Treasure trove of artefacts gives new insights into coastal Maya

The UC San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute has uncovered thousands of artefacts along Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, giving new insights into the coastal Maya.

As part of a 10-year research project, Georgia State University anthropologist Dr. Jeffrey Glover and Dr. Dominique Rissolo, a maritime archaeologist at UC San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute, have been studying the dynamic interplay between social and natural processes that shaped the lives of the coastal Maya over the last 3,000 years.

In a study published in the Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, the researchers have revealed an historical ecology framework to better understand the relationship between humans and the environment at the ancient Maya port sites of Vista Alegre and Conil from around 800 BC.


“What’s remarkable about our study area is that it represents one of the least developed coastlines on the northern Yucatan Peninsula. When trying to understand the ancient maritime cultural landscape of the so-called ‘Riviera Maya,’ for example, your perspective is obscured by all-inclusive resorts, golf courses and theme parks. The shores of the Laguna Holbox, on the other hand, are still largely wild and offer a more unobstructed view into the region’s past,” said Rissolo.

The site of Vista Alegre is a small island surrounded by mangroves that lies along the southern shore of the Holbox Lagoon (also called Conil or Yalahau Lagoon). The settlement was probably a small bustling port, where the team found 40 rock-filled platforms that served as the foundation for perishable pole and thatch buildings and a pyramidal structure that stands 13 metres in height.

Conil is a much more expansive site located beneath the modern town of Chiquila and was encountered by early Spanish conquistadors who described it as a town of 5,000 houses.

The project has so far identified tens of thousands of artefacts and ecofacts (animal and plant remains that speak to past diets), which have helped improve our understanding of how the landscape has changed over time, how the people lived, and how they dealt with challenges not unlike those faced by people today, such as: rising sea levels and changing political and economic systems.


Core samples taken from sediment on the coastline has enabled the researchers to understand how the coastline has changed over time by analysing the remains of tiny creatures (foraminifera). This study has been combined with research on the modern hydrological system and oxygen isotope values to understand how access to freshwater changed over time because of rising sea-levels.

The team believes that the Maya had access to water from ancient springs that have since been drowned by sea level changes. To try to identify freshwater seeps (that are about two degrees Celsius cooler than the ocean water) the team is using a drone equipped with a thermal camera to identify areas that might represent past sources of freshwater.

The team also uncovered tens of thousands of pieces of pottery and hundreds of pieces of obsidian (volcanic glass used to make tools that can be traced to its original geologic location). The archaeological data reinforces the idea that these coastal peoples had much broader and more cosmopolitan connections because they were part of long-distance, canoe-based trade networks.

These trade connections are most evident about 1,000 years ago when a major realignment and expansion in international trade commenced with the emergence of Chichen Itza as a powerful religious, political, and economic city.

“Strong evidence of this realignment comes from the obsidian data which reveals greater connections to parts of central Mexico, near modern day Mexico City” Glover said.

Often, when people think about the ancient Maya, they may picture some sudden, cataclysmic event that upended daily life. However, Maya peoples are alive and well today in the Yucatan, Belize, and Guatemala.

“I think it’s a story, not of a sudden or mass exodus, but a shift over time,” Glover explained, “and to understand these shifts we must understand the complex interplay of environmental and cultural factors, which is what our research is revealing.”

The research also highlights the specific lifestyles and adaptive strategies needed to live in a dynamic coastal environment and how this fostered a shared identity amongst coastal Maya communities.

“Our research gives us some idea of the shared challenges that coastal peoples faced – rising sea-levels, diminished freshwater, changing economic and political systems,” said Glover.

Georgia State University

Header Image – Yalahau Lagoon – Image Credit : Alamy

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Markus Milligan
Markus Milligan
Markus Milligan - Markus is a journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,000 articles across several online publications. Markus is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW).



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