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Ancient canoe found on Belize research dig

11:00:21 AM CDT - Friday, October 06, 2006

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

An ancient canoe – more than likely the oldest canoe ever uncovered in Mesoamerica – was discovered this summer in a cliff-top cave in Belize by an excavation team being led by WSU archaeologist Keith Prufer.

Prufer estimates the canoe very likely dates to 200 to 800 AD, based on previous findings in the area. Carbon testing is currently being wrapped up to confirm that the canoe is indeed the oldest found in Mesoamerica, the geographical region from around central Mexico extending down through Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and part of Costa Rica.

ancient canoe
Courtesy photo
WSU archaeologist Keith Prufer stands next to an ancient canoe he and an excavation team discovered in a cliff-top cave of an ancient Mayan village in Belize.
It's also the first pre-Columbian canoe ever found in a Mayan area, Prufer said. The cave appeared to have been used as a royal burial crypt and has the remains of an ancient tomb.

"It's unlikely it was a canoe just being stored in a cave that we had to use 200 feet of climbing rope to get to," said Prufer, about the canoe's placement.

Mayan ancient religious beliefs involve travels over water in the underworld. Canoes also were associated with celestial patterns, Prufer said, referring to a Mayan myth involving "paddler gods" who travel through the Milky Way.

In visiting with local villagers, who have helped Prufer and his research team in the excavations, Prufer was told they had seen the canoe more intact and filled with organic matter in the past. Looters had damaged the canoe and tomb by the time Prufer's team arrived.

Prufer has been conducting archaeological research in southern Belize for more than 13 years, but in recent years he's been concentrated at Uxbenka, an important but rarely studied ruin in the remote rainforest of southern Belize.

The Uxbenka project is part of Belize's mandate to "expand investigations in parts of the country where there have been few archaeological studies," according to Jaime Awe, director of the Belize Institute of Archaeology.

Prufer recently was awarded nearly $124,000 from the National Science Foundation to continue his work at Uxbenka, which has a rich history despite being discovered just 30 years ago.

Prufer's interest in studying the political history of the rise and fall of smaller Mayan cities and how they interacted with larger, more powerful urban centers is evident as he relates some of what has been uncovered at Uxbenka.

According to Prufer, ancient carved monuments at the site describe a relationship with Tikal, Guatemala, one of the most powerful states in the entire Mayan world when Uxbena was first developing.

Among Prufer's discoveries are ancient stone ballcourt markers. These immense, round markers were the equivalent of a goal or field marker in a game played with a weighted solid rubber ball. The game was a sort of ancient form of soccer, but in addition to showing athletic prowess among the Mayan villages, it also had political and religious ramifications.

With the new NSF grant, Prufer hopes to set up a field school for WSU students to join him and his team for five weeks a year during the next three years. One of the items on his to-do list for next year is to recover the canoe and excavate the cave, which will be no small feat.

"This will be a big deal," said Prufer, "since parts of the canoe are very fragile. Parts of it do have a lot of integrity, too."

The canoe will be packed in a snug cocoon of foam, lowered by a boom down the 200-foot cliff and walked out of the rainforest by laborers and then picked up by helicopter.

Some of Prufer's past archaeological finds – a wooden bench and large wooden figurine used as a royal scepter – are now on display in the Belize National Museum after having been restored. The canoe will eventually land there as well.

In addition to the archaeological excavations, Prufer's team is also working with local Mayan villages around Uxbenka to make sure that local people, who are descendants of the ancient Maya, benefit from the research.

Along with cultural anthropologist Rebecca Zarger from the University of South Florida, Prufer has been working to set up educational and tour guide training programs in the nearby village of Santa Cruz.

"These people are living in the midst of an ancient site so it's a benefit for them to know what it is that we're doing," he said.

"Uxbenka is located in a stunning park-like setting." It's the kind of location ecotourists would find "perfect," Prufer said.



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