Dugout Canoes

Lake Peten Itza, Guatemala

As early a 400 B.C., salt was being “shipped” by canoes from northern Yucatan to Tikal in the Guatemalan jungle by way of Cerros, Belize down the New River. In 1502, Ferdinand Colon, a member of Christopher Columbus’s fourth voyage, described an encounter with a large group of Maya—or Maya-related people—in a seagoing canoe around the Bay Islands off modern Honduras.

By good fortune there arrived at that time a canoe long as a galley and eight feet wide, made of a single tree trunk like the other Indian canoes; it was freighted with merchandise from the western regions around New Spain. Amidships it had a palm-leaf awning like that which the Venetian gondolas carry; this gave complete protection against the rain and waves. Under this awning were the children and women and all the baggage and merchandise. There were twenty-five paddlers aboard, but they offered no resistance when our boats drew up to them.

Another Spanish report estimated a Maya trading canoe to be 131 ft. long, carrying kakaw beans, obsidian clubs, axes, pottery, woven cotton textiles, a mancanas (a wooden sword set with obsidian blades) and maize beer for the crew. And Cortés observed that there were “large numbers of Maya trading canoes moving into and out of the region (Lake Izabal).” Regarding the paddles, some of which have been recovered, they were flat and bound with rawhide to give the rower a good grip. To chop out the insides of a hardwood tree they used razor-sharp flint axes. 

Trees Favored For Carving Canoes

Cedar (K’u’che’)

K’u’che’ means “god tree.” Besides being used for canoes, it was favored for making idols, often during the month of Mol (December). Cedar was used for extra-long canoes—river and sea going. It was one of the trees left standing while those around them were burned. The hardwood is durable and resistant to insect attack. It lasts for centuries.

Guanacaste (Ear Fruit)

Pich in Mayan. It’s a giant, rising to 100 ft. or more. Its smooth gray trunk is massive but light and durable. It can last over ten years as a canoe.

Locust

Uakuz in Mayan. It has a large trunk and is lightweight compared to other trees.

Mahogany

Punab in Mayan. It’s long, straight trunk made it desirable for canoes. The ancients may have selectively logged the forest, allowing it to stand as they burnt other trees.

Barba Jolote

The wood is somewhat like mahogany, but it’s heavier and stronger. Being highly resistant to fungal and insect attack it was also used to make posts.

Caribbean Pine

The adult trees are fire-resistant. The white resin beneath the bark, besides being water repellent, helped protect the tree from insect attack by quickly sealing any cuts made in the bark. And it’s sap was used as glue to repair dugout canoes.

Yemeri

This tree grows best on sandy, clay soils. It is easy to spot in the Mt. Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in Belize during the dry season because it has yellowish blooms. Today the timber is used for house siding and boxes.

The Canoe  Shape

In Classic Maya imagery, a standardized canoe shape had mythological and religious significance. The shape is seen in offering bowls used in blood sacrifices. On Izapa Stela 67 and Yaxchilan Lintel 15 the canoe shape is a symbol of spiritual transformation. 

Mythology

An incised bone from the Late Classic Burial 116 in Temple 1 at Tikal shows the “Paddler Gods” and other creatures escorting the Maize God across the primordial sea at the beginning of creation. At the front is “Jaguar Paddler,” identified by his headdress. At the rear is “Stingray Paddler,” and in the middle is the Maize God whose head is tapered to resemble a maize cob. The canoe is tilted slightly, an indication that they are delivering him to the Underworld.

The Milky Way

One of the perceptions of the Milky Way was as a sacred river. At the beginning of creation, it was the Paddler Gods who seated the first of three sacred throne stones there—“Jaguar Throne Stone.” They set it at a place called Na Ho’ Kan, “First Five Sky.”

On Expedition, Pech Orders The Canoes
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 32-33)

Pech stood and shouted to all the boats as he translated what the master said into an order. “When we get ashore I want the kakaw bundles rotated to canoes four and five. Cover and bind them quickly—same guards as before.” The best of the kakaw trading was behind them. They’d acquired nine bundles, each containing 8,000 beans. Because they were easily traded and accepted everywhere, they always wanted more.  

