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Scientific Accomplishments of Seafaring Chontal Maya
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The Little Known Scientific Accomplishments of the
Seafaring Chontal Maya from Northern Yucatan

By: Douglas T. Peck
(Reprinted by author's permission)

     The precocious Chontal Maya/Itza centered in the northern Yucatan were far ahead of their contemporary neighbors in the arts and science including writing, mathematics, and public architecture (Peck 2000:6-22). This study will show that the seafaring and mercantile oriented Chontal Maya were also a worldly element of the Maya civilization who traveled and spread their cultural influence not only throughout continental Mesoamerica, but ventured across the seas in exploration voyages to the islands of the Caribbean and to the shores of Florida. Consistent with this accomplishment, the Chontal Maya had developed naval engineering, metallurgy, tool design, and woodworking and ship building capabilities that enabled them to construct the large composite seaworthy vessels required. Their accomplishments in mathematics and astronomy also enabled the Chontal Maya to develop a sophisticated method of celestial navigation for their overseas voyages.

     This is contrary to current consensus among Maya scholars who view the Maya as largely sedentary and introverted people with no knowledge or interest in the world beyond their own known continental borders. This narrow view was initially given impetus by the fact that Spanish explorers were firmly established in the northern Caribbean for nearly a quarter of a century without obtaining knowledge of the Maya civilization only a few days sail to the west. However, a severe scrutiny of extant documentary and archaeological evidence indicates there was pre-Columbian contact between the Maya on the Yucatan and the Indians of the Caribbean and Florida which could only have been accomplished in planned voyages by people of substance in large and seaworthy vessels.

                       Historical Evidence of Pre-Columbian Contact by Canoe Between
                             the Maya on the Yucatan and the Taino in the Caribbean
                                   contained in Columbus s 1492-1493 Diario or Log.

Columbus was the first European to reveal that the Indians of the New World were a seafaring trading peoples who roamed throughout the islands in large trading canoes. Columbus s reports concerned only the trading voyages of the Taino in the Caribbean islands he had discovered in his four voyages. Although the Taino told Columbus about overseas contact with the mainland of both Florida and the Yucatan he did not recognize it as such. The reports of Columbus that follow are from his Diario or log as summarized by Bartolome de Las Casas. i

     Columbus s first report of what can be construed as a large Taino trading canoe was on 27 November, 1492, when he was on the northeast coast of Cuba. At this point the summary of his log reads: .... there he found a handsome dugout or canoe, made of one timber as big as a

  The summary of Columbus s log was apparently made in the early sixteenth-century by Las Casas from Columbus s copy of the log while gathering notes for his Historia de Las Indias. Las Casas s Historia was not published until 1875 and did not contain this complete summary of the log. Martin Fernandez de Navarette discovered the Las Casas summary in a private library in Spain and published it in 1892 followed to date by several translations of varying reliability. The three translations used to develop this part of the text are the Beckwith and Farina (1990), the Dunn and Kelley (1989), and the Jane and Vigneras (1960). The earlier translation by Cecil Jane is used where his more literal translation is the more accurate and the others are used where there is no conflict or when more appropriate.

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fusta of twelve rowing benches, drawn up under a shelter or shed made of wood and covered with big palm leaves, so that neither sun nor water could damage it (Beckwith-Farina 1990: 133; Dunn-Kelley 1989:187; Jane-Vigneras 1960:78). The European fusta of a size to accommodate twenty-four rowers amidship plus passengers or cargo space in the ends, would have been about forty feet long. Later (30 November) and while still exploring Cuba, Columbus reported that near a large river that

Figure 12

                                  A Taino log canoe as pictured in Girolamo Benzoni,
                                         La Historia del Mondo Nuovo,
Venice, 1563.

emptied into the sea they found a handsome dugout or canoe ninety-five palmas in length, made of a single timber, and in it a hundred and fifty persons would fit and navigate (Beckwith-Farina 1990:137; Dunn-Kelley 1989:189). The length of the Mediterranean palm (palmas) was about ten inches (Kelley 1987:122-123), which would make the reported length of the canoe about seventy-nine feet. This length as well as the number of people the canoe could carry can be assumed to be one of Columbus s numerous exaggerations to impress the sovereigns. Most Spanish observers of the time place the maximum number the larger canoes could carry at around thirty persons, and this seems a more reasonable figure.

     The Carib and Taino Indians in the islands constructed and shaped their canoes using a controlled-fire followed by scraping away the charred wood with a stone or shell cutting tool(Hartman 1994; Leshikar 1988; Stowe 1974; Wilbert 1977). The fire and scraping method was used to fell the tree, shape the ends and hollow out the interior since the Indians had no metal tools. This slow and inefficient use of fire to eat away at the wood required close attention and monitoring of the fire for long periods of time to produce even the smaller canoes. Johannes Wilbert in his comprehensive study of early aboriginal water craft determined that nearly an entire year was needed to complete a canoe using the fire and scraping method (Wilbert 1977).  The log canoes constructed by this method would have been relatively heavy round bottom canoes unstable and unsafe for extensive overseas voyages yet there is evidence that such voyages did occur (Farina-Triolo 1992:93). At one time Columbus spoke of as many as 120 canoes full of people crowded around his vessel, but these were the smaller individually owned canoes used for fishing and limited coastal travel. Less frequently does he note the large trading canoes and these must have been community property under control of the cacique to warrant the

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extensive effort and manpower for their construction and utilization. On several occasions in Columbus s Diario or log of his 1492 voyage there are indications that the Taino Indians had knowledge of both the Calusa in Florida and the Maya on the Yucatan and tried to tell Columbus about these distant lands. On 30 October, 1492, when traveling west on the northern shores of Cuba, Columbus sent Martin Alonso Pinzon in the Pinta on ahead to see if he could locate the great oriental king that Columbus believed was somewhere in the area. When he returned, Pinzon reported: The Indians said that behind that cape there was a river, and that from that river to Cuba it was a four day s journey. He [Pinzon] said he understood that this Cuba was a city and that land was a very extensive mainland [Tierra Firme], which stretched far to the north, and that the king of that land was at war with the Gran Khan, whom they called Saba and by many other names (Jane-Vigneras 1960:49, emphasis added). This sentence is ambiguous, but the reference to a very extensive mainland which stretched far to the north, could only be referring to Florida since the Indians knew that Cuba was an island. The Gran Kahn or great king probably referred to Calus (called Carlos by the Spaniards), the king of the powerful Calusa, who held all of southern Florida in his tributary realm (Goggin 1964; Hahn 1991; Widmer 1988). Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda confirmed this prehistoric canoe travel between Cuba and Florida in his Memoirs Respecting Florida, when he stated: Anciently, many Indians from Cuba entered the ports of the province of Carlos [Calus] (True 1944:29). At this early stage the Spaniards were confused over whether the Indian s Cuba was a city or an island which contributes to the seeming ambiguity of this passage. The Indians expressed finite distances in the time it took a canoe to travel the distance, and the four day passage to Florida is a reasonable amount of time for the passage.

     Later, on 11 December, when on the northwest coast of Espaola (Haiti), Columbus received his first indication that he was close to the mainland (Yucatan) and an advanced people (the Maya), but he failed to recognize it (Jane-Vigneras 1960:92). At this time Columbus was searching for the island of Baneque (identified as Great Inagua) which he had been told earlier (quite erroneously) was the source of the Indian s gold. However, the Indians must have realized that Columbus was looking for gold far in excess of the small amounts available in the islands, and tried to tell him of a far distant mainland they called Bohio in which they described a wealthy and advanced civilization. Columbus misinterpreted what the Indians were telling him in this instance because of his misunderstanding of the Indian s use of the word Bohio. The Indian word Bohio is a generic term meaning house, home, or dwelling place, rather than a geographical place name. Las Casas understood this error by Columbus and placed a marginal note at the first mention of Bohio that reads: The Indians of those islands called their houses Bohio. The Admiral [Columbus] did not understand it well (Jane-Vigneras 1960: 206). When on Cuba, the Indians applied Bohio to Espaola, and in this case when on Espaola, they applied it to the far distant mainland. In interpreting what the Indians were telling him, Columbus implied the Indians were telling him about Espaola or Baneque and the Caribs when it is apparent that they were trying to tell him about the Yucatan mainland and the Maya. As summarized by Las Casas, here is what the Indians had to say:

     They [the Indians] told him that the island was very great and had very large mountains and rivers and valleys, and they said that the island of Bohio was larger than that of Juana which they call Cuba, and that it is not surrounded with water. It appears that they meant it was the
mainland and that it is here, behind this Espanola, which they call Caritaba, and it is of infinite extent, and it appears like they are harassed by an intelligent race, .... (Jane-Vigneras 1960 :92, emphasis added).

