ABSTRACT. The author underlines the importance of Maya navigation around the Yucatan Peninsula. The discovery by underwater archeologists of canoes, paddles, and pottery in Maya settlements shows the importance of salt, obsidian, precious stones, gold, and copper trade that made ports such as Moho Cay or Wild Cane Cay prosperous.
RÉSUMÉ. L'auteur souligne l'importance de la navigation maya autour de la péninsule du Yucatan. La découverte de canoës, de pagaies, de poteries par l'archéologie sous-marine dans les établissements mayas montre l'importance du commerce du sel, de l'obsidienne, de pierres rares, d'or et de cuivre, qui a fait la prospérité de ports comme Moho Cay ou Wild Cane Cay.
Maritime navigation was important to the ancient Maya for trade, fishing, and transportation. Best known from the Classic period (AD 300–900) city-states that flourished in Guatemala, Belize, the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, and western El Salvador and Honduras, Central America, Maya culture originated about 1800 BC and continues to the present (Figure 1). Interest in ancient Maya sea trade has focused on Columbus' encounter with an alleged Maya trading canoe off the north coast of Honduras during his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502. The large ocean-going wooden dugout canoe held several passengers and was laden with trade goods such as copper, woven cotton, and honey. Evidently, the arrival of the Spaniards disrupted active circum-Yucatan sea trade bringing exotic materials and goods from distant and nearby locations. In this paper, I examine evidence for Maya navigation – both direct evidence of canoes and paddles, and indirect evidence in terms of artistic depictions of boat travel, settlement of offshore islands, maritime trade, seafood and other marine resources at inland settlements, and the ritual importance of the sea to the ancient Maya. I focus on my archaeological field research on offshore islands and underwater sites along the coast of Belize to evaluate what role Maya canoe trade played in the political and economic course of Maya prehistory.