Tulum’s Mayan Lighthouse

The Putun/Poton Maya were Central America’s most advanced mariners. They controlled coastal trade around the entire Yucatan peninsula down to modern-day Panama. One of their important ports was at Tulum in the Yucatan but this port had one major problem: there was only one small opening in the coral reef that lay just offshore. Michael Creamer, an avid sailor, theorized that the building known today as the Castillo was, in fact, a very cleverly designed lighthouse engineered by the Maya to guide mariners through this small gap. He also discovered this ancient lighthouse still works today. Learn more below:

The Castillo of Tulum.

From Galveston to Mexico

A newly passed captain taking a break from ELISSA, swimming in the turquoise Caribbean in front of the pre-Columbian Castillo at Tulum, the maritime historian in me asks, “Why is this building here; so precariously perched on the cliff’s edge?”  The search for an answer results in a National Geographic grant for an investigation by Pilar Luna and her team from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and subsequent documentation by the Discovery & History Channels. Tulum turns out to be the oldest, most sophisticated lighthouse in the Americas.

Tulum may have served as a port city for the Maya site of Coba as there is a sacbe road connecting the two.  However, it was more likely a principal way station along a Putun Maya ocean trade route stretching from Panama in the South to Champoton on the Gulf of Mexico to the North.  Called the Phoenicians of the New World by archaeologist Eric Thompson, the Putun had a monopoly on Western Caribbean sea trade in the year 1000CE (Fig.1). 

Tulum’s location to the Southwest of the principal Putun entrepot of Cozumel Island meant that large, ocean going canoes could depart for Cozumel almost no matter what the weather, nor how strong the Northbound current, which forms the beginnings of the mighty Gulf Stream, was running at the time.  The substantial landside fortifications of Tulum are more in keeping with coastal island’s requirement for a secure port on the mainland (Fig. 2), as the modern municipality of Isla Mujeres maintains Punta Sam and Cozumel formerly administered Playa del Carmen.

The Secret of Tulum was rediscovered in 1982 by amateur nautical archaeologist Michael Creamer.  In 1984, representing the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA)  he joined an expedition led by Pilar Luna of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology’s Nautical Archaeology and History (INAH) funded by a grant from National Geographic. Professor Luna’s team conducted experiments that demonstrated Tulum’s El Castillo served as an aid navigating the narrow gap in the offshore coral reef (Fig. 3) that protects Tulum’s convenient landing beach (Fig 2).  The experiments were later successfully repeated on several occasions and documented on film for Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious Universe –‘The Mysterious Maya for Discovery Channel’ (English) and History Channel (Spanish).

Read the full article here: https://kcreame2.wixsite.com/oceanavatar/tulum

Maya Trade with Cuba and Florida?

In his research article “Yucatan Channel and Trade,” researcher Ronald Canter compiled the best available evidence of trade contacts between the Maya and people east of the Yucatan Channel such as Cuba and Florida. Read more below:


This article summarizes some of the evidence for the passage of Maya trade items and ideas eastward, and examines factors affecting canoe navigation across both the Yucatan Channel and the Straits of Florida. The recent tracing of jade artifacts in Antigua to parent mines in Guatemala indicates that there was past trade across the Yucatan Channel. Additional references document trade between Cuba and Florida.

The Yucatan Channel separates Yucatan from the western tip of Cuba. From Punta Sur on Isla de Mujeres to Cabo San Antonio is 194 km, a daunting crossing made worse by the Yucatan Current surging between capes…Nonetheless, a small but steadily accumulating body of evidence suggests direct, though sporadic, trade between the Maya in Yucatan and the Taino in Cuba. There is evidence of indirect trade of Maya articles east through the Taino cultural area, even as far as Antigua. The small amount of evidence suggests sporadic and infrequent contact, rather than sustained.

Some cultural and trade goods occasionally did cross the channel, whether in Maya or Taino canoes is uncertain. A large cake of beeswax, found in easternmost Cuba on Columbus’s first voyage, would have come from Yucatan, the only logical source (Columbus, 1493, pg 161). The common honeybee was unknown in the Americas before contact. Only the stingless bees Meliponini beecheii and M. Yucatanica were suitable for honey production, and the Maya were virtually the only beekeepers. Bartolome de Las Casa, in comments on Columbus’s “Journal of the First Voyage”, noted that the people of Cuba did not keep bees or produce beeswax themselves. Las Casas speculated that the wax had come from a wrecked Maya trading canoe. Given the currents, this seems unlikely, but not impossible.