     At this point the paragraph picks up on a long discussion of the Caribs and their unsavory habits, and therefore implies that Columbus thought these were the peoples and lands that the Indians were

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Figure 13

           This drawing of Maya warriors from a low relief sculpture in a temple in Chichen Itza
       in northern Yucatan shows why the primitive Taino Indians in the islands would refer
           to the Maya on the mainland as clothed people and an advanced intelligent race.

talking about in the preceding remarks. Currently most Columbian scholars cling to Columbus s interpretation and believe that the Bohio the Indians were describing was Espaola or another island rather than the mainland and the Maya. ii A seemingly valid reason for this view can be found in a reading of Columbus s log. The Indians first used the term Bohio when Columbus was on Cuba and they used it to describe Espanola. This was followed by three other cases where the word Bohio was reported by Columbus as the Indian name for Espanola. However, in this case the Indians could only have been referring to another and distant Bohio when they said it was not surrounded by water, was of infinite extent, and that it was behind this Espanola (i.e., the Yucatan mainland). And further, when the Indians stated that the inhabitants of this distant mainland are harassed by an intelligent race, the logical conclusion is that they were referring to the advanced (intelligent) Maya on the Yucatan which is the nearest point of the mainland.

     Another unrelated report supports the fact that the Taino Indians had contact and definitive knowledge of the Maya on the Yucatan. In the log entry of 6 January, 1493, Columbus quoted the Indians as stating that the island of Espanola or the other island of Yamaye [identified as Jamaica] was distant from the mainland ten days journey in a canoe, which must be

   This common consensus against Taino contact or knowledge of the Maya on the mainland was given undue authority in the most recent and widely accepted translation of Columbus s log (Dunn-Kelley 1989:217). Although tierra firme is correctly translated by Dunn-Kelley as the mainland in several other places in the text, in this instance, and this instance only, it is translated as land mass to incorrectly infer the Tainos were referring to just another of their islands rather than the mainland (not surrounded by water). And gente astuta is translated as cunning instead of intelligent to force the passage, without foundation, to seemingly apply to the cunning Caribs rather than the intelligent Maya.

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60 or 70 leagues [about 224 nautical miles], and that there the people were clothed (Beckwith-Farina 1990:233; Jane-Vigneras 1960:140, emphasis added). These clothed people on the mainland were ostensibly the Maya on the Yucatan but the distance reported by Columbus falls far short of the actual distance. In this instance Columbus underestimated the speed of the canoes which could cover far more distance in ten days than his estimate, but the question is moot since the evidence shows the Indians were referring to the Maya in Mexico and the nearest point to be reached by canoe is the Yucatan.

 Evidence of Prehistoric Contact by Canoe Between the
Caribs in the Caribbean and the Maya on the Yucatan

     There is also evidence that the Caribs were capable of making long distance canoe passages which reached the shores of the Yucatan. The cannibalistic tribes known collectively as the Caribs began their migration northward through the islands from the shores of South America about 1000 AD, replacing the Arawak speaking peoples generally referred to as the Taino (Keegan 1992; Rouse 1960, 1986). In the immediate pre-Columbian period (ca. 1300-1492) the Caribs in their gradual movement north through the islands, had reached and settled as far north as the eastern shores of Puerto Rico and adjacent islands. The Caribs were a bellicose and warlike people who were not interested in trade but only in captives to satisfy the requirements of their cannibalistic culture. And it was this requirement that promoted the ability of the Caribs to undertake long overseas voyages. Columbus reported that the Taino Indians in both Cuba and Espanola had experienced raids by the Caribs and were deathly afraid of them (Jane-Vigneras 1960:68-69,74,85,146). The current popular and politically correct view is that the Caribs were not a populous ethnically distinct people, but just a minor offshoot of the Taino with very little indication that they were true cannibals (Arens 1979; Boucher 1992; Hulme-Whitehead 1992). This unfounded and inaccurate historiography summarily dismisses the first-hand reports of cannibalism by the earliest Spanish explorers and with patently invalid speculation asserts the Spaniards made up the story to justify enslaving the Caribs. iii

     Diego Alvarez Chanca, a physician on Columbus s second voyage, in speaking of the Caribs wrote: One and all make war against all the neighboring islands, traveling by sea a hundred and fifty leagues to attack with their many canoes, which are like a small fustas of a single piece of wood (Farina- Triolo 1992:93). The Spanish leagues reported by Chanca equals about 480 nautical miles which would indicate that the Caribs were probably more competent in long distance travel by canoe than the Taino further north.

     These long distance canoe passages by Caribs reported by Dr. Chanca also reached the Yucatan and are confirmed from an independent source in the Book of Chilam Balam of
Chumayel, one of the most accurate and best preserved of early Maya historical documents (Edmonson 1986:62; Roys 1967:55). This book of Maya history although written in Spanish after the Spanish occupation contains much of the ancient history of the Maya recorded in the original codices destroyed by Bishop Landa and other clerics in the early days of the Spanish occupation (Landa 1941). The pertinent portion of the text, written in the Maya poetical couplet tradition reads:

The anthropologist Louis Allaire refutes this popular view in his article on the Caribs in, The Indigenous People of the Caribbean, summed up by: I find no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the Caribs were in reality a group of Tainos living under different socioeconomic conditions and mistakenly identified as a different race by Europeans to justify their raiding them for slaves ( Allaire 1997:18). Another comprehensive study repudiating the popular view of the Caribs as a minor offshoot of the Taino and not true cannibals is contained in , Terrae Incognitae (Peck 1999:1-11).

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Five Ahau there came
The foreigners who ate people
And foreigners without skirts
Was their name
The country was not conquered
By them.

     The chronological position in the text of Five Ahau would place the Carib incursion between 1200-1380, probably in the latter part of this period, around 1300. This incursion or invasion would have been more than just a small raid or it would not have been included in this sacred book of history, which dealt only with major events having an impact on Maya history. Another item that indicates this may have been a large formidable force rather than a hit and run raid is the wording: The country was not conquered by them (emphasis added).

     Roys has suggested that this incursion was by the Miskito (Mosquito) Indians who lived on the southern border of Maya territory, but the historical facts do not support such a conclusion (Roys 1967:142). The Miskito Indians were not cannibals, but were a relatively peaceful people with whom the Maya had maintained a close trading relationship. They would not have been called foreigners who ate people. Roys may have felt compelled to offer this unfounded comment because of the consensus among historians that the Caribs were incapable of making such a long voyage or mounting such a strong attack.

  Evidence of Contact Between the Maya on the Yucatan and the Calusa
in Florida Contained in the Log of Juan Ponce de Leon s 1513 Voyage

     There is evidence recorded in the log of Ponce de Leon s 1513 voyage that his Indian guides had knowledge of the Yucatan and the exact direction in which it lay. iv When he left Puerto Rico, Ponce de Leon was seeking the wealthy island or land of Beniny (Beimeni) which he thought lay northwest of the Lucayans (Bahamas). Following that northwest course he discovered Florida, landing on the east coast near Melbourne Beach (Peck 1992:140-146; Peck 1993:19-64). Recognizing that Florida was not the wealthy land of Beniny, he continued his search which carried him to the southwest coast of Florida in the territory of the Calusa Indians.

     On departing the west coast of Florida, Juan Ponce resolved to return to Espanola and San Juan [Puerto Rico], with the intention of discovering on the way some islands of which the Indians that they carried gave them information (Davis 1935 :20-21; Kelley 1991:46, emphasis added). When departing Florida at the Tortugas, Juan Ponce s Indian guides must have convinced him that the wealthy land he was seeking lay not to the northwest, and they pointed to a southwest by west course that led straight to the Yucatan. That southwesterly course is not the direction to Espanola or San Juan nor are there any islands in that direction, so it is quite reasonable that the islands [lands] of which the Indians they carried gave them information, were the lands of the Maya on the Yucatan.

     Diego Velasquez confirmed this wide geographical knowledge of the Florida Indians in a 1514 letter to King Ferdinand when he stated: He had been told by chiefs and Indians that on occasion, certain Indians had come from the islands beyond Cuba toward the side of the north

A summary of Ponce de Leon s log of his 1513 voyage is contained in Herrera s Historia General (Herrera 1944). Three English translations are used in this study (Scisco 1913; Spofford 1935; Kelley 1991). The translation and commentary by James E. Kelley Jr. is superior to other translations available as it was made from the original 1601publication, includes the Spanish text adjacent to the English translation, and contains copious footnotes explaining possible differences in sixteenth century word usage. For a reconstruction of the voyage from the log, see, (Peck 1992:133-154).

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[i.e. Florida] navigating five or six days by canoe and there gave news of other islands that lie beyond (Mendoza-Pacheco 1864:428, emphasis added).

