Another step forward in studying the maritime Maya of Belize

As the Winter Solstice of 2012 approaches, research into the ancient Maya civilisation of Belize is intensifying, with the result that more and more information about this fascinating, enigmatic culture is coming to light.

The little understood Maya maritime culture has been receiving more attention recently, and this is a welcome contribution to our appreciation of the length and breadth of Maya Empire. We now know, for instance, that the Maya were enthusiastic traders, importing and exporting goods throughout the Central American interior and coastline, down along the Miskito Coast to Panama and, as recent discoveries indicate, as far as Peru.

Prominent Maya researcher Dr Dominique Rissolo, director of the Waitt Institute in La Jolla, California, has described the Maya as “ancient seagoing Phoenicians” who traded extensively in a wide variety of goods such as cotton and salt, copal (a tree resin valued for incense), jade, obsidian, cacao, and other merchandise.

The very nature of coastal and island archaeology – hurricanes, shifting sands, rising sea levels and the corrosive effects of sea air have always made research into this branch of Maya studies difficult. However, new technology, increased attention on the maritime Maya and  the identification and establishment of new research sites all hold promise that new clues will be revealed.

One such exciting new development is the establishment of the Marco Gonzalez site on Belize’s beautiful Ambergris Caye.

It is estimated that Ambergris Caye had been continually occupied by the Maya for some 2,000 years until it was abandoned around 1500 AD, with some 20,000 Maya inhabiting the site at its peak between 1200 to 1400 AD. The Maya islanders most likely engaged in fishing, trading and salt production, as Ambergris would have been strategically located on the main coastal trading route. However, due to the lack of significant structures and the paucity of artefacts, the island never received the attention the grander inland sites such as Caracol and Xunantunich did.

Then, in 1984, Drs Elizabeth Graham and David Pendergast identified the importance of the site, named it after their local guide, and began mapping and excavating the area.  The site now contains about 50 identified structures and walls, some of which are arranged around plazas. Most of the buildings appear to have been constructed of limestone and sea shells on low platforms, and there are none of the more readily identifiable pyramid and temple structures that Belize is famous for.

So far the site has yielded broken pottery, tools and human bones, but years of looting have left it devoid of other artifacts.  In 2010, Belize’s National Institute of Culture and History (NICH) and Belize Institute of Archaeology worked to formally established Marco Gonzalez as the first National Reserve on an island in Belize, and on April 1, 2011, Marco Gonzalez became the first Maya Site National Park on Ambergris Caye.

Work is currently underway to further develop the educational and tourism potential of the site, with plans to establish visitors’ and educational centres and to offer guided tours through the site. NICH is reportedly considering developing Marco Gonzalez along the principals of sustainable, Green tourism, with wind and solar power and the use of recycled materials.

Chaa Creek, which has been actively promoting responsible travel for decades, applauds the development of maritime Maya sites with a focus on ensuring they contribute not only to our understanding of the Maya, but to the preservation of the entire Heartland of the Maya through green practices. Our own Rainforest and Reef packages, which take in both the majestic inland Maya temples and cities such as Caracol as well as the coastal and island Maya culture, operate on the same principals of responsible, sustainable tourism.

By exploring our rich past with an eye towards the future we show respect not only for the fascinating Maya culture, but for the land in which it evolved as well.

Stay tuned for more developments on Maya research as the huge nationwide Maya 2012 Belize celebrations approach.  And remember, here at Chaa Creek we always welcome your input and questions about Belize’s rich Maya heritage.

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