Friday, April 18, 2014

Maya Canoes

The Maya, whose civilization was based in the southern Mexico (including the densely forested Yucatan Peninsula) and parts of Central America depended heavily upon waterborne transport to supply goods to their several urban centers. Within Mayan territory, goods traveled by river from the interior to coastal areas, and from the coast inland as well. Coastwise trade also occurred both among Maya and with neighboring peoples.

Christopher Columbus encountered the Maya in the Yucatan on his fourth voyage to the New World. His son Ferdinand wrote:

"...there arrived at that time a canoe long as a galley and eight feet [2.5m] wide, made of a single tree trunk like the other Indian canoes; it was freighted with merchandise from the western regions around New Spain. 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. There were twenty-five paddlers...."
The cargo in this single canoe included clothing, tools, weapons, foodstuffs, wine and luxury items. Obsidian was also an important import. The reported width of 8 feet seems unlikely for a logboat.

Although no Mayan boats have been recovered, there is ample evidence that dugout canoes were the standard means of transportation. Aside from the matter of size -- we can safely assume that river craft were smaller than seagoing boats -- Maya canoes took several forms. Incised illustrations appearing on bones found in a royal burial in Tikal depict some of these variants. Mayan illustration showed most objects in profile, which limits our understanding of the canoe designs to that view, but shows some clear differences in sheerline, end decoration, and in the forms of the stem and stern.
Mayan canoe
Paddler gods and animal deities vigorously transport a passenger -- probably the royal individual buried in the tomb in which this carving was found -- beneath the surface of the water, possibly into the underworld of death. The canoe accommodates several paddlers and passengers, and the stern is high and decorative. (Click any image to enlarge.)

Mayan canoe
This canoe has an even more elaborate raised stem, shown in perspective overlapping two other fancy canoe bows.

Mayan gods fishing from a canoe
Two gods fishing from a canoe. The straight sheer and overhanging end platforms are less ceremonial, more appropriate to a workboat.
Mayan canoe bone model
Found in Maya territory on Moho Cay, off the coast of Belize, this canoe model agrees with the previous image, including the straight sheer and the overhanging platform ends. The model, possibly a child's toy, was made from manatee rib. It's not clear if the tapered shape is an accurate representation of the canoe form, or if it was necessitated by the taper of the bone from which it was carved.
Mayan gods paddle a canoe
Stingray god and Jaguar god paddle another straight-sheered canoe in an image from a temple in Tikal. The stern is similar to the two previous images, but the bow is more vertical, with less overhang. The paddle blades are entirely to one side of the shafts, which have no end-grips: the upper hand grasps the shaft several inches below the end, and the lower hand several inches above the decorated blade. (Similar paddles can be vaguely made out in images #1 and #3 above.) Stingray appears to be sitting at about the level of the sheerline, possibly on the stern platform, with his feet inside the hull, while Jaguar appears to be sitting cross-legged on the bow platform. (Stingray appears anxious, and Jaguar resigned. We can imagine the conversation: "Jaggy, are you sure you shut off the stove before we left?" "Yes, dear.")
Maya canoe paddle
A paddle discovered at a Mayan saltworks on Punta Ycacos Lagoon on the Yucatan Peninsula in Belize agrees almost perfectly with those in the image above. The paddle does have a very narrow bit of blade opposite the main part of the blade. Total length is 1.43m. The shaft is round, 5cm diameter. The association of the paddle and the saltworks indicates waterborne trade in salt. 
Canoes in Chichen Itza Temple Fresco
A temple fresco from Chichen Itza shows three canoes traveling coastwise, each carrying two warriors. The canoe ends are high and similar to image #1. The single "paddler" in each boat appears to be using his long-shafted paddle to pole from the bow. The paddles have conventional symmetrical blades.
So important was coastwise trade that the Maya established aids to navigation. Marks were erected on trees, and even the massive citadel of Tulum appears to have served at least in part as a lighthouse. 
Tulum El Castillo
At Tulum, two windows in the thick stone walls of El Castillo's upper level face directly toward the harbor entrance. When illuminated from within, the lights would be clearly visible only when a canoe is properly lined up to pass safely through the gap in the protecting coral reef.

  • With one exception, all content is from "The Earliest Watercraft: From Rafts to Viking Ships" by Margaret E. Leshikar, in Ships and Shipwrecks of the Americas: A History Based on Underwater Archaeology, George F. Bass, Editor, Thames & Hudson, NY, 1988.
  • The content about the Punta Ycacos paddle is from "Finds in Belize document Late Classic Maya salt making and canoe transport," Heather McKillop, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol.102, #15.

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