How Jade Became More Valuable than Gold in Mayan Culture

Tikal, Guatemala
Tikal, Guatemala | © Mike Vondran / Flickr
Jack Guy

For many people, gold is the most highly-coveted precious metal and a marker of social standing. For the ancient Mayans, gold was surpassed by a different precious stone.

Mayan history and jade

The precious stone in question is jade, which is usually green in colour. Modern day Guatemala, which was once ruled by the Mayans, is one of the most important producers of jade in the world, though the stone is also important in Chinese culture.

Jade stones can be very large in size and were often carved into ornamental stones. Smaller pieces were used to make figurines, weapons and jewellery, from circular earrings to teeth inlays.

Mayan jade mask

What did jade mean to the Mayans?

Jade was incredibly important to the Mayans, taking on a great spiritual and religious significance. The stone’s green colour lent it to associations with water and vegetation, and it was symbolically associated with life and death in the eyes of the Mayans.

Beads of jade would be placed in the mouths of the dead if their families could afford it. Experts say that some Mayan royalty would have a precious stone placed in their mouth once on their deathbed, which would be removed and rubbed lightly on the face when they died. It was thought that the stone absorbed the soul and spirit.

Mayan jade artifact from Guatemala

More valuable than gold

Members of the Mayan elite would also wear pendants around their necks as a form of connecting with the sun god Kinich Ahau, who was often depicted with a mirror on his forehead. By wearing polished jade stones, the Mayans hoped to mimic the god, increasing the value of the stone.

While research into the stone and the Mayans is fairly limited, these hypotheses have been backed by various experts. What is certain is that the stone was highly revered in the ancient culture and was regarded as more valuable than gold.

Unworked jade stone

These days you can buy jade jewellery or figurines when you’re in Guatemala, and it’s cheaper than gold. Always shop at a certified jade dealer to avoid fakes. The best place to find good stones is in Antigua, Guatemala, where there are various shops and even a workshop where you can see the precious stone being worked.

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