Home Up Background Sacbes Lagoon Edge Canal Trade Summary


Evidence for a man-made canal 

Mason's conviction: the canal is man-made

            The canal connecting the Muyil lagoon to the Chunyaxche lagoon was examined in some detail. It has been considered to be man-made since it was first documented by the Mason-Spinden Expedition:

            The more we studied the construction of this [canal] the more con­vinced were we that it was a canal, a canal made by the Mayas centuries ago. It ran nearly straight, and although its banks were covered with grass they were higher than the land behind, and on each side of the water and paralleling it could be seen the long mound of earth thrown out when the canal was dug. A barely perceptible current moved against us. (Mason 1927:161)

            Today the canal is a shallow (50-120-cm-deep), generally straight channel through an area of grasses growing in limestone mud. There is a steady flow of fresh water from west to east. The adjacent land surface is 10-20 cm higher than the water level. There is no evidence of the parallel mounds of earth which Mason reported.  

Field research along the canal

            Our investigations included sampling the canal bottom, the side walls of the canal, the bottom of the Chunyaxche lagoon at the outflow point, and the terrain adjacent to the channel. We sampled the canal bottom by scooping material from three different points along the canal length until we scraped bedrock. In none of these attempts did we recover artifacts, and we detected no masonry. Our shovel pits along the sides of the canal, at distances of up to 4 m from the edge of the canal, produced only limestone mud also. The shovel pits produced no evidence for man-made construction associated with this channel.

            In places, the sidewalls of the channel appear to be made of worked blocks of limestone. If the canal were stone-lined with dressed blocks, the proof of human construction would be clear. The first 'stones' we touched, however, dissolved into mud. It became apparent that the stones blocks we thought we had observed were illusions, formed in the limestone mud by water action. Additional testing of the side walls of the channel was conducted by probing them to a depth of 50 cm with a 5-cm-dia­meter, 2-m long, pointed steel rod. We searched for masonry side walls, but encountered only limestone mud.

            Due to the absence of artifacts, and the absence of any man-made construction along the canal, I am compelled to return to explanations of the canal that have little or no human involvement. I am inclined to accept the description offered by geologist George Flowers of the Department of Geology of Tulane University (personal communication, 1990) of the probable formation processes of the canal. He said that such outflow channels are common, and that they form naturally when different water levels (as between the Muyil and the Chunyaxche lagoons) result in a horizontal flow of water. The higher water level in the Muyil lagoon, due to the welling up of fresh water through openings in the karstic shelf on the lagoon bottom, produces a steady flow of water to the east that would naturally cut and maintain this outflow channel. The channel cuts through very low terrain (10-20 cm high) and crosses the narrowest part of the small strip of land separating the two lagoons.

            If we accept a natural origin of the canal, the earthen mounds reported by Mason (1927:161) must still be accounted for. The guardian of Muyil, Pedro Cobá Caamal reported to me in 1988 that the channel was cleared during its time of use (1920s or somewhat earlier) by General Juan Vega for chicle trade. If the canal was cleared, dredged, or straightened during the early part of the twentieth century, it would have appeared man-made to Mason in 1926. Such loose soil as was cast up on the banks would be swept away within several seasons or by one hurricane. Cobá Caamal's account, although quite plausible, is hearsay, since he must have been born five or more years after the Mason-Spinden Expedition. He was about age 25 in 1959, according to Peissel, and in his sixties by his own reckoning during our research in 1990.  

            The Muyil canal is, therefore, a natural water course that was probably cleared of grass and debris and perhaps deepened and straightened in the early part of this century. Since the temple at Vigía del Lago documents the use of the sea route in prehispanic times, the channel may also have been cleared by the preconquest inhabitants of Muyil.

© Copyright 2000-2005 Walter R. T. Witschey   Page last updated Wednesday, April 02, 2008