Exploring the Hidden World of the Maritime Maya 2011

Expedition Purpose

Why Are Scientists Exploring an Ancient Mayan Seaport?

A key purpose of NOAA’s Ocean Exploration Initiative is to investigate the more than 95 percent of Earth’s underwater world that until now has remained virtually unknown and unseen. Such exploration may reveal clues to the origin of life on earth, cures for human diseases, answers on how to achieve sustainable use of resources, links to our maritime history, and information to protect endangered species.

For 3,000 years, Maya seafarers inhabited Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. These seafarers were part of the great Mesoamerican civilization that developed true writing, sophisticated mathematics and astronomy, and trade networks that spanned thousands of miles. Like many other elements of the Maya civilization, the coastal community known today as Vista Alegre evokes numerous questions: What were the community’s residents doing here? How did they live? Why did they leave? How did they interact with other Maya communities? These kinds of questions are the focus of the Costa Escondida (Hidden Coast) Project, a long-term, interdisciplinary research effort to investigate the dynamic relationship between the Maya and their coastal landscape over the past 3,000 years.

The Yucatán Peninsula rests on a foundation of limestone bedrock. Limestone is gradually dissolved by acidic water (normal rainwater is slightly acidic). This process creates underground caves, and makes the Yucatán limestone highly porous. In many places, underground limestone caves collapse and form sinkholes. Yucatán’s sinkholes are called cenotes (pronounced seh-NO-tehs), and are very important in Maya history. Besides being a major source of fresh water, cenotes had religious significance and were sometimes sites of human sacrifice.

Yucatán’s limestone bedrock slopes gradually downward from south to north. The peninsula is often described as being divided into northern and southern lowlands with a boundary at about 19◦ N. The southern lowlands include numerous rivers, streams, and wetlands; although water is scarce in the central interior area. The northern lowlands have almost no surface streams, and fresh water is found only in cenotes and a few small lakes.  At the northern tip of the Yucatán, however, an area known as the Yalahau region includes a series of north-south oriented freshwater wetlands that receive higher-than-average rainfall, possibly because of sea breezes that converge over this area.

Timelines of the Maya civilization (Table 1 is an example) generally include Pre-classic, Classic, and Post-classic Periods. It is important to understand that the Maya civilization consisted of multiple states, not a single empire under one ruler. These states typically included rural farming communities, as well as ceremonial centers that were the nucleus of large urban settlements whose ruins we now associate with Maya cities. Maya states shared common religious beliefs and a variety of sophisticated technologies that include written language, astronomy, mathematics, architecture, weaving, pottery-making, and farming. In addition, the Maya developed extensive trade routes over land as well as in coastal waters. During Columbus’ fourth voyage to the New World, he encountered maritime traders that he believed were Maya. These traders were aboard a long, wide canoe with 25 paddlers containing tools and weapons made from copper, wood and flint, textiles, and a beer-like beverage made from fermented corn. 

Table 1 - Maya Civilization Timeline

2600 BC - Cuello (Belize) is occupied by Maya or Maya-like people

2000 BC - Village farming begins to take root in Mesoamerica

1800 BC - Early Pre-classic Period begins; some structures associated with specific activities at specific places

1200 BC - Olmec culture based on social hierarchy emerges in Gulf Coast area of Mexico

900 BC - Middle Pre-classic Period begins; monumental architecture defines major centers of activity

700 BC - Writing is developed in Mesoamerica

600 BC - City of Tikal is founded

400 BC - Earliest known solar calendars carved in stone in use

300 BC - Late Pre-classic Period begins; Maya adopt hierarchical society

100 AD - Olmecs decline

250 AD - Early Classic Period begins

400 AD - Oldest part of city of Chichén Itzá is founded

500 AD - Tikal becomes a dominant Maya city

600 AD - Late Classic Period begins; Calakmul, the other major Maya city at this time period, defeats Tikal in the 7th century with help from its allies and sends Tikal into an almost 100 year decline

700 AD - Tikal reemerges as a dominant power in the Maya lowlands, with as many as 60,000 inhabitants

Late 700s AD - Long-standing Maya alliances begin to break down; trade between Maya states declines; conflict between states increases
NOTE: It is important to understand that the collapse of the southern lowland cities took place over a century, and was not a single event with a single cause. It is also important to recognize that the Maya did not disappear, and that there are still Maya peoples living today.

800-900 AD - City of Chichén Itzá develops increasing importance

869 AD - Construction ceases in Tikal

899 AD - Tikal largely abandoned

900 AD - The Terminal Classic Period begins, southern lowland cities collapse; cities in northern Yucatán continue to thrive

1000 AD - City of Chichén Itzá is a major center of commerce, culture, and military power with strong connections (religious, political, and economic) with Central Mexico.

1220 AD (approximate) - City of Chichén Itzá collapses

1263 AD - City of Mayapán founded

1283 AD - Mayapán becomes the capital of Yucatán

1441 AD - Rebellion within Mayapán

1461 AD -  Mayapán abandoned; Yucatán degenerates into sixteen rival statelets

1517 AD - Spanish arrive in Yucatán under Hernandez de Cordoba; they bring Old World diseases, including smallpox, influenza and measles that will kill 90% of Mesoamerica's native populations within a century; Colonial Period begins

1528 AD – Spanish, under Francisco de Montejo, begin efforts to conquer the northern Maya

1542 AD - Spanish establish a capital city at Mérida in Yucatán

1712 AD - Maya of the Chiapas highlands revolt against the Mexican government

1821 AD - Mexico becomes independent from Spain; Colonial Period ends

1847 AD - Yucatán Maya revolt against the Mexican government

1880 AD - Governments attempt to force Maya to become laborers on cash-crop plantations (This also occurred earlier and was a major cause of the 1847 Caste War – essentially indentured servitude.)