More significant is Pendergast’s find of a Taino vomit ladle in a grave at the Classic Period site of Altun Ha, Belize. Even if it could float, it could not have drifted across the Yucatan Channel. Anything caught in the Yucatan Current is bound for Florida or beyond. The ladle would have come via canoe (Graham, 2002).

Dicey Taylor and Chris Jones have investigated Taino ball courts. The Mesoamerican ball game seems to have leapt the Yucatan Channel in the Classic and quickly spread eastward from island to island. At La Aleta in the Domincan Republic there is monumental architecture, a ball court, and a cenote containing sacrifices (Beeker, 1999). On Puerto Rico, Dr. Jones found parallel-walled courts near Utuado and at Tibes, 10 courts at each site. All were more recent than 650 AD, and were called “batay”, “a word that seems to appear in Classic Maya inscriptions in reference to ball playing” (Jones, Taylor, 2001).

Most remarkable is the recent tracing by mineralogist George Harlow of Preclassic jadeite “axes” found on the Island of Antigua back to their parent mines – in Guatemala. Antigua is nearly 3000 km east of the Motagua valley as the crow flies, and 3500 km island hopping via Cuba, Hispanola, etc. Rocks don’t float. Only by canoe could they have made their way across the entire Caribbean (Petit, 2006).

A unique and valuable trade item tends to become more valuable as it is traded farther from the source. The incentive is to profit by continuing to trade it until one of three things happens: an owner can’t bear to part with it, it reaches a cultural area where it is not valued, or it reaches the bitter end of the trade route. For the jadeite axes found on Antigua, the second and third may have both applied. Antigua was the far eastern edge of the Taino cultural area and of the Caribbean island chain….

Cornell University’s ornithology site on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker references the Precolumbian Florida-Cuba trade. “Early explorers noted a considerable trade in live birds between peoples of Cuba and peninsular Florida. Native Americans placed great value on these (Ivory-billed) woodpeckers.” Jackson speculated that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker might have entered Cuba through this trade (Jackson, 2004).

Several Timucuan words are Taino loan words. Not being a linguist, I will just quote. The source is Julian Granberry, A Grammar and Dictionary of the Timucua Language, The University of Alabama Press, 1993. The specific words are hinino (from Taino hynino ‘tobacco’) and casino (Ilex vomitoria). It has that three-syllable shape that Taino words tend to have. There is another Timucua term for Ilex, ipopi, which derives from the native term ipo ‘to charm or bewitch, to take medicine’. Ilex was the basis of the quintessential ceremonial beverage in the Southeast, the “black drink,” (still) used as a purgative to cleanse the body before ceremonies.

It is also the secret ingredient in Coca Cola, which started out in Georgia as a medicinal and then became a refreshment, like Smilax (zarza parilla), used as a medicinal (for venereal disease) in the 16th century and which later became the “sasparilla” famously drunk by wimps in Western movies” (Hopkins, 2006).

In the 18th century, at Talahasochte, far up the Suwanee River in northern Florida, William Bartram witnessed the return of an 850 km trade voyage by canoe from Cuba (1700 km round trip), and heard of others to the Bahamas. Their cypress canoes could hold 20 to 30 warriors. The route mostly hugged the sheltered west coast of Florida but ended with the most dangerous and difficult part – a 150 km crossing of the choppy Florida Straits, swept by the powerful current of the Gulf Stream. The trip is less challenging than one from Yucatan to Cuba but still serious. The crossing does have the advantage of large “targets” on either side of the straits: the line of the Florida Keys to the north and the coast of Cuba to the south. Paddlers would still have to angle westward to avoid being swept far to the east while crossing.

In April of 2006 a 15 m dugout canoe was found in the Apalachicola River, in northern Florida. The canoe is not ancient (only about 200 years old) but the design is (Ensley, 2006). It is a pitpan, distinguished by projecting platform ends used as stances for poling. Except for size, its design is identical to ones used from the Preclassic to the present on both Caribbean and Central American waters. Of 55 Archaic canoes examined from Newnans Lake, Florida, four showed similarities to the pitpan design, though not fully developed.