     Ponce de Leon started the voyage with two Taino Indian guides and picked up three more Indian guides in Florida, one from the east coast and two Calusa Indians from San Carlos Bay on the west coast. Since Juan Ponce changed his course toward the Yucatan only after leaving the Florida west coast, it was probably the Calusa guides who told him of the Yucatan and pointed out the correct course. Though Juan Ponce sailed for two and one-half days on a southwest by west course toward the Yucatan, the strong Florida and Gulf Stream currents bent his course around to the northwest coast of Cuba, which he could not identify, so he gave up and returned to Puerto Rico.

     The tantalizing question from this scenario is, - how did the Calusa guides obtain this knowledge of the Yucatan and the Maya? In Ponce de Leon s initial encounter with the Calusa, he stated that they attacked his vessel with eighty well armed canoes, but did not give the size of the canoes. At a later date the Spanish navy ensign, Juan Rodriguez de Cortaya, in a friendly visit to the village of Carlos, the Calusa cacique, noted that he was met by more than sixty canoes and Carlos was in a large canoe carrying forty people (Hahn 1991:10). The Calusa probably had the capacity for limited ocean passages, but all indications are that their use of their log canoes was restricted to local fishing and maintaining communication and control of their large tributary realm in south Florida. Although the Calusa could and did reach Cuba, the strong northerly flowing currents between the Yucatan and Florida (two and one-half to three knots in the axis) would make canoe passage far more feasible from south to north. This together with the fact that in prehistoric times the advanced Chontal Maya centered in the Yucatan had large well-built seaworthy vessels and an established interest in foreign trade and exploration would indicate that prehistoric contact between the Calusa and the Maya probably originated with the seafaring Chontal Maya.

                               The Chontal Maya Motivation and Capability for
                                    Eastward Exploration Across the Open Sea

The large seaworthy vessels that the Chontal Maya had developed for their coastal trade would have given them the capability for exploration across the sea, but they would have needed a strong motive to embark on a voyage into unknown and dangerous waters. The ancient and well-known Maya mythology of the god-king Kukulcan gave them this motive. Kukulcan was the principal god of the Chontal Maya in the late Formative period and his homeland called Tlapallan was located in the sea east of the Yucatan (Prescott 1969:38-39; Peck 2000:1-6). The strongest motivation for venturing eastward into unknown seas would have been a religious pilgrimage to Tlapallan, the homeland of their revered god-king Kukulcan. A secondary motive for the mercantile oriented Chontal Maya would have been to establish a trading port or colony in this exotic land. Mythical lands beyond the horizon have inspired sea voyages throughout history from Jason to Odysseus to Pytheas to St. Brendan and even Columbus who sought the mythical isle of Antillia in the Atlantic on his way to the Indies. In like manner, the Kukulcan mythology could have inspired some enterprising Chontal Maya ruler or nobleman merchant to send long overseas venture would have required large, well designed and finely constructed, seaworthy vessels such as those of the Maya, as opposed to the primitive log canoes possessed by the Indians of the islands and Florida.

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               The Development and Construction of the Large Maya Trading Vessel
                     Used in Their Overseas Voyages to the Caribbean and to Florida

There is a mistaken belief that the Maya did not possess functional metal cutting tools and like the Taino and Caribs were limited to primitive stone tools for construction of their trading vessels. This study will show that the Chontal Maya were a worldly and sophisticated seafaring people who were not limited to primitive stone tools, but with their expertise in metallurgy had developed efficient bronze cutting tools with which they constructed large composite seaworthy vessels, far superior to the primitive log canoes of the islands.

     The limited information concerning the log canoes of the Indians of the Caribbean and Florida necessarily came to us through reports and observations of the first European explorers, since the   
                                                                 Figure 14

The top two drawings show Maya war vessels used in the Chontal Maya conquest
of the Yucatan. The lower drawing is from a tomb in Tikal and shows a paddler
god steering a deceased ruler into the Maya watery otherworld or Maya Heaven.

Indians had no written language and no means (or ability) to picture their canoes. Unlike the Indians of the Caribbean and Florida, the advanced Maya had a written language and were adept in pictorial art. However, the Maya written history in hieroglyphics recorded only the accomplishments of their kings in war and provided a picture of their religion, and there is little mention of such a mundane subject as their trading vessels and the merchants who pioneered and pursued this trade enterprise. Also, while the stone hieroglyphics on their buildings and monuments have survived, there is not one single intact example of their perishable large seaworthy trading vessels. Accordingly, the Maya pictorial art in their paper codices, their painted murals, and their incised or low relief sculpture must be examined to piece together a

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picture of what the Maya vessels looked like and how they were constructed.

     The several drawings of Maya vessels in Figure 14 illustrate the typical configuration and design features that were common to larger vessels throughout the Maya territory. A close examination and analysis of these and other extant related Maya art reveals that their larger vessels had several vital features of a well designed and finely constructed seaworthy vessel.  First, the extended freeboard and high prow and stern would preclude the entire vessel being carve out of a single tree trunk (as often reported by early historians). The extended prow and stern must have been fashioned from several planks and fastened with wood pegs and adhesive caulking on the lower main structural part of the hull which was carved from a single tree trunk. And these added appendages were not just for decoration as they had several functions which constituted good boat building practice that any naval architect would be quick to recognize. The extended and upswept bow and stern appendages would have provided the necessary displacement in the ends to allow the vessel to rise to a head or following sea without being pooped or swamped. Another function of the high appendages is to provide a safety factor in the event of a capsize (a not uncommon event in a narrow unballasted vessel). The displacement (or flotation) of the appendages would stop a capsize at 90 degrees preventing a complete rollover, and then make righting the vessel easier by pushing up on the arm provided by the appendage.

     Drawings showing Maya warriors standing in war vessels loaded with booty indicates the vessels had considerable inherent athwart-ship stability. And this stability is from efficient and seaworthy underbody design and construction, not present or possible in the primitive Indian log canoes of the islands, constructed using the primitive burn and scrape method. for a round bottom vessel (commonly associated with the Indian canoes) to obtain this same built-in stability would require a considerable amount of ballast. The design alternative to provide this inherent stability would be to flatten the bottom. This would provide a hard chine configuration of the underbody, giving the same athwart-ship stability without the use of ballast. And this inherent stability of the flat chine underbody, common also to early Greek and Roman vessels, would have been learned by experience in the some thousands of years the vessels were in use (Bass 1972:37-86). The works of Sahagun (1946), a Spanish friar who lived among the Mixtec early in the Spanish conquest period, reported that they used flat-bottomed canoes in the central Mexican basin. The Mixtec were close neighbors of the Chontal Maya and probably learned this design feature from the early seafaring Maya traders. The drawings in Figure 14 also show the entire free rail. This addition follows good boat building practice as in a modern vessel and provides a hull that is not only drier, but adds a safety factor in providing the needed outboard righting displacement to prevent capsize or swamping in heavy seas offshore. These carved additions to the upper freeboard of the vessel are common only to the Maya, but the pointed paddles shown in figures 8 and 14 were used throughout Mesoamerica and the islands (Cushing 1973; DeBooey 1913; Leshikar 1988). The pointed paddle was ostensibly developed from experience by all aboriginal cultures of the Americas. The pointed shape makes entry into the water at the forward end of the stroke easier, as well as easing the force necessary to retrieve the paddle at the end of the stroke. In the middle of the stroke, the wide part of the paddle would be fully immersed, giving maximum forward driving action. From an engineering standpoint the pointed paddle is hydrostatically far superior to the shapeless blunt rectangular paddle used to propel canoes in the modern world. The long handled paddle in use by the oarsman in the Chichen Itza mural (Figures 8 and 14) would have been used in relatively shallow water as both a paddle and for poling along the bottom. When the canoe was used for long trading voyages, the paddlers would kneel or sit amidship in the canoe and use a much shorter paddle.

     The odd shaped one-sided paddle shown being used by the paddler god in the lower drawing of Figure 14 is troublesome because it would twist in the hands of the user and be quite ineffective as a paddle. And it is not a mistake of the artist as this style of paddle appears on

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other drawings by different artists who drew the paddles accurately with the identical shape. The answer to this enigma is quite simple. They are not paddles at all, but steering oars used much like a rudder to keep the canoe on the desired course. Directional control of a flat bottom vessel is extremely difficult, which

Figure 15

A scaled model (1"=1) of a large Maya trading vessel based on current research illustrating the seaworthy features of a modern vessel. This particular vessel would have been about forty-five feet long with a beam
of six feet and probably propelled by ten to fourteen paddlers plus a helmsman at the steering oar.

is why naval architects or builders down through the centuries have provided flat (or nearly flat) bottom boats with either a rudder or steering oar. And the curved shape of the Maya steering oar closely corresponds to the shape of proven efficient steering oars developed for the ancient Phoenician, Greek, and Egyptian sail and rowing vessels (Bass 1972:16,27,43,46,141). Although the pointed paddle is used throughout Mesoamerica, the steering oar as shone is common only to the Maya. The foregoing design features of a typical Chontal Maya vessel establishes it as a well constructed composite seaworthy vessel rather than just a primitive log canoe.

