Cancun (global-adventures.us): A NOAA sponsored expedition hopes to uncover new secrets of the ancient Mayan civilization, a society noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas. Researchers will search a wild, largely unexplored and forgotten coastline for evidence and artifacts of one of the greatest seafaring traditions of the ancient New World, where Maya traders once paddled massive dugout canoes filled with trade goods from across Mexico and Central America. One goal is to discover the remains of a Maya trading canoe, described in A.D. 1502 by Christopher Columbus’ son Ferdinand, as holding 25 paddlers plus cargo and passengers.
The scientists will search the remote jungle, mangrove forests and lagoons at the ancient port site of Vista Alegre where the Caribbean meets the Gulf of Mexico at the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. They believe the port was part of an important trading network used at various times between about 800 B.C. and A.D. 1521, the date scholars use to designate the start of Spanish rule.
“The maritime Maya have been described much like ancient seagoing Phoenicians. They traded extensively in a wide variety of goods, such as bulk cotton and salt, and likely incense from tree sap called copal, jade, obsidian, cacao, Quetzal and other tropical bird feathers, and even slaves,” said Dominique Rissolo, director of the Waitt Institute in La Jolla. “Maya trade was far-ranging between the Veracruz coast of modern Mexico and the Gulf of Honduras, with each port a link in a chain connecting people and ideas. Yet there is still much to learn about the extensive history and importance of the maritime Maya and how they adapted to life by the sea.”
Recent archaeological work at Vista Alegre included the completion of an architectural map of the site, test excavations to obtain cultural materials, and a 13-mile reconnaissance of coastal environments that revealed a number of small ancient and historical sites and cultural features.
During expeditions at the port site in 2005 and 2008, explorers mapped 29 structures including platforms, mounds, raised causeways, and a concrete-filled 35-foot tall, steep-sided pyramid that dominates the central plaza and appears to have been heavily damaged by hurricanes. Explorers believe the summit of the pyramid was used by lookouts to monitor approaching and departing canoes. In addition to the features on the island, a narrow walkway connects the port to a collapsed and looted temple about 1 mile away on the mainland.
“Maritime economies were strengthened and far-ranging trade routes were established between A.D. 850 and 1100,” said Jeffrey Glover, a scientist with Georgia State University’s Department of Anthropology in Atlanta. “It was during this time when the Maya at Chichen Itza relied increasingly on maritime commerce to maintain and extend control over much of the Yucatan peninsula. The period most associated with Maya seafaring followed, between A.D. 1100 and 1521.”
The explorers are contending with many of the same challenges that faced ancient Maya seafarers, including shelter, the remoteness of the area that is accessible only by boat, the scarcity of fresh water, the possibility of tropical storms, and the danger and nuisance of mosquitoes, snakes, spiders and crocodiles.
“The Maya largely had to live off the land in this remote area where they found and used resources to survive. Like them, we have to search for scarce fresh water, but our challenges are more about making the research work in less than optimal conditions. It will involve some good MacGyvering,” said Glover, referring to the television actor who used ingenuity and materials at hand to invent his way out of a fix.
The expedition is part of Proyecto Costa Escondida (Hidden Coast Project), a long-term interdisciplinary research effort co-directed by Glover and Rissolo and focused on the dynamic relationship between the Maya and their coastal landscape.
The carved head was found at a deserted beach near the port city of Puerto Aventuras during a Global Adventures, LLC cave diving expedition in 2009. Photo: imagine-your-world.com