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 .


Some old men said Icarus flew on wings of feathers, wax and string. That is not proof that it actually happened.
I will how ever give credit where credit is due. Not once did Clyde make the incredible claim that the Maya's "ancestors from the east" were Africans.
The Maya are Native Americans in good standing and genomic studies place them firmly in the same group as Kennewick Man and all other pre columbian remains as well as all modern Native Americans other than Eskimos. There is absolutely no genetic evidence pointing to a separate origin for the Maya or any other native group.
As to the supposed 'boat' depicted on the stele, it is not a boat at all. It is quite clearly a Chinampa. A traditional rectangular floating agricultural plot native to Meso-America. Chinampas are floating platforms anchored to the bottom of shallow lakes and ponds by planting trees on them. Later, other crops are planted and harvested and some, like the one depicted on the stele are planted as pleasure gardens. Today they are most often seen in the Xochimilco (place of Flowers in Nahuatl) district of Mexico City where they are referred to as "The Floating Gardens".

Now, it's been some time since last I read the Popol Vuh but, for the life of me I do not recall any reference to the Maya having come "from the East" but. maybe I'm just getting old...LOL! Guess I'll have to drag it out and read it again.

Thank you, Dr. Winters, for supplying the quotes. It is much appreciated. :)

Clyde Winters's picture

POPOL VUH: THE MAYAN BOOK OF THE DAWN OF LIFE , translated by Dennis Tedlock with commentary based on the ancient  knowledge of the modern Quiche Maya.



“The lords of Quiche consulted their book when they sat in council, and their name for it was Popol Vuh or "Council Book." Because this book contained an account of how the forefathers of their own lordly lineages had exiled themselves from a faraway city called Tulan, they sometimes described it as "the writings about Tulan." Because a later generation of lords had obtained the book by going on a pilgrimage that took them across water on a causeway, they titled it<b> "The Light That Came from Across the Sea." </b>And because the book told of events that happened before the first sunrise and of a time when the forefathers hid themselves and the stones that contained the spirit familiars of their gods in forests, they also titled it "Our Place in the Shadows."


“AND THIS IS OUR ROOT, WE WHO ARE THE QUICHE PEOPLE. And there came to be a crowd of penitents and sacrificers.*(351) It wasn't only four who came into being then, but there were four mothers for us, the Quiche people. There were different names for each of the peoples when they multiplied, there in the east. Their names became numerous: Sovereign Oloman, Cohah, Quenech Ahau, as the names of the people who were there in the east are spoken. They multiplied, and it is known that the Tams and Ilocs began then.<b> They came from the same place, there in the east.</b>” (p.87).

“There was nothing they could offer for sustenance, but even so they lifted their faces to the sky. They didn't know where they were going. They did this for a long time, when they were there in the grasslands: black people, white people, people of many faces, people of many languages, uncertain, there at the edge of the sky. “(p.88)

“Such was the disappearance and loss of Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night,<b> Mahucutah, and True Jaguar, the first people to come across the sea, from the east.</b> They came here in ancient times. When they died they were already old. They had a reputation for penitence and  sacrifice.”(p.107)


“AND THEN THEY REMEMBERED WHAT HAD BEEN SAID ABOUT THE EAST. This is when they remembered the instructions of their fathers. The ancient things received from their fathers were not lost. The tribes gave them their wives, becoming their fathers-in-law as they took wives. And there were three of them who said, as they were about to go away<b>: "We are going to the east, where our fathers came from,"</b> they said, then they followed their road. The three of them were representative sons: Cocaib was the name of the son of Jaguar Quitze who represented all the Cauecs.*(447) Coacutec was the name of the son of Jaguar Night who served as the sole representative of the Greathouses. Coahau was the name of the only son of Mahucutah, representing the Lord Quiches. So these are the names of those who went across the sea. There were only three who went, but they had skill and knowledge. Their being was not quite that of mere humans. They advised all their brothers, elder and younger, who were left behind. They were glad to go: "We're not dying. We're coming back," they said when they went, yet it was these same three who went clear across the sea. And then they arrived in the east; they went there to receive lordship. Next comes the name of the lord with dominion over those of the east, where they arrived.”(p.107)

That quote is not from the Popol Vuh. Where is the quote from the Popol Vuh that "refers to their ancestors coming from the East?"

Clyde Winters's picture

Here  is the Quote:"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."




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