A well-preserved Maya canoe found in a Mexican freshwater cave may have been placed there as part of a ritual marking an entrance to the underworld, researchers announced in a statement from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).
Divers discovered the canoe in 2021 near Chichén Itzá, an ancient Maya city in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, as Livia Gershon reported for Smithsonian magazine. The vessel was located 15 feet below the surface of a sinkhole filled with fresh water, also known as a cenote. Per Reuters’ David Alire Garcia, it was the first intact canoe found in the Maya region. Researchers have been examining it onsite since then.
As the only sources of freshwater in Mexico’s Yucatán state, cenotes were both life-sustaining and spiritually significant for the Maya. “The Maya conceived of the cosmos as having three basic layers: heavens, earth and underworld,” underwater archaeologist Guillermo de Anda told CNN’s Mark Tutton in 2018. “Cenotes were the entrance to the underworld.” To appease deities, like the rain god Chac, the Maya people threw offerings—sometimes human sacrifices—into the cenotes.
While investigating the cenote harboring the canoe, researchers also found 38 skeletal remains from several animals—including a dog, eagle, turkey and armadillo—as well as a woman’s foot bone. The researchers say the armadillo bones and human foot bone helped clue them into the canoe’s probable ritualistic purposes.
“The remains of the armadillo, whose swimming ability allows it to hold its breath and cross bodies of water holding its claws to the ground, would be an allusion to the entry of said animal into the underworld,” says INAH in the statement, per Google Translate. And as Newsweek’s Jess Thomson writes, the Maya also considered the armadillo an avatar of God L, their deity of the underworld.
The bones could also be linked to images on Maya ceramics depicting the armadillo as a “‘stool of the gods,’ with characters that place their feet upon it,” says Alexandra Biar, an archaeologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, in the INAH statement.
The canoe’s design also offers clues to how it was used. The researchers note that its heavy prow and stern may not have fared well in fast currents, suggesting that it may have been created for ritual purposes rather than practical ones.
Since discovering the canoe, divers have made return trips to continue studying it. They’ve since made a 3D model of the vessel, which they’ve determined is 2.15 meters (7 feet) long and 45 centimeters (18 inches) wide.
Carbon analysis shows that it dates to the 16th century, but the researchers say those tests may have been compromised by microplastics in the water. More samples will be taken and tested to determine the canoe’s true age.
The canoe’s original discovery in 2021 came during construction of the controversial Maya Train, which is due to be completed this fall and will connect several tourist destinations in the Yucatan.