Takaji My Relatives
In 1987 a group of about 200 participants in the ceremonies of the Caney Indigenous Spiritual Circle prepared to gather at the hill-top site of the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center in Allegheny County near Pittsburgh to celebrate ancient cross-tribal Maya-Taino associations as part of a global event that heralded the first glimmers of interest in the now well-known prophecy of the Mayan calendar. The 1987 event was called "Harmonic Convergence" and as part of the activities leading up to it I was interviewed for both broadcast and newsprint media reports on the local observances.
After my interviews were aired I received a telephone call from an archeologist associated with a local scholarly institution. The scholar berated me verbally and challenged my media assertions remarking that all of the points which I had suggested indicated Maya-Taino cultural contacts could be explained away based on existing archeological evidence.
Time has not been very kind to the theories of this zealous scientist. In the last twenty or so years since my telephone debate with him there has been mounting evidence to support all of the claims I made at that time for a cultural connection between the Tainos of Cuba and the Mayas of the Yucatan. Nowadays it is not rare to find undergraduate and graduate coursework in colleges and universities which includes material that features the cultural and trade connections between the Tainos and the Maya as exemplified by the curriculum offered at the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute whose online presentation includes the following quote:
"The Taínos were accomplished seamen and traveled through-out the Caribbean in their hand-crafted canoas. Some large canoes could carry thirty people. The caciques owned these larger canoes and were thus responsible for public transportation. The importance of the canoes in the daily lives and in the expansion of the Taínos cannot be overstated. Due to their navigating skills, the Taínos were able to travel from their land of origin, the Orinoco Valley of Venezuela, and island-hop from Venezuela to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the Bahamas and Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and as far west as Cuba. This expansion did not occur over a short period of time, but it did guarantee a Taíno presence in the Caribbean. Another important consequence of their navigation skills and their canoes is that the Taínos had contact with other indigenous groups of the Americas, including the Mayas of Mexico and Guatemala.
____ This Mayan-Taíno connection provides students in the classroom with a rich source of inquiry. What is the evidence that the Taínos had contact with the Mayan culture? ( Mayan god, Hurakán and Taíno god Huracán, similarities in their ballgames, and similarities in their social structure and social stratification.) Teachers who are not familiar with the theories and archaeological evidence should consult Miguel León-Portilla, Ricardo E. Alegría, and Irving Rouse, listed in the annotated bibliography.The Mayan-Taíno connection provides the classroom teacher with an excellent source for group activities, group problem-solving, comparison and contrast activities including Venn diagrams, and oral debates or persuasive writing assignments.
• The Mayan-Taíno connection should be developed only after the students have studied the religion and the ceremonies of the Taínos, including the areytos and the ballgames."
Below I present a 2006 abstract submitted to the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. Journal of the Ancient Americas by Ronald Canter. In this scholarly submission Canter presents sufficient evidence to support the theory of widespread, albeit sporadic trade between the culture area of the Mayas and the culture area of the Tainos.
YUCATAN CHANNEL and TRADE
By Ronald Canter
This article summarizes some of the evidence for the passage of Maya trade items
and ideas eastward, and examines factors affecting canoe navigation across both the
Yucatan Channel and the Straits of Florida. The recent tracing of jade artifacts in
Antigua to parent mines in Guatemala indicates that there was past trade across the
Yucatan Channel. Additional references document trade between Cuba and Florida.
The Yucatan Channel separates Yucatan from the western tip of Cuba. From
Punta Sur on Isla de Mujeres to Cabo San Antonio is 194 km, a daunting crossing made
worse by the Yucatan Current surging between capes. The Yucatan Current is an
“intense jet reaching 2m/sec” at its maximum. It oscillates back and forth in the Yucatan
Channel between Cabo Catoche and Cabo San Antonio in Cuba. Its speed is usually
fastest closer to Cabo Catoche, with a second maximum in the center sometimes (Badan,
1998). The Cozumel Current is a feeder.
For coastal paddlers the Yucatan Current is not a problem unless one wanders too
far offshore, past the edge of the Campeche Bank. Boats caught in the current might get
a free ride to the Florida Keys, or to the endlessly circling gyre of the Loop Current in the
middle of the Gulf of Mexico. The crossing from Yucatan to Cuba is the more dangerous
since the target is smaller, the low, narrow point of Cabo San Antonio. On the return it is
enough to just hit some part of the east coast of Yucatan
Nonetheless, a small but steadily accumulating body of evidence suggests direct,
though sporadic, trade between the Maya in Yucatan and the Taino in Cuba. There is
evidence of indirect trade of Maya articles east through the Taino cultural area, even as
far as Antigua. The small amount of evidence suggests sporadic and infrequent contact,
rather than sustained.