1910 AD - Mexican Revolution

Vista Alegre is the site of a Maya settlement on a small mangrove-shrouded island on the southern coast of the Yalahau Lagoon at the northeastern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula. The lagoon connects to the Gulf of Mexico, and most of Vista Alegre is surrounded by lagoons or estuaries. Archaeologists first visited the site in 1954, and subsequent research has recovered pottery remains that suggest Maya peoples have inhabited Vista Alegre for about 3,000 years. The site has not been continuously occupied, however; and archaeological evidence suggests that there have been four distinct periods of occupancy:

Vista Alegre I (800/700 BC to 450/400 BC) - Ceramic materials suggest that the first settlers arrived from the southern lowlands in regions that are now known as Guatemala and Belize, possibly attracted to the site because of its environmental similarity to coastal areas of those regions and because of Vista Alegre’s access to trade routes. It is not certain how long the site was inhabited after 400 BC.

Vista Alegre II (100/150 AD to 650 AD) - There was a robust settlement at Vista Alegre, as well as at a larger site named Conil located about 10 km to the west. Inland portions of the Yalahau region were also densely populated early in this period, but by 400-450 AD inland areas of the region were largely depopulated. Human activity continued at Vista Alegre for at least another hundred years, but by 650 AD this site was also abandoned.

Vista Alegre III (850/900 AD to 1100 AD) - Vista Alegre was resettled around 850 AD, but it is not clear who these settlers were, where they came from, or exactly why they came. The city of Chichén Itzá was becoming increasingly powerful at this time, with expanding trade routes around the peninsula from Veracruz on Mexico’s east coast down to the Gulf of Honduras. Salt was an important commodity for trade, and some estuarine areas near Vista Alegre are highly saline and could have been used for salt production. Obsidian and ceramic materials found at Vista Alegre suggest that the new settlers had close ties to Chichén Itzá, but the exact reasons for re-settlement are not clear.

Vista Alegre IV (1100 AD to 1521 AD) - Permanent residency at Vista Alegre seems to have ended around 1100 AD, but the site continued to be visited by traders and residents of other coastal communities for hundreds of years. Archaeologists have found ceramic containers used for burning incense as well as a carved serpent-head balustrade, which suggest that Vista Alegre was used as a ceremonial site during this period. The nearby settlement at Conil was a much larger port, and residents of Vista Alegre may have moved to Conil as the influence of Chichén Itzá declined. The end of this period is marked by the arrival of Spaniards who endeavored to eradicate the Maya culture.

Compared with the overall timeline for the Maya civilization (Table 1), these occupancy periods raise many questions: What challenges did the first settlers face as they established the community of Vista Alegre? What attracted them to this place, and how did they make a living? What kept people at Vista Alegre after inland sites were abandoned during the Early and Middle Classic Periods? Why did the settlement eventually fail? What brought settlers back to the site in the Terminal Classic Period and why did they eventually leave?

Environmental conditions in the vicinity of Vista Alegre are very different from those around other Maya settlements. Fresh water is scarce; the complex coastal ecology is not well-suited to the types of agriculture practiced by Maya in other regions; the coastal environment offers food resources and transportation opportunities that are not available to inland inhabitants. The Maya living at Vista Alegre must have developed specialized ways to live with these conditions, and these different lifeways may have caused Maya living in coastal areas to become culturally distinct from Maya living elsewhere. In fact, records from early European contacts state that the coastal Maya saw themselves as more “refined” than inland peoples. These considerations cause archaeologists to ask whether physical evidence at Vista Alegre demonstrates that its inhabitants had a distinct coastal identity that was significantly different from that of Maya living inland.

To answer this kind of question, the Exploring the Hidden World of the Maritime Maya 2011 Expedition emphasizes what is known as the maritime cultural landscape approach. This concept is based on recognizing that artifacts and structures that form the archaeological record are the result of complex interactions between human activities and geographical and ecological features and events that provided the context for these activities. To apply this approach to exploration at Vista Alegre, the Expedition team includes experts in archaeology, coastal ecology, geology, and hydrology.

Expedition Questions

The Exploring the Hidden World of the Maritime Maya 2011 Expedition is focused on basic environmental and archaeological questions, including:

  • How did the ancient Maya access potable water?
  • What coastal ecological niches were available for them to exploit?
  • How did the Maya of the Yalahau region of Quintana Roo adapt to the coastal environment?
  • How were inhabitants of Vista Alegre linked to those broader trade routes around the Yucatán Peninsula?
  • Are sediments near the coast of Vista Alegre favorable for the preservation of organic archaeological remains such as trading vessels used by maritime Maya?

Exploration Technology

Electronic Water Quality Analyzers

A Hydrolab multiparameter probe will be used to measure temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and pH of surface water and groundwater sources. In addition, SENSUS logging sensors will be installed at selected sites to measure temperature and depth at 15 minute intervals to obtain a record of seasonal changes in water flow. For additional information, see https://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/technology/tools/sondectd/sondectd.html.

Sediment Cores

Hand-operated push cores will be used to obtain sediment samples that can provide information about past climatic conditions, as well as locations that may provide well-preserved organic archaeological remains, including early seafaring vessels.

Archaeological Reconnaissance

Detailed maps of structures at Vista Alegre will be prepared using a surveying instrument called a total station, which measures horizontal and vertical angles. In addition, archaeologists will excavate one or more middens, which are trash pits used by inhabitants of Vista Alegre. Objects recovered from these excavations, such as fragments of pottery and stone cutting tools, are used as a basis for inferences about the people who used these objects. The style of ceramic pots, for example, can provide clues about when these pots were used, where the pots were made, and who made them. These clues, in turn, can be used to make inferences about trade patterns.