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The fascinating world of Belize’s seagoing Maya

26 May 2011 No Comment

Many visitors to Belize are amazed by the many ancient Maya temples and archaeological sites and they often come away with a new appreciation of the extent and grandeur of Belize’s Maya civilisation.

Another equally fascinating but lesser known aspect of Belize’s Maya culture is their audacious seafaring and the impressive coastal trading network established over centuries, which recent research indicates may have extended as far as Peru.

It is now clear that Maya traders paddled huge dugout canoes filled with cacao, jade, obsidian, cotton and other trade items up and down the coasts of Mexico, the Yucatan, Belize and Central America. In 1502, Ferdinand Columbus, the son of Christopher, reported coming across a huge Maya canoe with 25 paddlers carrying cargo and passengers.

According to Dominique Rissolo, Ph.D., the director of the Waitt Institute in La Jolla, California, who has been conducting research into Maya coastal trade, “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.”

While research has resulted in significant finds in Belize’s jungles that reveal much about the Maya, less is known about their maritime achievements. This is due in part to the fact that wooden canoes would have vanished long ago, and the more volatile seacoast and island environments are subject to hurricanes and other climatic events which make excavation and research that much more difficult. However, we do know that Ambergris Caye and areas such as Cerro Maya near Corozal were heavily involved in Maya coastal trade.

More recent research in Mexico is yielding promising results.

The USA’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is currently sponsoring a scientific expedition in Vista Alegre at Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to further investigate the Maya maritime heritage. Joint research by Mexican and North American scientists indicates that the area was a hub for Maya seagoing trade and the team is uncovering new insights into Maya seagoing activity.

In Belize, trading areas such as Chaa Creek were connected to the sea by the river network, and the annual La Ruta Maya Canoe Challenge, running from San Ignacio in the Cayo district to Belize City shows the ease by which river-borne trade would have been conducted. In fact, when present day Chaa Creek was a small family farm, owners Mick and Lucy Fleming transported their produce and goods to and from San Ignacio by dugout canoe, just as their neighbours and the ancient Maya did.  Other than the outboard motor the Flemings eventually added, the method of transport would have been unchanged for centuries.

As more interest is focused on the Maya and Belize in the lead up to the 2012 Winter Solstice celebrations of December 21, it is hoped that more time and research dollars will be spent on exploring the little known but very fascinating aspect of Maya civilisation and their contribution to the seafaring culture of the Americas. The Lodge at Chaa Creek’s Rainforest and Reef package tours currently offer the best way to experience both the inland Maya archaeological sites and the beautiful coastal and island centres of this fascinating culture.

So in addition to the impressive Maya temples, the astounding mathematical and astronomical calculations and the famous Long Count calendar, be prepared for a new appreciation of Maya seafaring and other nautical achievements as the world of the Maya  opens up for the 2012 celebrations in Belize.

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