2,000-Year-Old Carving and 16th Century Manuscript Reveal Some Maya Came from Across the Sea

2,000-Year-Old Carving and 16th Century Manuscript Reveal Some Maya Came from Across the Sea


The Popol Vuh, a corpus of mythological and historical narratives according to the Quiché-Maya people, and Izapa Stela 5, a carved stela found at the ancient Mesoamerican site of Izapa in Mexico, provide a fascinating insight into Mexican history. In fact, together, they may reveal that some of the ancestors of the Quiché-Maya came from across the sea.

Popol Vuh Reveals Foreign Origins

In the English translation of the Popol Vuh, it reads: “We shall write about this now amid the preaching of God, in Christendom now. We shall bring it out because there is no longer a place to see it, a Council Book, a place to see “The Light That Came from Beside the Sea”, the account of “Our Place in the Shadows”, a place to see “The Dawn of Life” …… (Tedlock, 1992, p.63).

The Popol Vuh refers to their ancestors coming from the East, which is a significant statement.  East of the Maya would be the Gulf Region.

The Popol Vuh continues: “They didn’t know where they were going. They did this for a long time, when they were there in the grasslands: the black people, the white people, people of many faces, people of many languages, uncertain there at the edge of the sky” (Tedlock, 1992, pp.149-150).

An 18th century translation of the Popol Vuh

An 18th century translation of the Popol Vuh. ( Public Domain )


Izapa Stela 5 is Consistent with the Popol Vuh

Izapa-style art is characterized by upright stone stelae found at the site of Izapa, situated near Tapachula, Chiapas. Izapa is located on the Pacific coastal plain in an area known as Soconusco.

The Izapa stela no.5 is one of many carved stelae found at Izapa which date from roughly 300 BC to 50 BC. This monument has interesting iconographic representations that support some of the migration stories handed down from generation to generation by the Mexicans.

Night photography of stela 5 at Izapa ruins, Tapachula, Mexico.

Night photography of stela 5 at Izapa ruins, Tapachula, Mexico. ( CC by SA 3.0 )

The research of the New World Archaeological Foundation indicates that this site has been continuously occupied since 1500 BC. Much of what we know about the art from Izapa comes from the work of Virginia Smith's Izapa Relief Carving (1984), Garth Norman's Izapa Sculpture (1976) and Jacinto Quirarte's Izapan-Style Art (1973). Garth Norman of the New World Archaeological Foundation has published many of the stone stelae and altars found at Izapa and has discussed much of their probable religious significance.

Symbology of Stela 5

The stela no.5 records many glyphic elements common to other pre-classic artifacts including the jaguar, falling water, mountain, bird, dragon tree, serpent, and fish motifs. This stela also provides many elements that relate to Mexican and Maya traditions, as accurately analyzed by Norman (pages 165-236). Some ideological factors not fully discussed in regards to this stela are elements linked to the Olmec religion and the migration traditions of the Mexicans.

Ancient Migration Stories of Mexico

The Maya were not the first to occupy the Yucatan and Gulf regions of Mexico. It is evident from Maya traditions and the artifacts recovered from many ancient Mexican sites that a different race lived in the area before the Mayan speakers settled this region. The linguistic evidence suggests that a new linguistic group arrived in the Gulf region of Mexico at around 1200 BC.

M. Swadesh (1953) has presented evidence that at least 3,200 years ago, a non-Maya speaking group wedged itself between the Huastecs and the Maya.

Ruins at Izapa, Chiapas, Mexico.

Ruins at Izapa, Chiapas, Mexico. ( Eduardo Robles Pacheco / flickr )

Traditions mentioned by Bernardino Sahagun, a missionary priest who participated in the Catholic evangelization of Mexico, record Mexico’s settlement story. Sahagun says that these "Eastern settlers of Mexico landed at Panotha, on the Mexican Gulf. Here they remained for a time until they moved south in search of mountains”.

Friar Diego de Landa, in Yucatan Before and After the Conquest , wrote that "some old men of Yucatan say that they have heard from their ancestors that this country was peopled by a certain race who came from the East, whom God delivered by opening for them twelve roads through the sea" (p.28).

This tradition is most interesting because it probably refers to the twelve migrations to Mexico. This view is also supported by Stela 5 from Izapa. In Izapa Stela 5 we see a group of men on a boat riding the waves.

An illustration of Izapa Stela 5.

An illustration of Izapa Stela 5. ( CC by SA 3.0 )

It is clear that Stela No.5 is not only symbolic of the tree of life, it also supports the traditional accounts recorded by Friar Diego de Landa that people made twelve migrations to the New World. In the center of the boat on Stela No.5, we find a large tree. This tree has seven branches and twelve roots. The seven branches probably represent the seven major clans of the immigrants, while the twelve roots of the tree extending into the water from the boat probably signify the "twelve roads through the sea", mentioned by Friar Diego Landa.

