Well-Preserved Maya Canoe Found in Mexico May Be 1,000 Years Old

Researchers discovered the boat and other artifacts linked to the pre-Hispanic civilization near the ruins of Chichén Itzá

Researchers have tentatively dated the canoe to between 830 and 950 C.E. INAH

Archaeologists in southern Mexico have discovered a well-preserved wooden canoe that may be more than 1,000 years old. Used by the Maya, the vessel was submerged in a cenote, or freshwater sinkhole, near the ruins of Chichén Itzá in Yucatán state, Reuters reports.

The canoe is just over five feet long and two and a half feet wide. Ancient Maya people may have used it to gather water from the cenote or deposit offerings there, notes Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in a statement. The team made the discovery during construction of the Maya Train, a controversial railway set to connect tourist sites in the region.

Researchers have tentatively dated the canoe to between 830 and 950 C.E., BBC News reports. Experts from Sorbonne University in Paris are using dendrochronology, a dating method based on tree rings found in wood, to pinpoint the boat’s exact age.

Per a translation by Reuters, INAH describes the find as “the first complete canoe like this in the Maya area.”

Underwater archaeologists found the canoe in a cenote near the ruins of Chichén Itzá. INAH

Archaeologists have previously found fragments of similar boats in Guatemala, Belize and the Mexican state of Quintana Roo.

The experts made the discovery while surveying a site known as San Andrés, located in a buffer area near the planned train route. A team from INAH’s Sub-Directorate of Underwater Archaeology (SAS) investigated three bodies of water at the site. 

While diving in the cenote, the researchers found a cave about 15 feet below the current water level, at a spot that marked the pool’s surface centuries ago. Inside the cave was the canoe.

As Ian Randall reports for the Daily Mail, the researchers also found mural paintings, a ceremonial knife and fragments of 40 pottery vessels that were likely intentionally broken as part of ritual events.

“It is evident that this is an area where ceremonies were held,” says SAS archaeologist Helena Barba Meinecke in the statement, per a translation by the Daily Mail, “... not only because of the intentionally fragmented pottery, but also because of the remains of charcoal that indicate their exposure to fire and the way [the Maya] placed stones on top of them to cover them.”

If the archaeologists are right about the age of the canoe, then it was made around the end of the Maya Classic Period, which is widely dubbed the culture’s golden age. During that era (250 to 900 C.E.), the civilization comprised about 40 cities and was home to between two and ten million people, according to History.com.

diver in underwater cave
Archaeologists explored three bodies of water at the San Andrés site. INAH

Chichén Itzá itself was home to around 35,000 people at its peak, notes Encyclopedia Britannica. The people who founded the city in the sixth century C.E. may have chosen the site because of its cenotes and other limestone formations, which provided easy access to water in a dry region.

Most of Chichén Itzá’s iconic buildings appear to have been constructed by a group of Mayan language speakers who invaded the city in the tenth century, following the collapse of other Maya cities. Among these is El Castillo, a 79-foot-tall pyramid with a design reflecting Maya astronomical principles.

During the Post-Classic Period (900 to 1540 C.E.), Chichén Itzá joined the cities of Uxmal and Mayapán in a confederacy called the League of Mayapán. By the time Spanish forces arrived in the region in the 16th century, however, Chichén Itzá and the rest of the Maya’s major cities had been mostly abandoned for reasons that remain unclear

INAH has put the San Andrés site under protection in response to evidence of looting at the cenote. The team transferred ceramic and bone items found at the site to the Archaeological Zone of Chichén Itzá; it also plans to make a 3-D model of the boat for research purposes and to facilitate the production of replicas for display in museums.

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