Maya Canoe Found in Submersed Sinkhole May Be 1,000 Years Old

A first glance at the canoe suggests it dates to the Terminal Classic period of Maya Civilization (830-950 CE). Image credit: Yucatán Peninsula Office of SAS-INAH.

Deep within a water-filled sinkhole in Mexico, diving archeologists have discovered a surprisingly intact Maya canoe that’s suspected to be over 1,000 years old. 

The 1.6 meter (5.2 foot) long, 80-centimeter (31.5 inches) wide canoe was discovered by a team from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) carrying out excavations in the Mexican state of Yucatán. 

The discovery came about when the archeologists were taking a break from their dive, peering into the limestone pool. Around 5 meters (16 feet) below the current water level, one of the team noticed a dark imprint on the stone wall, indicating an older water level. At this level, they found a cave that held this ancient canoe, still in remarkably good condition.

The team believes the canoe may have been used to remove water from the body of water or was perhaps placed here as a ritual offering. A first glance at the canoe suggests it dates to the Terminal Classic period of Maya Civilization (830-950 CE), although they hope to carry out a more detailed analysis later this year that will give a more precise dating and identify the type of wood it was crafted out of. A borehole of sediment will also be taken from beneath the canoe to further understand when the boat likely ended up here. 

Image credit: Yucatán Peninsula Office of SAS-INAH

The Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico is pitted with sinkholes that have become filled with water, known as cenotes. They are formed when the limestone bedrock is eroded away by weather and collapses, exploring a subterranean cavity that eventually becomes filled with water. They can have a good habit of storing archaeological finds from the distant past, from stolen gold looted by the Spanish conquistadors to the fossils of giant sloths.

At this particular site, known as the San Andrés site, there is one cenote, in addition to a well and cenote that has since dried up called a rejoyada. In the well, the archaeologists discovered human skeletal remains, ceramics, and mural painting at a depth of around 50 meters (164 feet). Within the passages of the rejoyada, they found a mural dating back to 1200-1500 CE, a ceremonial slab of rock, a ritual knife, charcoal, and at least 40 vessels that appear to have been smashed in a ritual. 

These artifacts strongly suggest that these geological structures likely had some spiritual significance and were used for rituals. 

Image credit: Yucatán Peninsula Office of SAS-INAH

“It is evident that this is an area where ceremonies were held, 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 they placed stones on top of them to cover them, since they did not they are the product of landslides,” Helena Barba Meinecke, head of the Yucatan Peninsula Office of the INAS's Sub-Directorate of Underwater Archeology, said in a statement.


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