     Columbus described one of these offshore trading vessels in detail in the account of his fourth voyage (1502) when anchored at the island of Guanaja in the Bay of Honduras. Columbus (as related by Ferdinand) described the Maya vessel thus:

     There arrived at that time a canoe long as a galley and 8 feet wide, made of a single tree trunk like the other Indian canoes; it was freighted with merchandise from the western regions around New Spain [Mexico]. Amidships it had a palm-leaf awning like that which the Venetian gondolas carry; this gave complete protection against the rain and waves. Under this awning were the children and women and all the baggage and merchandise, cotton mantles and sleeveless shirts embroidered and painted in different designs and colors, hatchets resembling the stone hatches used by the other Indians but made of good copper, crucibles for smelting ore, wine made from maize that tastes like English beer, and cacao beans as currency. There were twenty five paddlers aboard but they offered no resistance (Keen 1959:231-232).

     Judging by the comparison to a Spanish galley, the number of paddlers, the dimension of the beam, and the amount of passengers and merchandise, the length of the vessel would have been around fifty feet. Possibly because Columbus did not recognize it as such, some scholars have argued that this cannot be positively identified as a Maya vessel and may have come from

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some nearby island. Both the size and the exotic merchandise aboard would categorically establish it as a Maya vessel from the mainland rather than a vessel from one of the nearby islands peopled by simple and relatively primitive fishermen. The model of a typical Maya trading vessel shown in Figure 15 is probably very similar to the one seen by Columbus in the Bay of Honduras.

                                The Record of Maya Metallurgy and the
                                        Production of Bronze Cutting Tools

The foregoing analysis indicates that the Maya produced well-designed and finely-built seaworthy vessels that were fully capable of the long ocean passages to the islands of the Caribbean and to Florida. The demonstrated fine woodworking capability of the Maya would categorically indicate that they had sharp and efficient cutting tools to build their large intricate vessels. But there is a consensus among current anthropologists and archaeologists that the Maya
possessed only crude stone cutting tools and thus would be limited to the primitive construction methods in use by Indians of the islands. This erroneous and unsupported view is given undue authority in the fifth edition of The Ancient Maya, which contains the seemingly unequivocal statement that, the Maya had no metal tools (Sharer 1994: 39,641-642). Another widely read work related to the Maya gives undue support for this view by asserting: The Mayas were good makers of canoes, though it was a sphere in which they were less accomplished than the Tainos and the Caribs who made vessels capable of carrying a hundred and fifty people in hollowed-out ceiba tree trunks (Thomas 1993: 89, emphasis added). Apparently Thomas based this conclusion on Columbus s incorrect and grossly exaggerated size of the primitive island log canoes, together with being unduly influenced by the current consensus that the Maya were limited to stone tools and the same primitive construction methods used in the islands. This study will show that the Chontal Maya were not limited to primitive stone tools, but with their expertise in metallurgy, had developed efficient bronze axes, adzes, chisels, and some type of impact drill, which they used in construction of their large composite seaworthy vessels.

     Much of the argument that the Maya did not have expertise in metallurgy and production of bronze stems from the fact that the mines that produced the copper and tin (the alloyed components of bronze) were located in mountainous areas far from the Maya lowlands. Just a superficial knowledge of how the bronze age flowered along the shores of the Mediterranean and in the deserts of the Middle-East, far from the existing mines of copper and tin, reveals this to be a flawed argument with no merit. There is ample evidence to show that both the Olmec and Chontal Maya traders were capable of moving items of considerable bulk (i.e., unworked raw metal ingots) over long distances. The irrational belief that the origin of refined metallurgy necessarily stemmed from the vicinity of the raw metals has pervaded most Maya historiography on the subject. Adams alleges that metalworking first appeared in western Mexico about AD 800 and was probably introduced from South America because of archaeological finds of worked metal artifacts at an Andean site that was dated to 800 BC (Adams 1991:284). There is also a strong consensus that most advanced metalworking was spread throughout Mesoamerica from the Tula area in spite of the fact that no worked metal has been found at the site. While noting that superior examples of metalworking are known from the Yucatan, Adams asserts, without a supporting argument, that the Maya had to have learned the technique from the Mexicans (Adams 1991:284). Sharer supports this belief that the Itza on the Yucatan were relatively incapable of metalworking and reports that most metal objects found probably reached Chichen

Itza as articles of trade (Sharer 1994 :719). The unclear and poorly supported origin of

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Figure 16

                                 Mixtec woodworkers showing Pre-Columbian tools of their trade and their handiwork.
                                                   Redrawn details from Sahagun s Florentine Codex.

metallurgy in Mesoamerica fails to throw a shadow on the conclusion of this study that the Chontal Maya possessed well-made efficient bronze cutting tools to construct their large composite trading vessels. With their other advanced accomplishments in mind, if for a doubtful reason the precocious, wealthy, and powerful Chontal Maya lacked expertise in metallurgy and metalworking, they could have imported the finished products or hired and installed the craftsmen to do the work.

     Academic acceptance of the view that the Maya did not possess bronze tools is based on an argument from silence because archaeologists in their numerous investigations in Maya territory have yet to uncover a single bronze cutting tool, but stone tools are abundant and readily found. The few Maya metal artifacts that are available for study have largely been found by archaeologists in the tombs of Maya kings. These limited metal artifacts in the tombs of kings were ceremonial medallions and jewelry made from pure soft copy since pure copper will take a polishing shine that rivals gold. The archaeologists then come to the invalid conclusion that the only use of metal by the Maya was for ceremonial medallions and jewelry from soft copper rather than functional bronze tools for the workers. A noble Maya king would hardly carry the unsightly and unpolished hard bronze tool of a worker or slave into his grave, so this rationale has no merit. The valuable and scarce axes and other bronze tools of the workers would not have been abandoned or buried for archaeologists to find at a later date, but would continue in use until this scarce metal was melted down to make more modern tools or implements and thus would lose their early Maya identity.

     Sahagun, a Spanish friar who lived among the Mixtec in the early sixteenth-century has pictured their typical cutting tools in his Florentine Codex (Sahagun 1963). The Mixtec (Zapotec in the formative period) were close trading neighbors of the Chontal Maya and these pictured tools were ostensibly similar to those in use throughout Mesoamerica. The tools pictured by Sahagun, shown in Figure 16, were those in use at the time of the Spanish conquest, but probably date to a much earlier period. The drawing on the left shows a woodworker felling and trimming a large tree with an axe that is in reality a large broad faced straight chisel with a well designed and functional lashed on handle. Another illustration in the Florentine Codex (not shown) pictures this same type of straight chisel being used with a separate wooden mallet to carve an

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elaborate wooden figurine. The drawing on the right shows what appears to be an adze used in construction of the canoe in which it rests. The adze appears to have been fashioned from a molded curved and shaped cutter with a similar lashed integral wood handle. Two woodworkers in the background carry two squared beams with a row of drilled holes (probably drilled with impact drills) to receive wood pegs for joining to another member. v The clean cuts on the tree, the precisely squared beams with drilled holes, and the intricate carved eagle head on the canoe, could only have been accomplished with sharp bronze cutting tools and would be impractical with the use of stone tools.

     Peter Martyr in his De Orbe Nova gives positive evidence that the natives of Nueva
Espana had alloyed bronze cutting tools when he indicated they used well sharpened axes, then stated they had alloyed [i.e., bronze] hatchets [axes] used by the natives to cut down trees (Martyr 1970:194,216). And Bernal Diaz noted these alloyed metal tools when he reported that in the native market there are for sale axes of brass and copper and tin (Diaz del Castillo 1956:217). Columbus reported the large Maya canoe in the Bay of Honduras contained hatchets made of good copper [i.e., bronze] and hawk s bells of copper (a soft copper bell will not ring, but a bronze bell will) and crucibles to smelt it (Keen 1959: 232). Yet current archaeologists are reluctant to accept historical evidence of bronze tools because none have been found in archaeological investigations and steadfastly insist that the Maya had no metal tools (Sharer 1994:39,641-642).

     Even though no archaeological finds have confirmed that the Maya had bronze tools, it is rather inconceivable that for the many centuries the precocious Maya smelted copper in their crucibles, they would not have discovered that adding a small amount of tin would produce hard bronze for their tools. Although the cited evidence indicates that the Maya had the capability and did produce bronze, it is also evident that the production of bronze was on a small scale and limited to woodworking or limestone cutting tools and not available in the large quantity required for weapons of war as in European bronze age societies. The foregoing evidence supplied by the first Spanish explorers, who reported on prehistoric Maya metallurgy and use of metal tools, refutes the current consensus that the Maya had no bronze cutting tools and were limited to stone cutting tools. Instead, the evidence indicates the Chontal Maya had both the expertise and ample bronze tools to construct their large offshore trading vessels.

