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Jade and North America's Northwest Coast

By Fred Ward (Friends of Jade)

Everyone who loves jade (or simply finds it fascinating) soon hears all the stories about China's deep involvement with the material. There is no doubt that China built a culture with jade at its core. The most valuable, most beautiful, and most desirable objects ever incorporated into Chinese life were jade–not just any jade, but nephrite jade–and not even just any nephrite jade, but white nephrite jade. So precious was it that a special name was created to describe it perfectly–the Stone of Heaven.

It is well known that for more than 6000 years the Chinese have revered nephrite jade picked up mainly in rivers near Khotan in far western China. What has recently become apparent is that for at least 12,500 years natives have used jade in what is now Alaska, British Columbia, the western USA, and even down much of the western areas of South America. This parallel history puts a new light on the fantastic migration of people from northern Asia who made their way across the Bering Straits and became Alaska's Eskimos, America's Indians, Central America's Olmecs, Maya, and Aztecs, and South America's Incas.

Newly discovered artifacts reveal that these migrants benefited from the properties of jade. Alaska has huge nephrite deposits, which in the period before metal working provided qualities that allowed its users to leap over the traditional path from sticks to stones to metal and later to sophisticated tools and weapons. One simple sentence explains it all:

Nephrite jade is the toughest natural material on earth.

Toughness is a measure of resistance to breaking. Because of its interlocking tufted fibrous makeup, nephrite made better tools and weapons that most early metals. Pre-ironmaking peoples who had access to nephrite bypassed some of the traditional metal-working steps to a modern society. They fashioned weapons for killing wild animals for food as well as to cut wood and rocks.

In a climate as harsh as Alaska’s, the weak and careless do not survive. But the people who walked across a land-bridge between Asia and Alaska not only survived but prospered. Relics exist of their various jade tools. The earliest travelers in Alaska and today’s visitors share a connection–a love of nephrite jade.

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