Published On: Fri, Mar 15th, 2013

Sisal: Historic Gateway to the Yucatán – Part II Maya Seafaring History

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Story and photos by Byron D. Augustin

The Maya have been traveling in canoes for centuries.  Their trading empire was believed to have been established by the Chontal May of Tabasco.  By using rivers such as the Rio Panuca, their dugout canoes could trade as far north and west as Tula.  Paddling up the mighty Usumacinta connected them with the highland markets of Guatemala.  Their large, seaworthy, ocean going canoes allowed them to travel around the Yucatán Peninsula perhaps as far south as southern Honduras.

Maya dugouts were almost always made from the trunk of a single tree.  While many different species were used, the Ceiba (pronounced “SAY ba”) was one of their favorites.  It was a species found across the Maya Empire and had both an economic and a religious value to the Maya.In addition to the tree’s value for making dugouts, coffins, and carvings, its fruit pod contained silky fibers that the Maya used to weave blankets and cloaks.  In a religious vein, the Ceiba was “the tree of life”.  The Maya believed that a great Ceiba stood at the center of the earth connecting the underworld with the spirit-world above.  In the Yucatán the tree reaches heights of 120 feet with a diameter of eight to nine feet.

Frederick Catherwood's sketch of Maya port on Yucatan's north coast

Frederick Catherwood’s sketch of Maya port on Yucatan’s north coast

After felling a tree, up to a dozen men could work several months shaping the ends, flattening the bottom, and hollowing out the center.  Since the wood of the Ceiba was lightweight with a specific gravity of 0.23, it floated high in the water helping to prevent swamping in rough water.  The Maya used small canoes for local river trade and the smaller coastal ports.  Some were the length of today’s canoes, others were 20 feet in length and others were even larger.  The longest dugouts could be 60 feet in length and hold 40 to 60 people, as well as significant amounts of cargo.  The dugouts sometimes used both sails and paddlers to power the canoes.

In 1502, on his fourth voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus described one of these Maya trade dugouts.

It was long as a galley and eight feet wide, made of a single tree trunk like the other Indian canoes.  It had an awning to protect against the sun and rain.  Under the awning there were women and children with baggage and merchandise such as cotton mantels, embroidered sleeveless shirts, and painted in different designs and colors.  They also carried hatchets made of fine copper, crucibles for smelting ore, chicha beer made from corn and cacao beans.  The canoe had 25 paddlers aboard.

Sisal’s trade focused on the ocean because there was no river nearby.  In fact, none of the ports along the coast were located on rivers since they do not exist in the Yucatán.  Surface water enters cracks in the limestone rock, which makes up most of the peninsula, and moves under ground rather than on the surface.  Some of the exports that left Sisal arrived overland by carriers walking through the jungle while others were produced locally.

The major exports from Sisal were salt, cotton, honey, fish, turtles, conch shells, animal hides, and cacao.  Yucatán was the most important producer of salt in Mesoamerica.  The salt beds were especially prominent along the lagoons between Campeche and Cape Catoche.  The Maya who lived along the coast, including salt merchants in Sisal, collected the salt at the end of the dry season.  Salt is still processed at a large facility near Las Coloradas.

Demonstration of how the Maya made yarn from raw cotton

Demonstration of how the Maya made yarn from raw cotton

The Yucatán was also well known for its fine raw cotton and textiles.  The Maya grew cotton on their milpas for domestic use and export.  George Stuart’s book, The Mysterious Maya, features a color, two-page spread of an artist’s concept of a Maya trading party landing on an open, sandy inlet below the Castillo at Tulum.  The trading party had 18 dugouts and the major item being unloaded was cotton.

Maya canoe landing area at Tulum

Maya canoe landing area at Tulum

Honey was a very popular trade item for the Yucatán Maya.  They were expert beekeepers that gathered the honey from hives in the wild or hives they constructed by hollowing out logs with removable plugs in both ends that allowed them to harvest the honey.  Wax produced from bee keeping was also a common export.  Annatto, the seeds of the achiote tree was exported for use in food seasoning and coloring.

Hollowed out log used by Maya as beehive

Hollowed out log used by Maya as beehive

The shallow lagoons and offshore water provided a bountiful supply of fish that were salted and dried or roasted over fire for sale in commercial trade.  Fresh turtles could be carried great distances, remained alive, and could be traded weeks after their capture.  Marine turtle bones are relatively common at Maya archaeological sites.  Turtle eggs and tortoise shell also were exported to inland markets.

The shallow coastal shelf, which extends for more than two miles from the port, furnished a bounty of conch whose meat was eaten locally.  The Maya used the shells as trumpets for a variety of reasons. They were used to warn their communities of raids from neighboring tribes, during bloodletting and human sacrifice ceremonies, in funeral processions, and for notifying the community that hunters were returning with a slain deer.  The shells were also cut in half and used as paint pots by Maya scribes, vase painters, and mural artisans.  The demand for these shells made them a significant item of trade across the peninsula and beyond.

Examples of conch shells which were Maya trade items

Examples of conch shells which were Maya trade items

Demonstration of Maya conch shell trumpet

Demonstration of Maya conch shell trumpet

Small numbers of Cacao trees were grown in the bottoms of collapsed cenotes where a layer of soil had been deposited.  The beans were frequently used as currency in Sisal’s small markets, and as a result left Sisal in the pockets of traders who had sold goods to the locals.

The imports that arrived at Sisal were usually destined for inland markets.  They included slaves, jade, amber, obsidian, copper, and gold.  The slaves were used as a source of labor for building at the larger Maya sites or as agricultural workers on the milpas.  Jade and gold were highly valued for the production of jewelry for the elite.  Obsidian knives were used during human sacrificial ceremonies and for primitive surgery.  Since Sisal was the port located closest to Tiho (Mérida) and there were overland routes to Mayapan, Izamal, and Uxmal, trade with those sites was likely an active part of Sisal’s economy.



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