     The current consensus of most historians, anthropologists and archaeologists is that the
Maya canoe routes and travels were limited to the coasts and inland rivers of Mexico and Central America and long overseas voyages to the islands of the Caribbean and to Florida were neither feasible nor conducted. Yet the foregoing evidence suggests that the Tainos in the northern Caribbean and the Calusa in Florida had knowledge of the Yucatan and its people. The question remains of how this knowledge was obtained.

                 The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence of Cultural Contact
                  Between the Maya on the Yucatan and the Tainos in the Caribbean

     The early Spanish explorers noted that the Maya of the Yucatan had traveled to the

The impact drill resembles a long slender chisel except there are two opposing cutting edges at right angles instead of the one edge as in a standard chisel. The drill is driven into the wood (or soft green limestone) by a wood or metal mallet, rotating it a few degrees with each strike of the mallet. In Europe the drill was used since ancient times until introduction of the rotary drill (sometime in the 18th century) and can still be found in specialty hardware stores in Europe and some undeveloped countries. Manufacture would have been well within the metalworking capabilities of the Maya. Martyr was probably referring to use of an impact drill when describing a bored hole in a yoke to harness slaves when he stated: Boring a hole through one side of the beam, they pass a cable to which slaves are harnessed as though they were oxen (Martyr 1970: 194).

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islands of the Caribbean in pre-conquest times and knew the direction, distance, and details of the inhabitants. The friar Juan Diaz with the 1518 Grijalva voyage to the Yucatan wrote: The Indians [Maya] assert that

Figure 17

                                                 Chart showing the extensive prehistoric trade and exploration
                                          routes of the Chontal Maya.  (red arrows & emphasis added)

people were near who used ships, clothes, and arms like the Spaniards, and that a [Maya] canoe could go where they are in ten days, a voyage of perhaps 300 miles (Diaz 1942, Wagner 1942:72). The fact that the Maya knew of people in distant islands who used ships, clothes, and arms like the Spaniards, is not surprising since the Spaniards at this time had been firmly entrenched in Espanola, Cuba, and Puerto Rico for over 26 years. And the fact that the Taino Indians in the islands and the Maya on the Yucatan, not only gave accurate details of the people, but also gave the identical distance (ten day canoe trip) between the two points (Beckwith-Farina 1990:233), suggests that canoe travel and contact between the two peoples was a reality. The chart in Figure 17 shows the Chontal Maya coastal trade routes and the routes for their overseas voyages to the islands of the Caribbean and to Florida.

     Archaeological investigation together with the reports of early Spanish observers also provides evidence that the culture of the islands of the Caribbean was influenced by contact with the Maya. This evidence of Maya cultural influence is confined to the northernmost large islands of the Antilles most easily reached from the mainland. Both Oviedo and Las Casas describe a Batey or ball-court and the way the game was played by the Indians of Espaola and Puerto

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Rico (Alegria 1983). These descriptions follow very closely the ball court and game which was common to Maya culture. Archaeological excavations at the Salt River site on St. Croix have revealed a ball-court lined with carved stone slabs and located adjacent to pyramidal shaped mounds containing burials with accompanying ceremonial artifacts (Hatt 1924). These finds resemble Maya practice rather than general Taino practice. But the most telling evidence of Maya contact and influence has been the recent archaeological finds by Charles Beeker in the Dominican Republic. Beeker found a prehistoric Taino village which had a deep cenote filled with sacrificial objects, several large plazas, and a large ball-court lined with tall limestone columns. These artifacts, and the sacrificial cenote and ball-court, are tied to Maya, not general Taino tradition (Beeker 1997).

     This cultural influence could have stemmed from Chontal Maya/Itza trading colonies established at the height of their power and expansionist movement into the Yucatan and beyond (ca. AD 100-400). With the decline and retrenchment of the Itza (ca. AD 600-900) the colonies in the islands would have been abandoned and the remaining Mayas melded into the Taino population. Then over a period of time the memory of the Maya from the mainland would have been retained only in their oral mythology, hence the Indian myth of the exotic land of Beimeni sought by Ponce de Leon.

                            The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence of Cultural Contact
                           by Sea Between the Maya on the Yucatan and the Calusa in Florida

     The possibility of prehistoric Maya travel to Florida and influencing the culture of the indigenous Calusa was first voiced in the late 1800s when Frank Hamilton Cushing embarked on the first serious archaeological investigation of the prehistoric Indian culture in southwest Florida (Cushing 1973; Gilliland 1975). The primary prehistoric sites which Cushing investigated were in the realm of the Calusa Indians on the west coast of Florida from Charlotte Harbor south to Key Marco. Cushing uncovered many significant artifacts and remains that indicated the prehistoric Calusa were not the previously believed primitive nomadic hunter-fisher-gatherers but had a well established society living in settled villages and ruled by a highly organized political hierarchy of nobles and chiefs (Goggin 1964; Hahn 1991; True 1944; Widmer 1988).

     Cushing was an eccentric self-taught archaeologist who used methods of investigation that are frowned on today, but he opened the door to an expanded archaeological investigation of Florida s prehistoric sites that continues to this day. From the analysis of his finds on Key Marco, together with his comprehensive study of Indian culture of the entire Mesoamerican area, Cushing saw signs that the Calusa Indian culture had been strongly influenced by the northward movement of peoples through the islands and through Central America and the Yucatan. Cushing initially received considerable support for this theory and stated in his 1896 paper presented to the American Philosophical Society that: I am not alone in thus having found a decided correspondence between the arts of the ancient Floridians and other southern Indians and those of ancient Yucatan (Cushing 1973: 409). However, Cushing s theory soon lost favor among anthropologists who pointed out some rather glaring errors in the dating and validity of some (but not all) of his findings. Following this, the consensus of the academic community soon fell back on the previous stand that contact by sea was highly improbable and if there was contact at all it had to come by way of the long land trail around the western and northern shores of the Gulf of Mexico.

    The next and more recent support for the theory is found in the archaeological investigations of William H. Sears (1977,1982) in the Fort Center site just north of Lake Okeechobee in the Calusa area. In this investigation of an ancient Calusa village, Sears has uncovered several cultural traits that can be traced to the Yucatan Maya rather than the Mississippian Indian culture farther north. In the prehistoric period maize was grown at the site

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in raised, watered and fertilized man-made hummocks, a method common to the Maya, but not used by Indian cultures farther north. Another technique possibly obtain from the Maya was the method of soaking maize kernels in a lime-masa process that swelled the hard stored maize and removed the outer skin. Again, this Maya technique known to the Calusa was unknown to the Indians further north. Current consensus is that maize first appeared in the Mid-West and Mississippi valley at an unclear date during the prehistoric period then moved south into Florida, but the early dating of the Fort Center maize suggests it was the other way around.

     Sears has also identified the design of early historic Calusa sheet copper symbol badges at the Fort Center site as being typical of the Olmec style jaguar wearing a headdress with a geographical four direction symbol common throughout the Olmec area (Sears 1977:9, 1982:60). While Sears speaks of this acculturation as possibly being through the Antilles, it is manifestly apparent the maize and the method of cultivation and processing, as well as the jaguar symbols would have come primarily from the Yucatan area.

     Another indication of Maya influence on the Calusa Indians was contained in the detailed reports of the first Spaniards to encounter them in the early sixteenth-century. Pedro Menndez de Avils in his 1573 letter to the king reported that the Calusa Indians sacrificed captured slaves to their gods in periodic religious ceremonies (Connor 1925:35; Solis de Meras 1964:140). The ritual sacrifice of captive slaves to their gods is confirmed in an unsigned sixteenth-century Memorial reporting on the religious customs of the Calusa. This Memorial has marginal notes signed by Juan de Velasko and considered by most scholars to be the work of Hernando d Escalante de Fontaneda. The Maya tradition of ritual sacrifice of captives to their gods was a well established Maya practice (Martyr 1970:228-232; Sharer 1994:68,143-144,543-544) that appeared only in the Calusa religious tradition and was not prevalent in the Indian cultures to the north.

     The cited archaeological evidence together with evidence in sixteenth-century historical documents suggests a strong possibility of cultural contact between the Maya on the Yucatan and the Calusa in south Florida. There is also considerable historical evidence in the art work of the prehistoric Maya and the art work of the Indians of Florida and the southeastern states that suggests the assimilation of cultural traits from the more advanced Maya on the Yucatan. Figures 18, 19, 20, and 21 reveal this close similarity of prehistoric Florida totems, religious icons, ceremonial garments, burial customs, and raised pyramidal temples and burial mounds to those of the Maya that strongly suggest assimilation from the Yucatan rather than independent development. 

