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Maritime Trade and Seafaring of the Precolumbian Maya

Rahilla Corinne Abbas Shatto
Thesis: August 1998
Chair: Dr. Kevin J. Crisman
Nautical Archaeology Program


This literature review consolidates information about Maya maritime trade and seafaring from Spanish documents, archaeology, artistic representations of canoes, and twentieth-century descriptions of Maya watercraft. Precolumbian Maya used small and large canoes for trade, transportation, communication, warfare, and fishing. Wealthy rulers maintained trade relationships with one another, while independent merchants moved trade goods and information between distant locations, observing conventional trade practices, currency, and credit. Coastal sites provide abundant evidence for maritime trade, but a lack of information from the western peninsula prevents conclusive documentation of a circumpeninsular route. Maritime networks originated in the Preclassic period, grew throughout the Classic, and became paramount in the Postclassic period. By the sixteenth century networks encompassed all of the Yucatan Peninsula, central Mexico, and Central America. Theoretical models aid interpretation of data for trade routes, organization and characteristics of trade, functions of Precolumbian trading communities, and the identity of specialized seafarers. Models that propose elite control of maritime trade fail to explain the distribution of goods at Lowland sites. Maritime trade developed outside elite control, relying on seafaring petty and professional traders who moved goods along the coasts with stops at small trade stations, ports, and transshipment points. Mexican culture traits among the Postclassic Maya did not result from an aggressive takeover of maritime routes by seafaring foreigners. Pan-Mesoamerican material culture emerged from regular communication between central Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula. Maya watercraft were dugout canoes propelled by poles or paddles. To the Maya, canoes were important for maritime trade and fishing but also for supernatural journeys to the underworld. Classic-period artistic representations are associated with such journeys. Watercraft are consistently portrayed as flat-bottomed and flat-sheered with platform-like ends, but the actual canoes perhaps had various designs. Special construction in support of seafaring possibly included canals, a man-made harbor at Isla Cerritos, a jetty at Nohmul, landmarks, and navigation aids on the east coast.


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