A man in the canoe directly behind the master called out: “Will we take on obsidian at Kaminaljuyu?” Irritation curled on Thunder Flute’s lips. The porter hadn’t been listening. He nodded for Pech to answer.

“Further on,” the first assistant said. “The trail north out of Kaminaljuyu takes us to the Chatalun, a river that empties into the faster currents of the Anamha. The high-grade cores are brought down from the fire mountains there. All we need to do is lash them onto rafts.”

“The Anamha is a demon,” said an experienced porter in the boat behind his. “Rafting is the only way through. Rapids and boulders the size of a house. Even the largest canoes can get swamped.”  

Thunder Flute and Pech exchanged glances. “Where the Anamha ends,” Pech continued, “we rotate back to sea canoes.” Next to “portage” where the canoes had to be dragged and twitched along on skids laid across the path, the most dreaded word for a porter was “rotation,”—unpacking and repacking the cargos—especially on the return leg of an expedition when the cargo is heaviest. “The handlers there are six brothers,” Pech said. “Agouti. Good men. If the water is calm and the sky clear, they will let us shove us off the next morning. If not, they will insist we wait. High winds and side current have swamped too many of their canoes.”  

The coxswain in Thunder Flute’s canoe pointed ahead. “Master!” Thunder Flute turned. Ahead a faint red glow in the fog looked like a torch dancing behind a curtain. When it grew brighter and another appeared some distance away, he stood and called out, “Hold the boats! All quiet!” The men held their paddles tight against the black current and the canoes slowed. The thickness of the fog prevented them from seeing flames, but a red glow that large and this early in the morning could only mean trouble. 

“Full on,” Thunder Flute said. “Full on!” Pech repeated. “All boats, full on!”

Pech stood next to Thunder Flute, facing the paddlers. “Coxswains, bows to the light! Head on! Form up!” The canoes fell into line, bows-to-sterns. In the distance and to both sides of the widening glow, flames suddenly ripped through the fog. 

Thunder Flute wondered aloud to his assistant, “Forest, or houses?” Pech exchanged his master’s wide-brimmed hat for a brown headband, which he tied beneath his leather-bound locks. “The flames are spreading out,” he said, pointing. “The highest there—that could be the temple. Black smoke—thatch and timbers. Call the boats to point.”

“Bows to point,” Pech called to his coxswain. He, in turn, repeated the command for the other coxswains. 

Thunder Flute took his seat at the bow. Pech sat across from him with his elbows on his knees, eager to receive his orders. “I want the crews in six and seven to scout both ends of the city. Two and three will follow us to the docking area. We will hold there until the reports come in.” 

In the distance, a conch sounded short bursts of three. “Two will go in and hold at the plaza. Three will do the running. Whatever this is, I want an experienced man on the temple; we need good eyes on the god bundle. Have six and eight ready to follow us down the embankment. I will take the royal residence. You take the council house. Everyone else stays with the cargo—use extra tie-downs.” 

Pech understood. As the bows of the canoes came together, the men grabbed onto a cord that pulled them into a circle. While the first assistant gave his instructions, the men put on their body paint and handed out weapons. When that was done, Thunder Flute tossed the bowline out and the canoes broke away. “No torches!” Pech said. “Only hand signs from here on!” 

Four canoes with paddlers looking like the Lords of Death escorting the maize god into the underworld dug their paddles in, quiet and deep. Although Thunder Flute’s canoe held back, he stepped onto the bow seat and rested his chest against the carved rabbit head that rose above it. Pech exchanged his master’s cloak for a cotton jacket and handed him a black paint pot. 

East to west, beyond the trees, Ahktuunal was engulfed in flames. Waiting for his canoe to touch the ground, Thunder Flute whispered to his assistant, “A trading partner saved is a partner for life.” Pech handed his master an axe with owl feathers tied at the neck. The boat slid into the sand and they jumped out. 

YELPS AND SCREAMS CAME FROM BEYOND THE TREES. THE sentry post in the docking area was engulfed in flames. One sentry lay face down, his blood pooling and turning the sand black; two others lay on the bank. Using hand signs Thunder Flute directed his men in the oncoming canoes to maneuver away from the dock and touch ground under a clump of trees that overhung the water. 

____________________________________________________________________________

For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

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