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The Hidden Coastal Culture of the Ancient Maya

for Hakai

Vista Alegre, a ruin of a town near the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, was once a bustling outpost. Dozens of canoes crowded the harbor, loaded down with dyes from the west, jade from the south, and obsidian from mountains hundreds of kilometers away. The sound of trumpeting conch shells periodically sliced the air—an alert from sentries scanning the horizon from platforms attached to stone structures. The call signaled an incoming boat—to trade or, perhaps, to plunder.

Within the town, the smell of fish hung heavy in the air as fishermen hurried about with their catches slung across their backs. They passed a man outside his hut hacking a pile of decorative shells into portable sizes for the next outgoing canoe. In another hut, a woman was using salt from a town to the south to dry freshly caught fish that would then be shipped to cities far away. And all the while, smoke from a signal fire atop a pyramid guided exhausted ocean travelers to safe harbor.

Today, a thousand years later, the town isn’t much to look at. Centuries of accumulated dirt and vegetation cover the pyramids. Trees growing on various structures have succumbed to gravity, tumbling and taking with them massive stone blocks once perfectly fitted together.

Though part of the ancient Maya world, which stretched from here all the way into modern-day El Salvador, Vista Alegre lacks the grandeur of many sites. It doesn’t have the dozens of glistening pyramids that lure millions of tourists to Chichén-Itzá, the enticing carvings of Palenque, or the vibrant murals of Bonampak. In fact, were it not for a single pyramid in the middle of a handful of crumbling structures, you might miss its human past altogether. But this small port town at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico was once part of a complex network of coastal commerce that dominated the ancient world but has been understudied by academics and ignored by the public. Because, unlike Chichén-Itzá or Palenque or Bonampak in the interior of the country, time has nearly erased coastal ports like Vista Alegre from history.

It’s part of a growing collection of archaeological sites revealing a complex and cosmopolitan network of sea traders with their own culture and traditions, who are at once separated from and deeply tied to their more famous compatriots deep in the Yucatan jungles.

“Our knowledge of markets and the role of markets is changing in the Maya area,” says Jeffrey Glover, an archaeologist at Georgia State University. Glover stands on a cluster of exposed blocks at the top of Vista Alegre’s steep central pyramid with its commanding view of the coastline. Looking out, he seems to see the town as it once was, even describing it in the present tense. “There are a lot of people there that need stuff and that want stuff. And they’re probably getting gold from as far south as Panama and Costa Rica, with turquoise that’s coming from the American Southwest.”

Glover and his colleague Dominique Rissolo have been exploring this small site for more than a decade. When they first came to this undeveloped coastline over two hours northwest from Cancún by car and then boat, they expected a small town dependent on the fortunes of the much larger Chichén-Itzá—a nameless cog in the machinery of a great city only 125 kilometers away. But that’s not what they found. Vista Alegre predates the larger city by hundreds of years. The people here ate differently, had different fashions, and traded an astounding diversity of precious things from around Meso-America.

And there was something else here that the archeologists did not expect. The town’s central 10.6-meter-high pyramid is oddly steeper than others in the region—made possible by an unusual concrete recipe that connects its stones and is usually found hundreds of kilometers to the west. This innovation, presumably gleaned from passing travelers, allowed them to build a pyramid tall enough to let them see for a great distance in all directions but with fewer blocks than typical pyramids.

“It blew me away when I saw it. I hadn’t seen anything like that anywhere in this region,” says Rissolo, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego. “There’s a certain kind of cosmopolitan nature to the site, where people are exposed to different styles and different traditions.”

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