     The art work from the Yucatan and Florida in Figure 18 shows this similarity of the ceremonial garments and their hand held totems. Note the similarity of the face masks which left the mouth and lower part of the face uncovered and provided a protruding beak for the nose. The capes of the Maya and the Indian figures are also similar in providing representations of wings.  And the noble from the Florida Lake Jackson mound has on sandals that are patterned after the
Maya sandals (see Figure 9) rather than being barefooted or wearing the usual soft deer-skin moccasins.

     The winged and plumed rattlesnake emblem shown so profusely in Chontal Maya/Itza art (figures 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 10) also appears in prehistoric art of the Indians of northern Florida and southern Georgia. The art style depicting the rattlesnake emblems understandably differs between these two

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Figure 18

Comparison of the ceremonial dress of nobles from southeastern states and the Yucatan. The top
two drawings embossed on sheet copper are from the Lake Jackson, Florida mound (left) and the
Etowah Mound, South Georgia (right) and redrawn from (Brown 1994). The lower drawing is
from a rubbing of a base relief sculpture in Chichn Itz.

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Figure 19

The top drawings of feathered and winged rattlesnake emblems are from Indian mounds in
the southeastern states and Florida and are from (Brown 1994) and from (Spinden 1975).
The lower drawing of a Maya warrior with his symbol of a stylized winged rattlesnake is
from a detail in a larger drawing in the temple of the Jaguar in Chichen Itza.

widely separated peoples. But the unique features of wings, feathers, and plumed topknot as applied to the rattlesnake emblem is common to both art forms. Herbert J. Spinden in his monumental study of Maya art documented this similarity of the feathered and winged serpent (rattlesnake) totems in Maya art and the art of the prehistoric Indians of the southeastern United States. Spinden also noted that not only are feathers and wings added to the snakes body, but that the head contains a plumed topknot or feather crest typical of the Maya quetzal bird (common to the Yucatan and not Florida or the southeastern states) which played such a prominent role in Maya mystical religion (Spinden 1975:33-34,243). But these significant cultural similarities between the Maya and the Florida Indians have been buried in a 1913 book on Maya art so they are given little attention by anthropologists and historians. Figure 19 illustrates the unique features of wings, feathers, and a plumed topknot applied to the body of a rattlesnake that is common to both the Chontal Maya and the Indians of Florida and the southeastern states.

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Figure 20

The drawing on the left is a Calusa bird-god with spoken words depicted by the string of balls
emitting from its beak. Drawn from one of Cushing s (1894) artifacts recovered from the Key
Marco site. The drawings on the right are animal-gods depicted on a Mixtec/Zapotec codex in
the British Museum, London, that show the identical string of balls to indicate spoken words.

     The style of the religious art of the Maya and the Calusa in South Florida also reveals a striking similarity as they both depict the spoken word as a string of small balls emitting from the mouth of a pictured god. This again is so unusual that it is unlikely that it was an independent development. Figure 20 illustrates this point with examples of art from both the Calusa from Florida and the Mixtec/Zapotec from northeastern Mexico. However, the most numerous extant examples depicting speech in Maya art are scrolls issuing from the mouth of the god. But these scrolls date from the late classic period and use of the small circles or balls appears to be from an earlier period and tied to the Olmec/Chontal Maya area. In this regard, note that the Olmec feathered serpent in Figure 1 was emitting a multitude of small circles which could be interpreted as speech.

The Calusa drawing of the bird in Figure 20 was described by Cushing as being a kingfisher or blue jay and by most later scholars as a picture of either a woodpecker or blue jay. It is none of these. It is a Calusa anthropomorphic bird-god that is speaking to the people. The large eye is that of a human, not the small beady eye of a blue jay. The muscular legs and talons are those of an eagle or hawk, not the spindly legs of a smaller non-carnivorous bird. And the religious symbols pictured in the background look surprisingly like the steering oars of the Maya pictured in Figure 14, although Cushing relates them only to the pointed paddles of the Calusa. This was not just a decorative picture of a particular bird, but a revered icon of one of their sacred anthropomorphic gods who was

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Figure 21

The Indian mounds recently excavated at Lake Jackson, Florida, showing the close similarity to the
stone pyramidal temples of the Maya on the Yucatan. A typical Maya temple at Chichen Itza on the
Yucatan is shown on the inset on the right. Drawing of the Indian mounds is from (Brown 1994).

speaking. The drawing on the right side from a Mixtec/Zapotec codex depicts a monkey-god, a snake-god, and two jaguar-gods, who are also speaking through the identical string of small balls as pictured on the Calusa drawing.

     But the most striking similarity between the Maya and the Florida Indian cultures was their construction and use of the four-sided pyramidal temple and burial vaults as illustrated in Figure 21. While the Maya constructed their temples of limestone, the Florida Indians used what building material was available - shells in the low and sandy South Florida, and packed clay in the higher ground further north. The Florida temples were necessarily less imposing in size and appearance to those of the Maya, but their basic design and method of construction and use was identical.

     In both cases the small original temple and burial vault was left intake and the next generation or dynasty built their structure on top of the old one (Brown 1994:59; Coe 1997:63,95; Sharer 1994:270). Thus with succeeding generations, the temple and burial mound grew in size, but retained the same four-sided pyramidal configuration.

     Another feature common to both the Maya and Florida Indian construction was a flat top surmounted by a roofed temple and broad steps (to accommodate ritual processions rather than individuals) on one or more sides leading to the building on top. Fray Lopez in his 1697 visit describes the Calusa temple mound in Carlos s village with these words: It is a very tall and wide house .... in the middle of a hillock or very high flat-topped mound, and on top of it a sort of room [made] of mats with seats all closed within. One can imagine the purpose [ritual temple] it serves as they dance around it. The walls are entirely covered with masks, one worse than the other (Hahn 1991: 159). Archaeologists in describing a cluster of mounds in a prehistoric Florida village frequently assert the largest or highest mound in a village contained the house or dwelling of the cacique. However, this description by Fray Lopez indicates that the largest mound in the village was reserved for the temple of their gods as in the Maya tradition.

     This discussion of prehistoric Indian mounds has been centered on the Florida Indians, with emphasis on the Calusa, as geographically the nearest and most probable point of contact. However, it should be noted that similar prehistoric mound building was practiced by Indians who peopled the Mississippi drainage plain (consequently known as the Mississippian culture) as far north as Illinois and Ohio (Swanton 1946). The current consensus is that the Mississippian mound building preceded that of the mound builders in Florida, but this study suggests that the first mounds, influenced by the Maya, were built by the Calusa and the mound building culture moved north at a later date. As noted earlier this agrees with Sears s (1982) findings that the cultivation of maize first appeared in the Calusa area then moved north to the Mississippi plain.

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     When considered individually it can be argued that the similarity of one particular trait or work of art is weak or invalid evidence of acculturation. But it is the considerable number of cultural traits from independent sources that strongly suggest cultural contact between the Maya on the Yucatan and the Calusa of Florida. Scholars who accept the postulation of Maya influence on the culture of the Florida Indians or those further north differ as to whether the route of acculturation was by land or sea.

          The Case for Maya Cultural Influence Traveling by Sea Rather than by Land

Proponents for the land route see these cultural traits progressing north from Mexico through Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Louisiana to the Mississippi plain then east and south to Florida. At first glance this theory is compelling, but just a superficial study of how ancient cultures have spread from an initial flowering shows that deserts and inhospitable terrain can be just as great an obstacle as the misnamed barrier of the sea (Dillehay 2000:60-70). Early reports of the Spanish historians Bernal Diaz and Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo indicate that the northernmost extent of the Mexica culture (the western relatives of the Maya) did not extend far beyond the present day Tampico, where one encounters the arid and inhospitable western desert of northern Mexico and southwest Texas (Diaz del Castillo 1956; Oviedo 1944). It is over 700 miles (along the coast - much longer if through New Mexico) from this northern outpost of the Mexica to the Mississippi River plain, home of the Mississippian peoples.

     One would think that some vestiges of the Mexica language and cultural traits would have been left behind to influence the peoples of this intervening land-bridge area, but such is not the case. A detailed description of the Indians who lived in this area in the early historic period is contained in the report of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca who made an eight-year trek through the area following Panfilo de Narvaez s ill-starred expedition to North Florida (Bandelier 1922; Bishop 1933). The Indians Cabeza encountered west of the Mississippi Delta and into the southwestern desert were primitive and barbaric peoples speaking many different tongues. In the extensive southwestern desert area, Cabeza describes the land as largely uninhabited and offered little sustenance and the few primitive peoples to be found were nomadic with no settled villages. It is apparent that the peoples of this area showed no cultural traits that could be traced to Mexica or Maya influence. However, there is some cultural similarities between the Mississippian peoples and the prehistoric people of New Mexico farther west. But this similarity is not as prominent and probably originated at a much later date than the postulated movement by sea from the Yucatan.