Some cultural and trade goods occasionally did cross the channel, whether in
Maya or Taino canoes is uncertain. A large cake of beeswax, found in easternmost Cuba
on Columbus’s first voyage, would have come from Yucatan, the only logical source
(Columbus, 1493, pg 161). The common honeybee was unknown in the Americas before
contact. Only the stingless bees Meliponini beecheii and M. Yucatanica were suitable for
honey production, and the Maya were virtually the only beekeepers. Bartolome de Las
Casa, in comments on Columbus’s “Journal of the First Voyage”, noted that the people of
Cuba did not keep bees or produce beeswax themselves. Las Casas speculated that the
wax had come from a wrecked Maya trading canoe. Given the currents, this seems
unlikely, but not impossible.
More significant is Pendergast’s find of a Taino vomit ladle in a grave at the
Classic Period site of Altun Ha, Belize. Even if it could float, it could not have drifted
1 Report submitted to the FAMSI Journal of the Ancient Americas, November 2006.
across the Yucatan Channel. Anything caught in the Yucatan Current is bound for
Florida or beyond. The ladle would have come via canoe (Graham, 2002).
Dicey Taylor and Chris Jones have investigated Taino ball courts. The
Mesoamerican ball game seems to have leapt the Yucatan Channel in the Classic and
quickly spread eastward from island to island. At La Aleta in the Domincan Republic
there is monumental architecture, a ball court, and a cenote containing sacrifices (Beeker,
1999). On Puerto Rico, Dr. Jones found parallel-walled courts near Utuado and at Tibes,
10 courts at each site. All were more recent than 650 AD, and were called “batay”, “a
word that seems to appear in Classic Maya inscriptions in reference to ball playing”
(Jones, Taylor, 2001).
Most remarkable is the recent tracing by mineralogist George Harlow of
Preclassic jadeite “axes” found on the Island of Antigua back to their parent mines - in
Guatemala. Antigua is nearly 3000 km east of the Motagua valley as the crow flies, and
3500 km island hopping via Cuba, Hispanola, etc. Rocks don’t float. Only by canoe
could they have made their way across the entire Caribbean (Petit, 2006).
A unique and valuable trade item tends to become more valuable as it is traded
farther from the source. The incentive is to profit by continuing to trade it until one of
three things happens: an owner can’t bear to part with it, it reaches a cultural area where
it is not valued, or it reaches the bitter end of the trade route. For the jadeite axes found
on Antigua, the second and third may have both applied. Antigua was the far eastern
edge of the Taino cultural area and of the Caribbean island chain.
Maurice Ries reportedly found a small amount of “Maya sherds and obsidian
implements on the western tip of Cuba” (William R. Coe II, 1957, pg 280). If a Maya
entrepot ever existed in Cuba, even for a short time, a logical place to look would be in
the Los Colorados Archipelago off the north coast of western Cuba. Any island mound
groups would be modest and possibly partly submerged, something like Wild Cane or
Frenchmans Cays in Belize. If they exist, they have probably not been noted, or just
assumed to be a minor Taino or Guana-Hatabey site. It is equally possible such a site
does not exist, but it would be instructive to check.
Larry Koenig, a sea kayaker, has plans to complete his circumnavigation of the
Gulf of Mexico by paddling the last leg from Yucatan to Florida. He had originally
thought to cross the Yucatan Channel and then coast along the north shore of Cuba.
Instead he plans to ride the Yucatan Current and Gulf Stream directly from Isla Mujeres
to the Dry Tortugas.
It has nothing to do with politics. He calculates that it would take three days
either to ferry 200 km across the Yucatan Straits to Cabo San Antonio in Cuba, or three
days to ride with the currents 600 km all the way to the Dry Tortugas 110 km from Key
West. The second choice is simply more efficient. Koenig’s estimates seem informed,
considering that he and Arthur Hebert have kayaked the Gulf Coast from Key West to
Isla Mujeres. In 1998 Arthur Hebert spent 20 days at sea paddling 900 km from Isla
Mujeres straight across the Gulf to New Orleans (Hebert, 1998).