Mounting Evidence of Maya-Taino Connection

tainoEvidence continues to grow that the Maya seafarers did not just control coastal trade routes in Mexico and Central America but ventured further afield including the islands of the Caribbean and the Southeastern U.S. Just as the Maya-Georgia connection is currently scoffed at by mainstream academics, the Maya-Cuba connection was also once dismissed as well. This was, of course, before hard evidence showing evidence of Mayan ball courts and Mayan gods was discovered on the island. Now the same academics who once dismissed the claims are busy trying to downplay the connections. Read below to learn more about the evidence showing contact between the Maya and the Taino throughout the Caribbean:

The Taínos were accomplished seamen and traveled through-out the Caribbean in their hand-crafted canoas. Some large canoes could carry thirty people. The caciques owned these larger canoes and were thus responsible for public transportation. The importance of the canoes in the daily lives and in the expansion of the Taínos cannot be overstated. Due to their navigating skills, the Taínos were able to travel from their land of origin, the Orinoco Valley of Venezuela, and island-hop from Venezuela to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the Bahamas and Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and as far west as Cuba. This expansion did not occur over a short period of time, but it did guarantee a Taíno presence in the Caribbean. Another important consequence of their navigation skills and their canoes is that the Taínos had contact with other indigenous groups of the Americas, including the Mayas of Mexico and Guatemala.


Read the full article here: http://indigenouscaribbean.ning.com/group/archaeologyofthecircumcaribbean/forum/topics/mounting-evidence-of-mayataino

Sacred Mayan Journey 2012

The Maya of the Postclassic era considered the sea as a source of food and a navigable resource but it was also the cause of devastation and death, as the marine world was linked to the Xibalbá or underworld. And so, a sea crossing meant a transition to the afterlife or a rebirth.

Ports like Xamanhá, today´s Playa del Carmen, and mainly Ppolé, modern day Xcaret, served as the starting point for the pilgrimages that came from the most remote cities of the Mayan world on their way to the sanctuary of the goddess Ixchel in the island of Cuzamil, today’s Cozumel.

The Spaniard conquest, the evangelization of indigenous cultures and the punishment for the worship of idols, among others, were the reasons for this kind of ritual to fall into disuse.

On the 5th Anniversary of the Sacred Mayan Journey, we want to keep on reenacting this ritual of the ancient sailors with your participation. Dance, ceremonies, commerce and the physical effort of the oarsmen are key elements of the pilgrimage toward Cozumel in search of the message that stems from the oracle of Ixchel; goddess of the moon, the tides and floods, medicine, pregnancy, weaving and regeneration cycles. An appreciation for the rich culture left by the Maya as a legacy is what brings us together once again.

Takes place May 17,18,&19 2012. Learn more at:


Mayan Pottery, Pyramids Unearthed in Georgia

New research reveals that symbols which appear on ancient Georgia pottery are identical to Mayan glyphs, the symbols used to write the Mayan language. The pottery known as Swift Creek was a highly decorated form of pottery produced around 2,000 years ago beginning around 0 A.D. Many of the Swift Creek designs were collected in the book A World Engraved: Archeology of the Swift Creek Culture where several researchers noted the similarity in designs with Mexican symbols although this was dismissed as purely coincidental by academics. Yet the latest research proves they are Mayan glyphs adding yet more evidence of a Mayan presence in Georgia.

Maya in Georgia?

Over the past three months the internet has been abuzz with the idea that the ancient Maya once lived in Georgia. It started when a Georgia architect announced that he’d discovered a possible Mayan village in the mountains of north Georgia. This story was followed up by another researcher who claimed there were many Mayan words in the language of Georgia’s Hitchiti-Creek Indians as well as early European eyewitness accounts of Mayan gold mining operations in Georgia’s Appalachian mountains. Another recent announcement about the discovery of a possible source of the important pigment known as “Maya Blue” in southwest Georgia has added more fuel to the fire.

Mayan Glyphs on Swift Creek Pottery?

The new research analyzed the Swift Creek symbols and compared them to Mayan glyphs from a Mayan glyph dictionary. What this analysis found was that many of these Swift Creek symbols were identical to Mayan glyphs. (Read: “Mayan Glyphs on Georgia, Florida Pottery.”) For instance, the Maya had several glyphs for their word ek which means “star/Venus.” One version looked like a lower case W. Another version was diamond-shaped while yet another version was cross-shaped. The analysis found that all of these versions of the Mayan Venus glyph appeared on Swift Creek pottery.

Swift Creek designs (top row) look like Mayan “star/Venus” glyphs (bottom row)

For example, one Swift Creek design looked like a lower case W and included two circumpuncts or circled-dot symbols.  These symbols are known to represent stars among Georgia’s Indians. The researcher noted that although the meaning of this Swift Creek glyph was unknown, it was logical to assume it had a stellar interpretation because of these two star symbols. The fact that there were two such symbols on this Swift Creek symbol and Venus also has a dual nature as the Morning and Evening star, the researcher deduced that this Swift Creek design could represent Venus just like the similar w-shaped Mayan glyph.