     This study has shown that in prehistoric times the Taino Indians had knowledge of the peoples of Florida and the Yucatan, that the Calusa had knowledge of the Maya on the Yucatan, and the Maya on the Yucatan had knowledge of the islands and peoples of the Caribbean. This exchange of knowledge could only have been derived by planned passages of large seaworthy vessels carrying articulate passengers of some substance, as opposed to simple fishermen accidently blown by storm

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Figure 22

Chart showing how a Maya vessel steering eastward (bold dashed line) seeking
new lands would be swept northward by the prevailing ocean currents. Chart
showing currents in knots is a scaled detail from NOAA Pilot Chart 168910.
(emphasis supplied)

     The Taino and Carib Indians in the islands and the Calusa in Florida had a limited capability for this long distance travel, but their relativelycrude round-bottom canoes were far inferior to the large well built vessels of the Maya on the Yucatan. And further, any sea travel is much more feasible from south to north due to the strong ocean currents that would affect such a voyage. Figure 22 graphically illustrates how the ocean currents would affect travel between the Yucatan and Florida. Accordingly, the precocious Chontal Maya from the Yucatan with their more stable and seaworthy vessels, backed by centuries of documented interest and experience in long distance trading voyages, are the most likely candidates to have provided this early cultural contact between the Yucatan and Florida.

     The bold dashed line in Figure 22 represents a postulated voyage of a Chontal Maya vessel steering in an easterly direction possibly seeking the homeland of their revered god-king Kukulcan. The track of the voyage as shown was plotted by a professional navigator using dead-reckoning navigational computation on a full size NOAA navigational chart containing the strength and direction of the ocean currents. The plotted hypothetical track was based on the premise that the Chontal Maya would have departed during the summer months from Isla Mujeres, their most easterly port on the Yucatan, and navigated (without benefit of a magnetic

Page 23

compass) into the rising sun at a speed of about 2.5 knots. The sun rises well north of geographical east in the summer months so the Maya explorers would be steering the vessel in an east-northeasterly direction. The strong northerly currents which frequently equaled or exceeded the speed of the vessel vectored the east-northeast heading through the water to a plotted north-northeasterly course over the bottom.

     At first glance it would appear that the most logical and easily reached land would be the extreme western end of Cuba, but there is a sound and demonstrable reason why this is not true. The Maya seafarers could not have reached the shores of Cuba from the Yucatan because of the cited strong northerly flowing ocean currents. Yet there are scholars who postulate that in ancient times there was a movement of aboriginal peoples from the Yucatan to Cuba (Wilson 1997:1-3). The current academic consensus is that the islands of the Caribbean were peopled by several waves of ethnically distinct people from the northern shore of South America (Keegan 1992:1-19; Wilson 1997:20-69). The little-known and enigmatic primitive hunter-gatherer people known as the Siboney or Guanahatabey were crowded into the western end of Cuba by the northward movement of the Taino during the formative period Keegan 1992:1-3). The western end of Cuba is devoid of any signs of an advanced culture from the Yucatan, and if prehistoric
Maya related artifacts are to be found in Cuba they would probably have originated in the Maya trading colonies on Hispaniola and St. Croix. The postulated plotted track of the Maya vessel passed about thirty-four nautical miles west of Cuba and ended in the Florida Keys in the vicinity of the Marquesas Keys. The Florida Keys were peopled by the Cuchiyaga Indians, a tributary tribe of the powerful Calusa and the Maya explorers would have realized the small keys of the primitive Cuchiyaga were not their goal. When asked about the home city of a mighty king, the Cuchiyaga would understandably refer the Maya to the headquarters or capitol of the powerful king of the Calusa on Mound Key near the present city of Ft. Myers Beach. vi From the Keys the Maya may have made the jump across Florida Bay or most likely they would have paddled along shore possibly guided by the Cuchiyaga. The realm of the Calusa is not only the most logical and navigationally feasible destination of the Maya explorers, but is also the area that contains the most evidence of possible Maya cultural influence. Figure 23 shows the headquarters or capitol of the Calusa on Mound Key in Estero Bay near Ft. Myers Beach, Florida.

     This postulated history of prehistoric cultural contact by sea between the Maya on the Yucatan and the Indians of the Caribbean and Florida has not been supported by direct archaeological finds of such voyages. Instead there is limited but significant related archaeological finds and the strong circumstantial evidence of similarities in the surviving art of the period, augmented by documented historical reports of early Spanish explorers, that presents considerable circumstantial evidence that such voyages did take place. Yet, while there is evidence that Florida and southeastern Indian culture was influenced by Maya travelers, there is no evidence in Maya written history that these travelers, whether explorers, adventurers, or traders, ever returned to the Yucatan.

     The reason for this lack of evidence indicating the return of the seafaring travelers can be explained from two different standpoints. The first is that Maya written history is woefully incomplete due to the wholesale destruction of ancient Maya codices by Bishop Diego Landa and

Carlos (Calus), king of the Calusa, was the only one among many Indian chiefs or caciques that the Spaniards
referred to as a king. Fontaneda describes him thus: The Calusa king is called mayor y gran Senor (chief and
great Lord) in our language; and the cacique is the greatest of the kings, having the renown of Montesuma (True
1944:28). The powerful Calusa were a dominant force that held most of Florida south of Tampa Bay subject to their
rule. An indication of their power is the fact that in the more than three centuries of occupation in Florida, the
Spaniards were never able to subdue or subjugate the Calusa under a succession of kings called Carlos (Goggin
1964; Hahn 1991; Lewis 1978; Marquardt 1992; Widmer 1988).

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Figure 23

Detail from a current nautical chart that shows Mound Key, the capitol and ceremonial center
of the Calusa, in Estero Bay between Ft. Myers Beach and the mainland. The outline drawing
of Mound Key has been enhanced to show the several temple and burial mounds and the
man-made canal and interior canoe port built in the prehistoric period.

other clerics in the early days of Spanish occupation (Landa 1941, 1978). The second and most plausible answer is that the prehistoric seafarers did not return because they were absorbed into the Florida and eventually the southeastern Indian culture and lost their identity. These exotic clothed people appearing out of nowhere in gayly painted canoes would be looked upon and treated with respect and reverence as gods or priestly nobles. That, together with the fact that there was no need to return since they had not discovered any valuable trade items, would induce the travelers to forego the long journey back south and stay and enjoy their new found prominence and stature. And being absorbed into the life and probably the priesthood of the indigenous Indians would explain the similar Maya ceremonial dress, religious traditions, totems, flat-top temple mounds, and burial customs found in Florida.

Page 25

Development of Celestial Navigation
by the Maya of Northern Yucatan

     The Maya seafarers in their voyages to the islands of the Caribbean and Florida would have been out of sight of land for as long as ten days (Beckwith-Farina 1990:233; Jane-Vigneras 1960:140; Wagner 1942:72). Without the benefit of a magnetic compass, these long voyages would have required some form of celestial navigation. The Maya seafarers would have used the rising and setting Sun for orientation in the morning and late afternoon and maintained their course at midday by adherence to wave patterns in the same manner as ancient Polynesian navigators (Lewis 1972; Peck 2001:145). Maintaining their desired course at night would have required reference to the circumpolar stars and planets with which they were thoroughly familiar. But familiarity alone with the stars and planets is not enough for celestial navigation.

science related to the cosmos is tied inexorably to their religion and to their concept that the relationship of the movement and relative position of the planets and constellations (viewed as embodiments of their gods) influenced and even controlled events and fortunes on the earth. For this reason the Maya developed their science of astronomy so they could predict the movement and relative position of the heavenly bodies accurately on any particular calendar date. In this respect, it is similar to European astrology that gradually moved from folklore art and myth beginning in ancient times and evolved into the science of astronomy around the fifteenth-century, which then provided the mathematical data required for the development of celestial navigation.

     Archaeological investigations as well as the documentary evidence contained in the Dresden and Madrid codices indicate that the Maya of the northern Yucatan were far more advanced and active in the science of astronomy than those elsewhere in Mesoamerica. A study by archaeastronomers of the unique round buildings at Edzna, Paalmul, Dzibilchaltun, Mayapan, and the Caracol building in Chichen Itza revealed that they were used for celestial observations and were probably the source of the advanced mathematical tables and data in the Dresden and Madrid codices (Aveni 2001:15, 169-199, 271-276; Aveni, Gibbs and Hartung 1975:977-985; Coggins and Drucker 1988:17-56; Kelley 1975:257-262 ). Thus accurate astronomical data essential to the development of celestial navigation was available to the Maya concurrent with and possibly before its availability in Europe. Although the same astronomical data was available to both the Maya and Europeans, their basic application of that data for celestial navigation took a different approach.