A dangerous three-day sea crossing requires a stronger driver than symbolic
games and vomit ladles. What the main object of Maya-Taino trade might have been is
unclear, but the 18th century Florida-Cuba trade might offer some clues. William
Bartram listed trade goods moving each way: deerskins, furs, dried fish, beeswax, honey,
(from introduced honeybees), and bear’s oil from Florida, and “spirituous liquors, coffee,
sugar, and tobacco” from Cuba. All are perishables that, except for liquor bottles, would
leave no long-term trace at either end (Bartram 1791, pg 193).
In trying to locate the source of a note that the Maya traders took three days to
cross the channel to Cuba, the author revisited several other citations often used to claim
that the Spanish in Cuba had reports of Yucatan before it was located by Europeans. On
his fourth voyage, Columbus did collect an unequivocal reference to Yucatan prior to its
European discovery, but not from Cuba. Maya sea traders, whom he met in the Bay
Islands of Honduras, clearly indicated that their homeland was west. Columbus, for
unexplained reasons, sailed east and missed the chance to explore the “Land of Deer and
An oft-cited "mainland ten days journey away", from Columbus's first voyage,
doesn't seem to mean much. Columbus understood "that from there to the mainland
would be a sail of ten days by reason of the notion he had derived from the chart or
picture which the Florentine had sent him" (Columbus, 1493, pg 131). “There” was in
eastern Cuba, and no mainland was remotely ten days away by native standards.
Yucatan was about 1400 km west, and Florida about 900 km west and north. The “ten
days” appears to be a combination of poor work by his Taino translator and of
preconceived notions on his part. Columbus later noted that, unaided by currents, an
average day's canoe travel was 7 leagues (about 30 km), which sounds about right for
daylight coastal travel.
On the other hand, direct trade between Cuba and mainland Florida seems well
documented for the period before and after Spanish contact, and probably began much
earlier. The Spanish in Cuba soon had vague references from Native Americans to
“lands to the northward” which inspired Ponce de Leon to go in search of the Isle of
Bimini – not Florida.
There is a telling reference in Herrera’s account of the discovery of Florida
indicating that the people of the Lucayos (the Bahamas) were already well aware of the
mainland. Thinking that Florida was an island, De Leon and his companions were
confused by the people of Florida each giving the name of their own province when
asked what land it was. The Bahamian guides, whom the Spanish had brought along,
sorted it out for them. “It was called Cautio, a name that the Lucayos Indians gave to that
land because the people of it covered certain parts of their body with palm leaves”
(Herrera, 1513, pg 22).
After leaving Florida, De Leon sailed “southwest a quarter west” from the Dry
Tortugas “with the intention of discovering on the way some islands of which the Indians
that they carried gave them information”. Sailing west of south compensated for the Gulf
Stream setting them eastward, and the bearing took them straight to Cuba, though to a
part not yet explored by the Spanish (Herrera, 1513, pg 20-21).
Cornell University's ornithology site on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker references
the Precolumbian Florida-Cuba trade. "Early explorers noted a considerable trade in live
birds between peoples of Cuba and peninsular Florida. Native Americans placed great
value on these (Ivory-billed) woodpeckers." Jackson speculated that the Ivory-billed
Woodpecker might have entered Cuba through this trade (Jackson, 2004).
Several Timucuan words are Taino loan words. Not being a linguist, I will just
quote. The source is Julian Granberry, A Grammar and Dictionary of the Timucua
Language, The University of Alabama Press, 1993. The specific words are hinino (from
Taino hynino 'tobacco') and casino (Ilex vomitoria). It has that three-syllable shape that
Taino words tend to have. There is another Timucua term for Ilex, ipopi, which derives
from the native term ipo ‘to charm or bewitch, to take medicine’. Ilex was the basis of
the quintessential ceremonial beverage in the Southeast, the "black drink," (still) used as a
purgative to cleanse the body before ceremonies.
It is also the secret ingredient in Coca Cola, which started out in Georgia as a
medicinal and then became a refreshment, like Smilax (zarza parilla), used as a medicinal
(for venereal disease) in the 16th century and which later became the "sasparilla"
famously drunk by wimps in Western movies” (Hopkins, 2006).
In the 18th century, at Talahasochte, far up the Suwanee River in northern Florida,
William Bartram witnessed the return of an 850 km trade voyage by canoe from Cuba
(1700 km round trip), and heard of others to the Bahamas. Their cypress canoes could
hold 20 to 30 warriors. The route mostly hugged the sheltered west coast of Florida but
ended with the most dangerous and difficult part - a 150 km crossing of the choppy
Florida Straits, swept by the powerful current of the Gulf Stream. The trip is less
challenging than one from Yucatan to Cuba but still serious. The crossing does have the
advantage of large “targets” on either side of the straits: the line of the Florida Keys to
the north and the coast of Cuba to the south. Paddlers would still have to angle westward
to avoid being swept far to the east while crossing.
