Forgotten Voyagers: The Ancient Mexican Merchants Who Took to the Seas
“They were all young, well built and not black but fairer than the other natives I have seen in the Indies. They were handsome with fine limbs and bodies, and long straight hair cut in the Spanish manner, and round their heads they wore a cotton cloth elaborately patterned in colours which I believe to be almarzares (Moorish headdresses)”.
- ‘The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus’, translated and edited by J.M. Cohen
The major seafaring group in Mexico were the Chontal Maya. They called themselves Putun. Much of what we know about the Putun seafarers comes from the research of Dr. Wiener, Peck, and Shatto. Shatto wrote a detailed Master Thesis on Chontal naval knowledge.
The Chontal and Their Origins
The Spanish names for many Mexican tribes are based on their names derived from the Nahuatl language. The Spanish referred to the Putun as Chontal from the Nahuatl word: chontalli (meaning ‘foreigner’).
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In ‘The Olmec-Chontal-Itzá-Centric Theory’, Douglas Peck argues that the Chontal were descendants of the Olmec people. Peck believes the Chontal should be called Itzaì and they were the group that spread writing, the Kukulcan myth, and mathematics first to the Yucatan and later the Maya lowlands and highland areas in Belize, Honduras, etc.
The Cascajal Tablet and the bilingual Maya-Olmec/Mande inscribed brick from Comalcalco indicate that some Maya and Olmec people spoke a variant of the Mande language. This may explain the discovery of many Mande terms in the Maya languages discovered by Dr. Wiener and Clyde Winters.
The Cascajal block and glyphs. (Taringa!)
Dr. Wiener was sure that many of these sailors and merchants seen by the Spanish explorers were Mande speakers. The language spoken by some of the Olmec/ Xi people was also the Mande language.
Dr. Leo Wiener was a Harvard Professor of Linguistics. He claimed the Putun were very wealthy. It has been shown that they traded salt, cocoa, waistcloths, tobacco, jade, and gold.
Chontal Jade Two Headed Serpent Found in Puerto Rico. (Atlantic Creole)
Dr. Wiener wrote in volume 3 of ‘Africa and the Discovery of America’:
“that the Negro civilization was carried chiefly by the trader is proved not only by Columbus’ specific references but also by the presence of the African merchant, the tangoman, as tiangizman in Mexico, hence Aztec tiangiz “markets”, and by the universality of the blue and white shell money from Canada to La Plata, and the use of shells as a coin in the Peru-Guatemala trade” (p.365).
According to Dr. Wiener, the Chontal Maya dominated trade from Mesoamerica all the way up to Canada. Wiener claimed that the Chontal included Arabic and Mande speaking merchants. This view is supported by A. Quatrefages in ‘Introduction a L'Etudes des Races Humaines.’ Quatrefages also identified the Chontal as a Black Native American tribe. There is a high frequency Y-Chromosome M-173 among the Ch’ol and Chontal at around 15%. The haplogroup R-M173 is not found in Siberia, but it is found in North America and Africa.
Dr. Leo Wiener. (Author provided) Dr. Wiener claimed that the Chontal included Arabic and Mande speaking merchants.
The Chontal Homeland and Trading Posts
The Chontal Maya originated along the coast of Tabasco. They lived in a region called Chontalpa (Place or Homeland of the Chontal) in the State of Tabasco.
This seafaring folk called themselves Putun, Yokot’anob or the Yokot’an. Yokot’anob means “the speakers of Yoko Ochoko.” The Yucatan Peninsula gets its name from the Yokat’an tribe which still lived on the Peninsula when the Spanish landed in Mexico.
The Putun claimed that they were descendants of the Olmecs or Xi people. Because of their control of trade, numerous non-Olmecs, like the Maya and Zoque-Mixe speakers, immigrated to Putun trading post. These trading posts eventually evolved into cities situated along the Mexican coast. The Putun/Chontal spoke a lingua franca, or trade language, that was composed of several Mexican dialects including Itza Maya, Yucatec Maya, Zapotec, and Zoque-Mixtec.
Colossal stone head of the Olmecs. (BigStockPhoto) The Chontal claimed that they were descendants of the Olmecs or Xi people.
The Putun established numerous trading posts in the United States on their way to Canada. This is supported by the discovery of Itza Maya, Yucatec Maya, and Totonac words present in Putun and in the Creek language which was formerly spoken in the Carolinas and Florida. In addition to Putun words in Creek, archaeologists have found attapulgite mined in Georgia that matched Maya Blue stucco, artifacts, horseshoe shaped ball courts, and earthen mounds like those found in contemporary Chontalpa in the Swift Creek Culture of the Southeastern United States.
