 15, 1525, the Spanish royal accountant Rodrigo de Albornoz reported the periodic appearance of "distant traders" who had come to exchange "exquisite things" for local goods in the port of Zacatula, located at the mouth of the Río Balsas in West Mexico. These merchants were said to have remained in the area for five or six months, until good weather and calm seas permitted a safe return to their southern homeland. Who were the distant traders, what were the vaunted goods they brought, and what did they want in return? I suggest the recurring visitors may have come from Manabí Province on the Ecuadorian coast, some 2,400 miles to the south.
Why would the Ecuadorian merchants have sailed as far north as West Mexico? The traders may have needed to augment their most lucrative stock, spondylus shells. Their principal markets for spondylus were the Andean high cultures, where the shell was a profoundly sacred and necessary religious commodity. West Mexico provided a reliable supply of the mollusk, as depictions of these shells on a tribute tally from Cihuatlan, the Aztec Empire's Pacific province, attest. In return, the Ecuadorian traders may have brought with them dyed woolen garments and metal technologies.
Such exchange between West Mexico and Ecuador can now be inferred from similarities in ceramic wares and techniques, tomb architecture and mortuary offerings, and metallurgy; the distribution of two closely related species of jays and also of the Mexican hairless dog; and a distinctive clothing style.
Patricia Rieff Anawalt is founding director of the Center for Regional Dress at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History, the University of California, Los Angeles.