Archaeologist Rodrigo Esparza had a problem. He had been asked to take a group of VIPs on a visit to El Pedernal, one of the broad obsidian deposits for which the state of Jalisco is famous.
“There is, however, a slight problem,” he told me. “The only way to reach El Pedernal is through a huge garbage dump.”
Dr. Esparza was looking for a less malodorous substitute and hoped he might find it in a new nature reserve I had told him about, where I had hiked over kilometers of this once priceless volcanic glass. Our subsequent visit to this reserve turned out to be an eye-opener for the archaeologist and the discovery of what may be Mexico’s biggest obsidian field.
The Selva Negra Sanctuary is located 32 kilometers southwest of Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city, and covers an area of 1,100 hectares. The reserve serves as a wildlife corridor between two of Jalisco’s largest protected areas, Bosque la Primavera and Sierra de Quila.
It is unusual in that the project was initiated and paid for not by the local or national government, but by the Mexican rock band Maná. These musicians were concerned about the carbon footprints they were leaving behind on their worldwide tours and actually sat down and calculated — in hard cash — what might be their debt to Mother Earth.
Then they began searching for a forest in need of protection and rehabilitation. The result was a project that has greatly benefited local ejidos (cooperatives), not to mention wild animals in Jalisco whose roaming areas are continuously shrinking.
Rodrigo Esparza picked me up and off we drove to the little town of Ahuisculco. We passed right through it and headed northwest along a dirt road which, 15 minutes past the town, suddenly turned black. From this point on it was literally “paved” with broken chunks of obsidian.
Although we still had not reached the entrance to Selva Negra, Rodrigo stopped the car and we got out to look at the steep hillside next to the road. It was covered by thousands of chunks of shiny black obsidian.
The archaeologist’s eyes were gleaming. “All of these pieces come from a workshop up above,” he said. “Every one of them has been created by an ancient craftsman, and the quality and purity of this obsidian is extraordinary.”
We ducked under a barbed-wire fence and made our way upward, slipping and sliding on the cascade of jet-black rocks. Everywhere we found broken knives, hatchets and tools, which had been discarded because they had not turned out perfect.
Among them were a surprising number of nucleos or cores from which long, sharp-edged blades had been extracted by an ancient artisan who knew how to skillfully tap just the right spot with the pointed end of a deer horn, to “pop off” a new blade.
Slowly we made our way up to the top of the hill where we found a wide, shallow hole. “This was the mine,” said Rodrigo triumphantly. “Here’s where it all came from. What we have here is a major obsidian mine that has never been reported.”
Half a kilometer beyond the mine, we parked in front of a large iron gate marking the entrance to the protected area. A sign announced that this was the Corredor Biológico de la Sierra de Ahuisculco-Bosque la Primavera, but it was immediately nicknamed “La Selva Negra” by fans of Maná in reference to one of their most famous songs, En la Selva Negra.
The words of the song give some idea why these musicians are concerned enough to support conservation projects in such remote places as the Ahuisculco Wilderness:
I wandered lost
In the Selva Negra
And I came upon a little ant,
And she told me a story,
A story of men who would take away her land:
“What will become of me?” she asked.
“What will become of you?”
And the ants were wiped out
In the early morning light.
What happened in that anthill?
What happened in the Selva Negra?
We walked through the gate and soon found ourselves on a rather unusual trail created by park personnel. Both sides of the narrow footpath were lined with the most abundant “rocks” in the area, namely broken obsidian artifacts hundreds of years old. I doubt whether another trail like this could be found anywhere else on earth!
Because this land is now closed to development and visited by very few human beings, wildlife is returning to the Selva Negra. We spotted a katydid, a praying mantis and numerous San Miguelitos. Mexican children call out to this harmless flying insect: “San Miguelito, San Miguelito ¡párate en mi dedito! (come sit on my finger.)”
Jokingly, I said these words and to my surprise, the San Miguelito actually landed on my finger and stayed there long enough for me to get a great picture. These woods are also good for seeing birds such as parakeets, orioles, kiskadees, kingbirds and the incredibly beautiful and playful squirrel cuckoo.
We walked a grand total of 2.3 kilometers that day and along this short stretch Rodrigo discovered no less than three obsidian workshops and mines. “None of these has been registered,” he said, “and I can’t imagine how many more there must be in this wilderness.”
The archaeologist took samples whose composition will be studied using a technique called Neutron Activation Analysis which produces a detailed readout of every element present in an obsidian sample, allowing researchers to match an obsidian artifact to a specific area and often to one particular mine. The technique has revealed that obsidian tools found as far away as New Mexico originally came from mines and workshops in Jalisco.
“Gracias a Dios,” commented Rodrigo, “that this is a protected area and Selva Negra can act as an obsidian reserve for the future.” I knew he was referring to other parts of Jalisco where huge quantities of high-quality obsidian are being sold for much less than peanuts and shipped off to China.
On returning to our car, I picked up a few white stones lying on the ground. Each of these was almost perfectly round. They had obviously come from a nearby embankment where we found thousands of similar stone balls ranging in size from a millimeter to 40 centimeters in diameter.
I showed a few samples of these balls to geologists who identified them as spherulites, formations closely associated with obsidian, which occasionally have a hollow center lined with crystals, in which case they are called geodes or thundereggs.
Rodrigo Esparza eventually managed to organize a geological study of the obsidian flows in the Selva Negra Sierra. So far, the results suggest that the Ahuisculco deposits are far more widespread than anyone had ever anticipated. “To date they’ve mapped 14 square kilometers,” Esparza told me, “and they have found 69 individual flows over an area of 359 hectares.”
At the same time, the survey has also located over 300 pre-Hispanic obsidian mines and workshops which, thanks to Maná, will fall under the protection of the Selva Negra Foundation. How many more are out there is anyone’s guess as the survey is far from completed.
“The Ahuisculco Forest,” says Esparza, “could be housing the biggest obsidian flow in Mexico.”
The best vehicle for visiting the Selva Negra Forest is a high-clearance truck and during the rainy season, four-wheel drive may be necessary. To get there, follow these directions.
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for 31 years, and is the author of “A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area” and co-author of “Outdoors in Western Mexico.” More of his writing can be found on his website.
Photos by John Pint unless indicated otherwise.