Ports, Trails, and Waterways: Trade and Economy in the Ancient Maya World

Part of: Society for American Archaeology 80th Annual Meeting, San Francisco, CA (2015)

The role and importance of ports in the ancient Maya world has long been an object of study. However, for decades the principal focus was the nature and role of Caribbean and Gulf ports, particularly during the Terminal Classic and Postclassic periods. Recent investigations indicate a critical role for inland river and lake ports in the integration of Maya economies as well. In addition, current evidence demonstrates the significance of ports in exchange systems in Preclassic and Classic period economies. The importance of river and sea ports and transport routes can be seen in the historical patterns of war and alliance – in which ports and their routes were principal targets for conquest and alliances. This session brings together researchers from North America and Latin America to share results of investigations of Maya ports from coasts and rivers, and from all periods. The participants explore and evaluate the nature and dynamics of ports as critical nodes in ancient Maya political economy. Those dynamics were central to the Classic period apogee, were critical in the “collapse” and/or Terminal Classic transition, and were a dominant characteristic of the Postclassic recovery and florescence.

Geographic Keywords
MesoamericaCentral America

Resources Inside This Collection (Viewing 1-15 of 15)

  • Documents (15)

  • Ancient Maya Trade and Communication as Evidence by Petrographic and Iconographic Analysis of Unit-Stamped Pottery (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only E. Cory Sills. Linda Howie. Heather McKillop.

    The Paynes Creek salt works of southern Belize were a massive industry for the production of salt for trade with inland Maya consumers during the Classic period (A.D. 300-900). The salt workers lived elsewhere, perhaps at the nearby trading port of Wild Cane Cay, which was a large contemporary settlement. The infrastructure of production includes wooden buildings preserved below the sea floor. The majority of artifacts recovered from survey and excavations consist of briquetage—locally-made...

  • Balance of Trade, Balance of Power: Marine and riverine networks in Belize (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Elizabeth Graham. Scott Simmons.

    The Caribbean sea, like the Mediterranean, was a facilitator of travel and communication. In the case of Belize, the relatively shallow waters of the coastal shelf sheltered water-borne Caribbean traffic, and the bevy of coral islands or cayes served as way stations for far-flung coastal trade. Essential to communities in the Maya area, however, was the transfer of goods from the coast to river and lake ports for inland distribution. In this presentation, we endeavour to summarise information...

  • Chichén Itzá and its maritime ports during the Terminal Classic period (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Rafael Cobos.

    The ancient city of Chichén Itzá reached its apogee as a regional capital in the tenth century. Part of this apogee included the territorial hegemony that Chichén Itzá exerted over a vast area of the maritime coasts of the Yucatán peninsula and Belize. By controlling the coasts, Chichén Itzá maintained strict authority over the different objects and merchandise that were distributed and exchanged throughout the maya lowlands in the Terminal Classic period. In order to control the distribution...


    El sitio de Xcambó ha sido definido como el puerto comercial y administrativo de los períodos Clásico Temprano y Clásico Tardío, a la fecha, el principal o quizá el único a lo largo de la costa de la península de Yucatán. Debido a su carácter, es lógico encontrar en él un amplio cúmulo de información con respecto de la llegada a la península, de materiales foráneos, además en él está la respuesta a otras interrogantes como, el manejo de la sal y su distribución, el control de otros productos...

  • From Coast to Coast: Trade Routes and Commerce of Northwest Yucatán’s Mayapán (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Collin Gillenwater. Marilyn Masson.

    Late Postclassic Mayapán formed the nucleus of a complex system of trade routes in northwest Yucatán, some of which endured into the Contact Period. The importance of ports and overland trade routes to commerce in late Maya history has long been acknowledged, but landlocked Mayapan’s specific connections to towns and exchange facilities has not been systematically considered from an archaeological perspective. Our analysis draws on Postclassic-to-Contact Period historical and archaeological data...

  • Inland ports in Northwestern Peten, Guatemala, a preliminary assessment (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only David Freidel. Mary Jane Acuña. Carlos Chiriboga.

    Northwestern Petén is characterized by an extensive wetland system subject to flooding during the annual rains, connecting what appear as isolated bajos in the dry periods of the year into larger, intermittent drainage networks. The San Juan, Chocop and Xan rivers drain these flooded areas into the San Pedro Martir River, which flows west, ultimately joining the Usumacinta River. We hypothesize that El Achiotal, a Preclassic center located within these seasonally occurring flood lands, and the...

  • An Intracoastal Waterway and Port System in Classic Period Northwest Yucatán, Mexico (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Anthony Andrews. Fernando Robles.

    Archaeological and historical research along the northwest coast of the Yucatán peninsula during the last half century have led to a preliminary reconstruction of a 200 km-long navigable intracoastal waterway between the Celestun estuary and Dzilám de Bravo during the Classic period. Along this waterway are remains of settlements, ports, and port complexes that supported an extensive trade network that connected northern Yucatan to more distant trade networks to the south, via the coast of...