Another Swift Creek design featured both a diamond-shaped design and cross-shaped design within a single cartouche. Once again the researcher noted that although the meaning of this Swift Creek design was unknown, one could deduce that both symbols represented similar or identical ideas; otherwise, why include them in the same cartouche? Both of these symbols were used independently as well as together by the ancient Maya to represent Venus. Thus the Swift Creek design is entirely consistent with this philosophy and thus likely represents Venus as well.

Perhaps the most intriguing Swift Creek design that the researcher uncovered appeared to represent a jaguar with a cleft head. It also featured a flint knife symbol in the center of the design. Yet when the design was rotated 180 degrees it took on the appearance of a rattlesnake head complete with forked tongue. The research reveals that this design likely represents the Mesoamerican legend wherein the jaguar god Tezcatlipoca battled the plumed rattlesnake god Quetzalcoatl. The battle resulted in a rain of stone axe heads which struck Tezcatlipoca transforming him into a jaguar and causing the cleft in his head. Tezcatlipoca was also strongly associated with flint knives. Thus every element of this Mesoamerican legend is represented in the Swift Creek design.

Mayan Pyramids in Georgia?

Kolomoki MoundsOne of the largest collections of Swift Creek pottery was unearthed at the Kolomoki Mounds site in southwest Georgia. This site is located just miles from the previously mentioned source of “Maya Blue”pigment. Archaeologist Thomas Pluckhahn noted in his book Kolomoki: Settlement, Ceremony & Status in the Deep South, A.D. 350-750 that Kolomoki was the largest and most popolous town north of Mexico during its time period. The site featured an enormous earthen pyramid over six stories tall with a base larger than a football field. It was stuccoed with both red and white clay so thick, in fact, that archaeologists joked it would take an earthquake and dynamite to ever break through it. Researchers have long been puzzled by the location of such a large town in a relatively isolated location. The discovery of the Maya Blue pigment mines located nearby may finally answer the question of its size and location as well as explain the Mayan glyphs on its pottery.

Mega-Metropolises: Teotihuacan & El Mirador

At the same time that Mayan glyphs began appearing on Swift Creek pottery, construction was underway in Mexico on two of the largest cities on Earth: Teotihuacan and El Mirador. Building projects of this scale would have undoubtedly forced the builders to source materials far and wide just like comparable building projects of today. Georgia has the largest source of Maya Blue pigment, mica (Teotihuacan featured tons of mica), and gold. A city the size of Teotihuacan would have had enormous markets and its citizens would, like modern people, have wanted all kinds of goods which would have had to have been sourced from somewhere. And once all the local sources were monopolized by various elite families, traders who wanted to strike it rich would have to look elsewhere for new sources.

Interestingly, Kolomoki Mounds collapsed at the same time that riots took place in Teotihuacan which resulted in the destruction of the elite quarters around 500 AD. These elites were likely murdered as well which would have disrupted any trade they were involved in. Did Kolomoki loose its biggest trading partner and thus become a ghost town? Plenty of questions still need answering.

Getting There

The Kolomoki Mounds Historic Site has preserved these ancient earthen pyramids and mounds for the public. The park also features a museum where examples of Swift Creek pottery can be viewed. The park also features cabins and campsites. It is located approximately six hours southwest of Atlanta and thus makes for a great weekend road trip.

For More Info:

There is much more evidence of this Mesoamerican connection which I will cover in future articles. Until then you can find me on facebooksubscribe to my newsletter, watch my DVD Lost Worlds: Georgia or find out more about my upcoming book, Maya In America: The Untold Story of Ancient America.

The Hidden World of the Maritime Maya

Ancient port site was used periodically between 800 B.C. and 1521 A.D.

Explorers sit atop the ancient Maya pyramid at Vista Alegre. The pyramid stands 35-feet tall and may have been used by Maya lookouts to monitor approaching and departing canoes. (Credit: Image courtesy of Proyecto Costa Escondida Maritime Maya 2011 Expedition, NOAA-OER.)

NOAA-sponsored explorers are searching a wild, largely unexplored and forgotten coastline for evidence and artifacts of one of the greatest seafaring traditions of the ancient New World, where Maya traders once paddled massive dugout canoes filled with trade goods from across Mexico and Central America. One exploration goal is to discover the remains of a Maya trading canoe, described in A.D. 1502 by Christopher Columbus’ son Ferdinand, as holding 25 paddlers plus cargo and passengers.