The Putun boats were made of wooden planks. These seaworthy ships sailed along the rivers of Mexico and up the coast all the way to Canada. The Putun canoes were usually hollowed out from trees. R. Shatto, in ‘Maritime Trade and Seafaring of the PreColumbian Maya’, reported that Diaz del Casillo saw Maya canoes that could carry as many as 50 people. The ships were steered by rudders. On the deck, the Putun placed a cabin. The ships were propelled by oarsmen and sails. Other Putun sea craft was used to travel throughout the Atlantic Ocean into the Caribbean Islands. The ships built for long distance trade were usually 60 feet (18.29 meters) long.
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Chontal freight canoe. (peopleofonefire)
Evidence Suggesting the Chontal were Blacks
Dr. Wiener used linguistics, historical evidence, and the research of Quatrefages to claim the Chontal were Blacks. The Putun waistcloth was called maxtli. Dr. Wiener illustrated that maxtli is cognate to the Malinke-Bambara for adornment: masiti and misirili. He was sure that maxtili and masiti were cognate terms because the “x” is pronounced like a “s”.
Dr. Wiener also found a relationship between the Nahuatl term for merchant and words in Mande languages. In Soninke Mande languages, we find the term folom (rich man, merchant); which Wiener said corresponded to the Maya term polon (merchant). In addition, Wiener noted that the Maya term for marketplace according to Fray Toribio de Mololinia: tian-quiz-co, was derived from tan-goz-mao, a West African term for market.
The usual Maya term for black is ’Ek’. The merchant god signified by a spear, backpack, and staff was called Ekchuah. This was also the god of husbandmen and travelers. Thus, we see Blacks represented in many Maya codices as gods and merchants. As Dr. Wiener noted, the trader gods and merchants of the Maya were usually depicted as Blacks with large noses and thick lips.
A figure described as Ek Ahau, the Black Captain, war deity by Morley; or Ek Chuah according to other sources. (Public Domain)
There were many Maya people depicted in their documents that support this belief. In the Popol Vuh, it is noted that “And then the boys made fire with drill and roasted, the bird over the fire. And they coated one of the birds with plaster, they put gypsum on it” (p.86). It is interesting to note that the boys doing the drilling are depicted as Blacks in the Dresden and Tro-Cotesianus Codices.
Madrid Codex. Maya Codex also known as Tro-Cortesianus. (Michel wal/CC BY SA 3.0)
As a result, the color Black and Black individuals were recognized as important in Maya culture. The major Black gods were God C, Xaman, and Ekchuah. God C is a personification of the concept of sacredness. It has the phonetic value of ku or ch’in ‘deity or sacredness’. The Maya term for deity/god is related to the following Mande terms:
A comparison of Maya, English, and Mande terms related to the god of sacredness. (Author provided)
The jaguar pelt (or cushion) was the symbol of the ‘enthroned lord’. We see the jaguar pelt around the neck of the Black royal represented in the Chama vase. The Putun dignitary on the Chama vase was named Jaguar Ahau.
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Representation of the Chontal dignitary on the Chama vase named Jaguar Ahau. (Author provided)
Chontal merchants dominated trade from Classical Maya times up to the 1500’s. Most researchers agree that their trade dominance ended when the Spanish introduced European diseases that decimated them and other indigenous Mexicans. As a result, the Spanish eventually became the dominate trading group in Mexico.
Top image: A Chontal Maya sea craft. Source: Atlantic Creole
By: Clyde Winters
Incháustegui, Carlos. “Chontales de Tabasco / Yokot’anob o Yokot’an“, part of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista’s Pueblos Indígenas de México monograph series.
Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). “Tabasco Chontal“. Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
Peck, Douglas T. (2005). The Yucatan from Prehistoric Times to the Great Maya Revolt. Norman. NC: Exlibris; pp 167-174.
Peck, Douglas T. (2005). THE YUCATAN-FROM PREHISTORIC TIMES TO THE GREAT MAYA REVOLT: A NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE ORIGIN OF MAYA CIVILIZATION AND THE EPIC ENCOUNTER WITH SPANISH CONQUEST. 2005
Peck, Douglas T. (2000) “The Little Known Scientific Accomplishments of the Seafaring Chontal Maya from Northern Yucatan.”
Quatrefages, A de. (1889). Introduction a L'Etudes des Races Humaines. https://archive.org/details/histoiregnralede00quat
Shatto, Rahilla Corinne Abbas. Maritime Trade and Seafaring of the PreColumbian Maya. A Thesis. Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A & M University, Master of Arts ,1998.
Clyde Winters, Olmec Language and Literature. Createspace,2015. https://www.amazon.com/Olmec-Language-Literature-Clyde-Winters/dp/1507587244
Clyde Winters (2011). Olmec (Mande) Loan Words in the Mayan, Mixe-Zoque and Taino Languages, Current Research Journal of Social Sciences 3(3): 152-179. http://maxwellsci.com/print/crjss/v3-152-179.pdf