Ancient Mesoamerica


Ancient Maya Trading Ports and the Integration of Long-Distance and Regional Economies: Wild Cane Cay in South-Coastal Belize

Heather McKillopa1

a1 Department of Geography and Anthropology, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803-4105, USA


The importance of Maya sea trade was the sea's integrating role as provider of ritual and subsistence resources and ritual symbolism in the Maya economy. Coastal as opposed to inland transportation of obsidian and other exotics was enhanced because of coastal–inland exchange within the southern Maya lowlands. Results are presented on fieldwork conducted to investigate Maya sea trade by the South Coastal Archaeology in Belize (SCAB) project in the Port Honduras area of south-coastal Belize between Punta Gorda and Punta Negra. The research focused on identifying features characteristic of Maya trading ports that participated in long-distance trade and their impact on regional economies. The first part of the project, with fieldwork in 1982, identified the offshore island site of Wild Cane Cay as a trading port from the Classic through Postclassic periods (a.d. 300–1500). The discovery of some 30 sites during the second phase of the project, dating from the Protoclassic through the Postclassic periods (a.d. 1–1500), indicated that the coastal area had a long period of settlement in contrast to the inland area of southern Belize where settlement was concentrated during the Late Classic period (a.d. 600–900). The patterns of distribution of similar-sourced obsidian, and blades instead of cores within the south-coastal area indicated that some exotics were regionally distributed and that Wild Cane Cay was the nexus of regional distribution. The importance of coastal-inland exchange is underscored by the presence of specialized salt-production sites, coastal resources, and inland goods—notably “unit-stamped” pottery and moldmade figurine whistles.