Through the end of May, the team is exploring the remote jungle, mangrove forests and lagoons at the ancient port site of Vista Alegre (“happy view” in Spanish) where the Caribbean meets the Gulf of Mexico at the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Scientists believe the port was part of an important trading network and was used at various times between about 800 B.C. and A.D. 1521, the date scholars use to designate the start of Spanish rule.

“The maritime Maya have been described much like ancient seagoing Phoenicians. They traded extensively in a wide variety of goods, such as bulk cotton and salt, and likely incense from tree sap called copal, jade, obsidian, cacao, Quetzal and other tropical bird feathers, and even slaves,” said Dominique Rissolo, Ph.D., expedition co-chief scientist and director of the Waitt Institute in La Jolla, Calif. “Maya trade was far-ranging between the Veracruz coast of modern Mexico and the Gulf of Honduras, with each port a link in a chain connecting people and ideas. Yet there is still much to learn about the extensive history and importance of the maritime Maya and how they adapted to life by the sea.”

Dominique Rissolo walking the andador (walkway) between Vista Alegre and Templo Perdido. The andador runs from the southern part of Vista Alegre across tidal flats for over a kilometer until it terminates at Templo Perdido (Lost Temple), a small collapsed temple built atop a natural rise. (Credit: Image courtesy of Proyecto Costa Escondida Maritime Maya 2011 Expedition, NOAA-OER.)

““Maritime economies were strengthened and far-ranging trade routes were established between A.D. 850 and 1100,” said Jeffrey Glover, Ph.D., expedition co-chief scientist with Georgia State University’s Department of Anthropology in Atlanta. “It was during this time when the Maya at Chichen Itza relied increasingly on maritime commerce to maintain and extend control over much of the Yucatan peninsula. The period most associated with Maya seafaring followed, between A.D. 1100 and 1521.”

Recent archaeological work at Vista Alegre included completion of an architectural map of the site, test excavations to obtain cultural materials, and a 13-mile reconnaissance of coastal environments that revealed a number of small ancient and historical sites and cultural features.

During expeditions at the port site in 2005 and 2008, explorers mapped 29 structures including platforms, mounds, raised causeways, and a concrete-filled 35-foot tall, steep-sided pyramid that dominates the central plaza and appears to have been heavily damaged by hurricanes. Explorers believe the summit of the pyramid was also used by lookouts to monitor approaching and departing canoes. In addition to the features on the island, a narrow walkway connects the port to a collapsed and looted temple 0.8 miles away on the mainland.

The expedition team also includes co-chief scientists Patricia Beddows, Ph.D., of Northwestern University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in Evanston, Illinois; Beverly Goodman, Ph.D., of the Leon Charnet School of Marines Sciences at the University of Haifa, Israel; and Derek Smith, of the University of Washington Department of Biology. Emily McDonald of NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Researchis on the team to coordinate Web coverage.

Two scientists from Mexico and a small number of U.S. students will join parts of the expedition, which will also provide post-expedition technical reports to the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History. A goal of the exploration is to enable Mexico to better protect and preserve its coastal and submerged cultural resources.

The carved serpent head found at the base of Vista Alegre’s temple structure. The carved serpent head most likely was one of a pair that would have been placed at the base of the balustrades flanking the main set of stairs leading to the top of the main temple structure. Team members found the serpent head in 2002 during the first visit to the site.(Credit: Image courtesy of Proyecto Costa Escondida Maritime Maya 2011 Expedition, NOAA-OER)

The explorers are contending with many of the same challenges that faced ancient Maya seafarers, including shelter — as some team members will be in tents and slung hammocks — the remoteness of the area that is accessible only by boat, the scarcity of fresh water, the possibility of tropical storms, and the danger and nuisance of a variety of local inhabitants, including mosquitoes, snakes, spiders and crocodiles.

“The Maya largely had to live off the land in this remote area where they found and used resources to survive. Like them, we have to search for scarce fresh water, but our challenges are more about making the research work in less than optimal conditions. It will involve some good MacGyvering,” said Glover, referring to the television actor who used ingenuity and materials at hand to invent his way out of a fix.

The expedition is part of Proyecto Costa Escondida (Hidden Coast Project), a long-term interdisciplinary research effort co-directed by Glover and Rissolo and focused on the dynamic relationship between the Maya and their coastal landscape.

Commemorating 10 years of ocean exploration, NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research uses state-of-the-art technologies to explore the Earth’s largely unknown ocean in all its dimensions for the purpose of discovery and the advancement of knowledge.

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