This stela also supports the tradition recorded by the famous Maya historian Ixtlixochitl, that some people came to Mexico in "ships of barks " and landed at Potonchán, which they commenced to populate.

The Mexican migration accounts and the depictions on Izapa stela 5, probably relate to a segment of the ancient Mexicans who landed in boats in Panotha or Pantla (the Huasteca) and moved along the coast as far as Guatemala. This would correspond to the non-Maya speaking group detected by Morris Swadesh that separated the Maya and Huasteca speakers 2000 years ago.

Top image:   The Third creation of the Universe by Toniná Divine Lords, Garra of Jaguar (left) amd Kinich Baknal Chaal (right). National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

By Dr. Clyde Winters


Friar Diego de Landa, Yucatan Before and After the Conquest . Translated by William Gates (1937),

Garth Norman, Izapa Sculpture, 1976.

Jacinto Quorate, Izapan -Style Art , 1973.

Virginia Smith, Izapa Relief Carving, Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology , No. 27, 1984.

Morris Swadesh. The Language of the Archaeological Haustecs. 1953.

Clyde Winters, Atlantis in Mexico: The Mande Discovery of America .

Clyde Winters, African Empires in Ancient America .


Clyde Winters's picture

Thanks for information on   Frauke Sachse and  Allen J. Christenson’s , Tulan and the Other Side of the Sea: Unraveling a Metaphorical Concept from Colonial Guatemalan Highland Sources. Sache and Christenson argue that : h'aqa palo "across the sea," releb'al q'ij "where the sun emerges," that is from the east., is a metaphor. Their discussion is interesting, but the support for the theory they present is based on Aztec and other Central Mexican traditions about the underworld, when the Quiche concept  of "h'aqa palo  releb'al q'ij", literally meant “across the sea from the east”, not a metaphor for the otherword.

Sache and Christenson believes that Tulan Zuyua, refers to an out of worldly place. This is their opinion.

Tedlock translated Zuyua as “twisted speech”, because it was a secret language that Elites had to know, before they could assume positions of leadership. In Quiche the term Tulan  has been interpreted as “a city or house that has been abandoned” ; or  a “palace, or manor-house”. In  reality the term Zuyua is an Olmec word that relates to the Mayan system of Higher Education.

In the Chilam Balam of Chumayel ,  Zuiva is spelled Zuyua. This document declares that the “head chiefs” of towns were periodically examined in the language of Zuyua.

The language of Zuyua, was suppose to have been understood by the Mayan elites. Scholars are not sure about the meaning of the mysterious term Zuyua.

 Zuyua is an Olmec term.  The actual sound value of /z/ in Olmec is /s/. Thusly, Zuyua = Olmec su-yu-a, and Zuiva= su-i-wa .  Su-yu-a  translated in Olmec, means “Shaper of Life”, while Su-i-wa, means “The Shaper of Good”, or “ The thing which hurries your welfare”.

The Olmec translations of Su-i-wa and Su-yu-a , are associated with leadership, and the role of both secular and religious leaders in the community,  make them sematically appropriate terms to interpret Zuyua and Zuiva, because, a priest or chief is a shaper of the welfare of his people it was only natural that this specialists probably had to know secret terms and symbols to manifest the great power(s) surrounding his office.

The Maya had to learn Olmec at the Mayan Universities as I discussed in my article “ Hidden in the Glyphs: Deciphering Bilingual Mayan-Olmec Text”,

Most researchers fail to understand literacy among the Maya because they don’t acknowledge the fact that the Maya had a system of Higher Education, to accommodate the construction of pyramids and writing hieroglyphics.

In summary Tulan Zuyua probably means “Manor of the Shapers of Good”, i.e., the place were elites are trained and tested. Clearly, Sache and Christenson’s hypothesis that the Quiche ancestors came from the East, from across the Sea, was a metaphor has no support from the Quiche. If  relib'al q'ij , that is "where the sun emerges,"  was a Quiche metaphor, the authors should have found evidence from the Quiche, instead of using Aztec and Central Mexican  ideologies  to explain Quiche traditions.

Excellent study done on the meaning of the word Mayan word Tulan.

I tend to believe that the Maya originated in South East Asia.

Please detail the documentation for your claim that the jade was from China and the the existence of the Chins.

Clyde Winters's picture

Can you cite the source that claims the jade at Chichen Itza came from China. Jade artifacts were made not only in China, they were also made in Mexico and Saharan Africa  around the same time. Archaeologists claim the Mayan jade probably came from Guatemala and Honduras. 


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