Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) recently announced the completion of a study of a rare and unusual Maya artifact. During an underwater dive into a deep sinkhole in Yucatan state in 2021, the INAH researchers were shocked to discover a long canoe of Maya origin. Scattered around the sunken boat were the bones of a human being and several species of animal, which made the unprecedented find even more notable.
The sinkhole that had hid the canoe for hundreds of years is located just 45 miles (72 kilometers) from the famed ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá in southern Mexico. It is adjacent to the San Andres archaeological site, which has produced many artifacts related to the Late Classic Period (830—950 AD) of the legendary Maya civilization. But radiocarbon dating of the wood from the canoe and the recovered bones produced a surprising result. It seems the canoe and its traveling party were deposited in the flooded sinkhole in the 16th century, after the Spanish conquest of the Maya people was well underway.
Archaeologists have been doing research on the Maya canoe remains since 2021. ( INAH)
Taking a Trip to the Underworld Thanks to Maya Canoe Discovery
The underwater search of the sinkhole was carried out as part of exploratory archaeological missions performed in conjunction with the controversial Maya Train project , under which a high-speed rail line is being constructed through the heart of ancient Maya jungle territory in southern Mexico. INAH archaeological teams have been involved in most of these digs. In this particular case, they were assisted by representatives from the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
After two years studying and analyzing what they’d discovered, the team from INAH and CNRS presented their findings before the 12th International Congress of Mayanists, which was held in June 2023. They reported that the wooden canoe was partially buried in the sand at the bottom of the sinkhole under 15 feet (4.6 m) of water. It measured seven feet (2.5 m) long, 18 inches (45 cm) wide and 14 inches (36.5 cm) deep, while also featuring an unusually heavy bow and stern.
Because of its odd design and structure, the INAH researchers suspect the canoe was not built for long-distance travel, but was used for ritual purposes exclusively. It simply wouldn’t have been seaworthy, they claim, and likely was built with the idea it would be sunk and placed at a sacred underwater site, as part of some kind of religious ceremony.
The archaeologists revealed that the presence of armadillo bones along with the Maya canoe could be explained by the Maya belief that the animal was related to the underworld. ( INAH)
Maya Symbolism of the Armadillo… and the Woman’s Foot
The human and animal remains surrounding the boat are consistent with such an interpretation. There were 38 bones recovered in total, including one metatarsal bone from the foot of a woman and other scattered bones from armadillos, dogs, eagles and turkeys. From a ritual standpoint, the presence of the armadillo bones and the woman’s foot are especially revealing, the archaeologists say.
Armadillos are proficient swimmers capable of holding their breath underwater for significant periods of time, as they use their claws to “walk” across the bottom of a lake or river (or flooded sinkhole in this case). In an INAH press release , the archaeologists speculated that the placement of the armadillo next to the canoe “would be an allusion to the entry of said animal into the underworld, taking into account the Maya conception of caves… as portals to said cosmogonic space.”
In other words, the Maya believed it was possible to access the underworld or land of the dead from underground caves or sinkholes (known as cenotes in the Yucatan peninsula), including those that were flooded with water. Presumably it was believed the underworld would have been flooded as well, which is why it was necessary to supply possible travelers with a canoe as well as the companionship of armadillos who could travel underwater so efficiently.
In Maya lore, the armadillo was also cast in the role of an avatar or representative of the widely worshipped God L . This Maya deity was frequently portrayed as an old man who had jaguar markings on his body and wore a cape that looked similar to an armadillo’s shell. God L was one of the primary gods of the underworld, so it would make sense to have an armadillo’s body included among a collection of sacrificial offerings.
It is intriguing that only a woman’s foot was found at the canoe site and not an entire skeleton. If her body had been found, it could have been concluded that this was an underwater burial and that the woman’s animal companions were meant to accompany her to the underworld. But the presence of the foot alone suggests that what took place was some type of ritual and not an actual burial.
But why a human foot? Once again this relates to the armadillo, an animal that appears often in Maya mythology. “There are known images in Maya ceramics in which [an armadillo] appears as a ‘stool of the gods,’ with characters that place their feet on it,” explained study participant Alexandra Blair, an archaeologist from the CNRS. “This would be directly linked to the archaeological evidence observed in the cenote [sinkhole].”
The Maya canoe is set to remain in situ in accordance to UNESCO protocols. ( INAH)
Maya Canoe Destined to Remain at the Entrance to the Maya Underworld Forever
While the present belief is that the wooden canoe was built in the 16th century, there is some doubt about this conclusion. Microplastic pollution found at the bottom of the sinkhole could have contaminated the radiocarbon dating results. As a result, a round of new dives will be taking place to collect further wood and animal bone samples for more radiocarbon testing.
Interestingly, the canoe and the surrounding bones will not be removed from their current resting place at the bottom of the sinkhole. This is in accordance with conservation protocols adopted in 2001 by UNESCO, with respect to the proper treatment of artifacts discovered at underwater sites. The researchers have been studying 3D models of the canoe to learn more about its design characteristics, making sure to only extract tiny samples of wood for analysis. This will ensure the rare canoe remains in excellent condition for as long as it is left undisturbed.
Top image: The underwater discovery of an ancient Maya canoe in a Mexican sinkhole. Source: INAH
By Nathan Falde