In April of 2006 a 15 m dugout canoe was found in the Apalachicola River, in
northern Florida. The canoe is not ancient (only about 200 years old) but the design is
(Ensley, 2006). It is a pitpan, distinguished by projecting platform ends used as stances
for poling. Except for size, its design is identical to ones used from the Preclassic to the
present on both Caribbean and Central American waters. Of 55 Archaic canoes
examined from Newnans Lake, Florida, four showed similarities to the pitpan design,
though not fully developed. “The ends of the Newnans Lake canoes are upward sloping
and tapered, and some have a slight overhanging platform - typical end shapes formerly
thought to be associated only with more recent canoes” (Wheeler, 2003).
Finally, there are cultural similarities suggesting the possibility of diffusion of
some Maya cultural values into Florida and perhaps beyond. A flat karstland, with
sinkhole springs, central Florida is geologically the twin of northern Yucatan. At the
time of European contact, arguably the most advanced of the Mississippian societies was
the Calusa state in southern Florida. With planned towns, artificial canals and islands,
temple mounds, sophisticated art, and a kingdom the size of Ireland, it was as civilized as
many Mesoamerican polities (Arrington, 1997). On the minus side, not one Maya artifact
has been found in Florida, and two large sea crossings separate it from Yucatan. Without
finding something specifically made in the “Land of Deer and Turkey”, the transmission
of Maya concepts to Florida, either directly or via the Taino, remains only a tantalizing
1997 ”Learning from the Fierce People.” In American Archaeology, Vol 1 No. 2.
Badan, A., J. Candela, J.L Ochoa, J. Sheinbaum
1998 “The General Current Field in the Straits of Yucatan.” Intra-Americas Sea
1791 “TRAVELS through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, etc.”
Reprinted 1988, Penguin Books, New York, NY. Complete at
Beeker, Charles D., John W. Foster
1999 “Archaeological Study of a Limestone Sinkhole: Diving in Manantial de la Aleta,
East National Park, Dominican Republic.” Underwater Science Program, Indiana
Coe, William R. II
1957 “A Distinctive Artifact Common to Haiti and Central America.” American
Antiquity, Vol 22 No. 3, 1957.
1493 “Journal of the First Voyage of Columbus.” In American Journeys: a Digital
Library and Learning Center, Document No. AJ-062, Wisconsin Historical
Society. With notes by Bartolome de Las Casas.
2006 “Jade Axes Proof of Vast Ancient Caribbean Network, Experts Say.” National
Geographic News, 6-12-06.
Herrera y Tordesillas, Antonio de
1513 “Ponce de Leon, Voyages to Florida.” In American Journeys: a Digital Library
and Learning Center, Document No. AJ-095, Wisconsin Historical Society.
Hopkins, Nicholas A.
2006 “Island-Mainland Contact.” Aztlan Digest Vol 11, Issue 19.
2002 “Archaeology in Cuba.” Archaeology in Belize and the Caribbean,
http://www.belizecubadigs.com/cuba.html References David Pendergast’s find
of a Taino vomit ladle at Altun Ha, Belize and includes picture.
2006 “Old Canoe Draws Crowd.” In Tallahassee Democrat, 6-12-06, Tallahassee, FL
1998 “Yucatan to New Orleans by Sea Kayak.” http://seacajun.com/yucatan/path.htm
Hebert, Arthur, Larry Koenig
2004 “La Costa del Golfo Expedition.” http://www.lacostadelgolfo.com/index.html
Kayak expedition around the Gulf of Mexico, Key West to Isla Mujeres, in two
Jackson, Jerome. A.
2004 “In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.” Smithsonian Books, Washington,
2001 “The Ballcourts of Puerto Rico.” Precolumbian Society, lecture 5-12-01,
2001 “Taino: Ancient Voyagers of Sea and Spirit.” Precolumbian Society,
exhibit/lecture 12-8-01, Philadelphia, PA
Wheeler, Ryan, James J. Miller, Ray M. McGee, Donna Ruhl, Brenda Swann, Melissa
2003 “Archaic Period Canoes from Newnans Lake, Florida.” American Antiquity, Vol.