DISCOVER January 2003
100 Top Science Stories Of 2002
81. Rare Jade Riddle Cracked
|The Kunz Axe, a 3,000-year-old Olmec blue-jade sculpture, features a snarling creature that is part human, part jaguar.|
Courtesy of The American Museum of Natural History, New York.
1804 naturalist Alexander von Humboldt returned to France from the
Americas with jade artifacts crafted by the Olmecs. This pre-Mayan,
pre-Columbian culture had left behind statues and axes made of a
translucent blue-green jade found almost nowhere else in the world.
Today archaeologists know the Olmecs had stopped using the stone by
about 500 B.C. Later cultures favored other shades of jade, and the
blue-green version became known as Olmec blue. But the geological
source of the jade had never been found. Geophysicist Russell Seitz,
field director of a study of Mesoamerican jade for Harvard's Peabody
Museum, had spent years looking for the elusive transparent blue-green
stone. By 1999, when he took his fiancée to Guatemala for a vacation,
he had given up hope of finding the mother lode. Then, by chance, he
stumbled upon half a dozen shops selling small items crafted from the
blue-green gem: "It had become an ornamental cottage heritage
industry." It took him nine months to track down the jade miners, who
finally agreed to lead him up into the mountains. There, at an
elevation of 5,700 feet, he found "a giant, economy-size jade vein."
Seitz returned several times before discovering the biggest boulders
last January. Most of the jade he found is worthless. But one 300-ton
monolith does contain three tons of the prized translucent blue-green
The find puts to rest one mystery but leaves many questions for archaeologists and pre-Columbian scholars, including: Why did the Olmecs stop carving jade? Perhaps their culture disappeared, or maybe the seams of jade that the Olmecs were mining, and the Olmec carvers themselves, were destroyed by volcanoes. "The deposits," says Seitz, "have been Pompeiied several times."
— Michael Abrams