     An elementary form of navigation was performed by ancient navigators in Europe, the Middle East, and the Orient long before the introduction of the magnetic compass. These early navigators in the northern hemisphere would have used some of the circumpolar celestial bodies, but their primary reliance was on the North Star (Polaris) to determine the north azimuth from which they could extrapolate the other cardinal points of east, west, and south. A similar use of the North Star for navigation would have been unworkable for the Maya because of their more southern location. The already weak Polaris would have been much lower on the horizon and more difficult to see with the naked eye because the light from the star must pass through more of the earth s hazy atmosphere. Instead of a star to mark true north there was a dark void at the Maya celestial pole with only a few obscured and scattered stars. The weak Polaris and some of its equally weak neighbors would have been barely visible in this north void so would hardly qualify as equivalent to one of the many far more brilliant stars or planets that were named as Maya gods. This dark northern void is illustrated in Figure 24 although the dark void is necessarily shown in white.

     The direction of north, or the north celestial pole, was pictured on the Tablet of the Cross at Palenque not as a star, but as a dark void, and was revered by the Maya in their creation myth as the

Page 26

Figure 24

The night sky on the left, at 20 degrees latitude when Scorpius is opposite the north celestial pole,
was redrawn from the Maya Cosmos. God C on the right was redrawn from the Dresden Codex.

heart of heaven from which the gods, Itzamna and the First Mother and First Father, emerged from the otherworld to create the Earth and the cosmos (Freidel-Schele-Parker 1993:69-73; Schele-Freidel 1990:244-246). When the first father created the sky, he set the crown or heart in the north void and gave the stars and planets a circular motion around this dark celestial pole.

     The Maya recorded the orderly procession of their many observed and recorded stars, constellations, and planets around the north celestial pole with mathematical precision and this would have pointed to the celestial and geographical north without the necessity of observing the weak Polaris in the obscured area. And Polaris in this early period did not indicate true north, but had a procession of nearly four degrees around the celestial pole. Recognizing this, the early European navigators had evolved a complex method, known as the Regiment of the North Star, in which they used the stars in the constellation Ursa Minor (in practice only Kochab) to extrapolate the sidereal angle to the north celestial pole (Taylor 1958:147,158; Waters 1958:43-45,136).

     There is no mention of the existence of the North Star or the existence of a god of the North Star in the complete prehistoric Maya lexicon of known gods and symbols (Miller and Taube 1993). Yet there are prominent Maya scholars who report that god C in the Dresden Codex represents the god of the North Star (Coe 1993:177; Coggins 1988:140; Galindo 1994:100; Sharer 1994:529, 535,579). There is a Maya hieroglyph for all of the cardinal directions including north, but Maya scholars are too quick to make an unsupported assumption that any reference to north is a reference to the North Star. This historical error probably stems from Spanish influence of Maya traditions during the colonial period. It is only in Yucatec dictionaries of the colonial period that Polaris is referred to as the star of the north and as a guide of merchants (Lamb 1981: 233-248;

Page 27

Milbrath 1999:273). Milbrath reported the modern Lacadon stated that Polaris is known as the North Star (Milbrath 1999: 38), but this late surviving enclave of Maya probably learned this designation during their many generations under Spanish occupation and influence. This current historical misconception that the prehistoric Maya knew of and revered a relatively insignificant and obscured star, which was known in latitudes further north as Polaris or the North Star, is an example of how undue application of modern cultural norms and knowledge can adversely influence the interpretation of prehistoric Maya mysticism and science.

     Without the pivotal factor of a North Star as a basis for their celestial navigation, the Maya nevertheless had developed the knowledge and data of the cosmos that allowed them to pursue a different but effective approach. In Maya religious dogma, the First Father created the sky and divided it into eight partitions consisting of the four cardinal points of north, south, east, and west, with four more intermediate points at northwest, northeast, southwest, and southeast (Freidel-Schele-Parker 1993:71). This partition of the sky can be seen on several works of Maya art and is best illustrated in some detail in the Madrid Codex. The depiction of the partition of the sky in the Madrid Codex is weathered and damaged with some portions missing or indistinct. An interpretation of how the original undamaged illustration would have appeared in the codex is shown in Figure 24. An analytical examination of the drawing reveals that it is much more than just a depiction of the eight partitions created by the First Father. This detailed drawing from the Madrid Codex has all the elements and mathematical data required for celestial navigation.

     The Madrid and Dresden codices are filled with accurate mathematical tables pertaining to the orbital movement and calendar timing of celestial bodies. It is significant that these documents have been traced to northern Yucatan, the homeland of the seafaring Chontal Maya who made the long overseas voyages requiring celestial navigation. And it is in northern Yucatan where there is also a proliferation of buildings that have been identified as celestial observatories, in particular the Caracol in Chichen Itza, the capitol of the seafaring Chontal Maya/Itza (Aveni 2001:15,169-199,271-276; Aveni, Gibbs and Hartung 1975:977-985; Coggins and Drucker 1988:17-56).

     The depiction of the sky in the Madrid Codex shows each cardinal point represented by two gods associated with that particular direction. The north void is represented by two gods that appear to be the morning and evening star (Venus) with the world tree or tree of creation between them. This is in consonance with the Maya myth of creation where Itzamna and the First Mother and Father emerged from the dark north void. The intermediate points of northeast, northwest, southeast, and southwest, are shown by four parallel dotted lines. The space between three of the four dotted lines is filled with numerous mathematical numbers interspersed with a few scattered symbols. The meaning or function of this detailed display of mathematics has not been interpreted. But the placement in the drawing suggests the display could easily constitute a numerical grid of the sky to locate stars, planets, or constellations, and record their angular declination in relation to their azimuth position on a particular date.

     The fact that each intermediate point is represented by four lines instead of one is significant. This suggests that later Maya astronomers had further divided the original eight partitions provided by the gods into twenty segments (four cardinal points plus sixteen intermediate points) to make their astronomical observations and data more definitive and more accurate. This is quite logical since the Maya vigesimal mathematical system is based on advancing the numbers beyond the decimal by a power of twenty rather than by ten as in our decimal system. In this regard, it should be borne in mind that the artist s drawing in the codex is meant to be a schematic illustration of religious

Page 28

Figure 25

The figure on the left shows the partition of the sky as redrawn from the Madrid Codex and the figure on the
right is a stylized drawing of an astronomical observatory as redrawn from the Post Classic Codex Borgia.

significance rather than an accurate depiction of the astronomer s worksheet. For this reason, the artist felt compelled to show the appropriate gods at the four cardinal points and this crowded the four intermediate points into the inappropriate parallel lines shown. The worksheet of the astronomers would not have shown the artwork depicting the gods and so the twenty indexed increments of the sky would have been spaced evenly around the perimeter of the sky as though the viewer was in the middle of the figure looking at the sky overhead with the controlling index point in the revered dark void of the north.

     The worksheets of the European mathematicians who first developed celestial navigation around the fifteenth century used this basic concept, but divided the sky into thirty-two increments (based on the thirty-two point magnetic compass of the period) with the index point on Polaris or the North Star. Another difference in the European system was that the mathematical data for computation of declination was contained in tables in their nautical almanacs rather than on the azimuth indexed worksheet as pictured in the Madrid Codex. The mathematical tables in these early European almanacs contained many errors as they were based on the error-filled Almagest of Claudius Ptolemy (circa AD 150), and there is every indication that the mathematical data contained in the Maya codices was probably more accurate (Brown 1949:74-78). The mathematical tables in the Maya codices have not been fully read or interpreted. Their accuracy is presumed from the ability of the Maya to accurately predict eclipses, conjunctions, and the orbital path of the planets.

     The Maya advanced knowledge of astronomy and the sophisticated mathematical system of predicting the orbital path of the stars, planets, and constellations in their relative position in the sky on any one date would have made celestial navigation an easily attained art or science.
However, the Maya system of celestial navigation would not have followed the European model which obtained a latitude/longitude line of position (LOP) computed from the observed celestial

Page 29

body s sidereal angle with the horizon. The Maya concept of the celestial cosmos as related to navigation centered around the city at which the observations had been made, and all points in the sky or on the surface of the earth or sea were relative to that point rather than a numerical latitude or longitude. The Maya navigator was not interested in a finite point he could place on a chart, but only where he was in relationship to the port or city from which he had departed. This concept of navigation in which the position of the vessel is related only to its point of departure is not unique or common only to the Maya. It was the same basic concept known as dead reckoning navigation, used by early European navigators for centuries before (and even after) acceptance of the latitude/longitude method of fixing a position on the face of the earth (Peck 2001:145-149).

     The celestial navigation of the Maya navigator crossing the open sea seeking new lands would not be tied to any one particular star such as Polaris or the North Star. Instead he would view the entire sky as a charted and indexed map with which he was thoroughly familiar. The Maya navigator was not concerned with his position on the face of the earth, but only his spatial relationship with his point of departure and whether he was receiving good omens for the voyage from the gods of the sky.


Page 30

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