  • Ixlú: A Postclassic Entrepôt on Lake Petén Itzá (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Prudence Rice. Don Rice.

    Ixlú, occupied from pre-Mamom times through the late seventeenth century, is a relatively small site on the isthmus between Lakes Petén Itzá and Salpetén. This siting conferred a strategic advantage for monitoring movements of goods and people. Just southwest of Ixlú, pairs of raised jetties or wharfs modified the lower courses of the Ríos Ixlú and Ixpop and extended into the eastern end of the main body of Lake Petén Itzá. These large, wide channels likely served as port facilities and could...

  • Overland Trade in the Central Maya Lowlands: the View from Trinidad de Nosotros, El Petén, Guatemala (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Matthew Moriarty. Ellen Moriarty.

    Although the largest Classic Maya political capitals are frequently assumed to have served as the critical nodes in long-distance trade networks, empirical data from decades of research suggest that ancient Maya trade was more nuanced in its organization. This paper presents a view on Maya trade from the perspective of Trinidad de Nosotros, a port on Guatemala's Lake Petén Itzá. Trinidad's position, astride overland trade routes and intermediate between these routes and a major political...

  • Population Movements, Trading, and Identity along the East Coast of Postclassic Yucatan. Dental morphology, isotopic provenience analyses and body modifications in human series from El Meco, El Rey, and Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Allan Ortega. T. Douglas Price. James E. Burton. Andrea Cucina. Vera Tiesler.

    Different hypotheses exist for explaining population development and replacement on the east coast of the Yucatan peninsula after the so-called Maya collapse, one involving the presence of the Putun-Chontal folk fringing the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Here we examine these proposals through the lenses of conventional paleodemography, dental morphology, body modifications (dental decorations and head shaping) of human skeletal series from the Postclassic coastal trader settlements of El Meco, El Rey...

  • Prospering in Place: Cerro Maya and the Late Preclassic Exchange Networks (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Robin Robertson. Debra Walker.

    Cerro Maya, located on Lowry’s Point at the southern edge of Chetumal Bay in northern Belize, sits at a strategic intersection between riverine and coastal transportation routes used by the Maya from Preclassic times onward. Evidence suggests a major dock facility was the first monumental construction undertaken during the initial Late Preclassic occupation, indicating the site was intentionally founded to mediate access to interior sites on the two principal river drainages in the region for...

  • Riverine and Maritime trade routes on Caribbean side of the Yucatan Peninsula. (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Thomas Guderjan.

    Riverine routes from the Caribbean coast from Belize River north to Laguna Bacalar are examined in the context of the major centers, intensive agricultural fields, and patterns of production, transport and centers of power. By contextualizing our understanding of major sites in terms of the opportunities and limitations offered by the riverine transport systems, we can better understand the economic basis of how and why various important centers rose to prominence. Further, these trade...

  • Shifting Tides along the North Coast of Quintana Roo: Recent Research at Conil and Vista Alegre (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Dominique Rissolo. Jeffrey B. Glover.

    In the northern lowlands, there is strong evidence for a coastal Maya presence since at least the Middle Preclassic, and scholars have long discussed how inland-coastal connections served as a catalyst for the development of social complexity. The scope and scale, however, of maritime commerce and interaction was closely linked to the ever-changing political and economic landscape. The work of the Proyecto Costa Escondida at the neighboring port sites of Conil and Vista Alegre highlight the...

  • Transformations in Political Economy and Routes of Exchange on the Eve of the Classic Maya Collapse: New Evidence from the Port Kingdom of Cancuen and the Classic Maya Frontier (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Arthur Demarest. Chloe Andrieu. Ronald Bishop. Paola Torres. Melanie Forne.

    The Classic period archaeology and history of the Pasion River "highway" and its connecting land routes demonstrate the vital role of riverine exchange systems and also register major changes in routes, agents, and economies. The riverine port city of Cancuen held a critical position at the intersection of both river and land routes that connected the southwest Classic Maya cities to other Peten centers, to southern highland trading partners, and to the more distant realms of Tabasco and...

  • Wild Cane Cay, Southern Belize: Major Classic to Postclassic Maya Trading Port (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Heather McKillop.

    A natural harbor, strategic location in the mouth of a navigable river and opposite the Paynes Creek salt works, Wild Cane Cay developed from a fishing village in the Early Classic (A.D. 300-600) to a major trading port from the Late Classic (A.D. 600-900) through the Postclassic (A.D. 900-1500). As skilled mariners, the Wild Cane Cay Maya were familiar with the shoals, storms, and other hazards of the sea, as well as the endless opportunities for travel on the sea. During the Classic period,...