The Upper Usumacinta Travel Corridor, A Game of Chutes and Ladders

Author(s): Ronald Canter

Year: 2015


Like other major rivers the Usumacinta had parallel land routes. Unlike most rivers the Usumacinta lies bound within whitewater canyons below Yaxchilan, cut off from its flanking trails except at gaps dictated by the geography. In the Classic Period, the river and its trails formed a ladder-like grid offering great mobility, but requiring tradeoffs between speed and safety.

For both the ancient Maya and modern boatmen the Usu’ was a fast, efficient, and dangerous route to the lowlands. Two rapids, Chicozapote and El Porvenir were especially challenging. A long portage below El Porvenir avoided even worse downriver.

Travel upriver was tedious but still efficient for bulk cargoes. The lightly loaded or faint-of-heart would have favored the trails.

Documented use, geography, and ancient remains confirm river use and major trails. Rope grooves identify past harbors. On land, Yaxchilan fortified gaps in a cross ridge, restricting travel to only a few gated passes. Piedras Negras sat astride both river and trail where rugged hills pinched them together in a narrow pass. The cities fought over control of the Usumacinta corridor.

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Cite this Record

The Upper Usumacinta Travel Corridor, A Game of Chutes and Ladders. Ronald Canter. Presented at The 80th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, San Francisco, California. 2015 ( tDAR id: 395992)


Travel Usumacinta

Geographic Keywords
Central America

Spatial Coverage

min long: -94.702; min lat: 6.665 ; max long: -76.685; max lat: 18.813 ;