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The watercraft of the Chontal and Itza Mayas

The watercraft of the Chontal and Itza Mayas


Linguistics can be as important time machine into the past as genetics

The Oklahoma Muskogee word for a canoe is now written as pila, but it was pira in the Southeast.  Pira is also the Panoan (eastern Peru) word for canoe.  When at age six, I foolishly paddled into the Okefenokee Swamp, I was in a square ended, shallow-draft canoe that swampers called a pireau . . . obviously the French version of pira.  However, all the other Southeastern Creek words associated with navigation and trade are pure Itza Maya words.

The Creek pira was still being used in the Okefenokee Swamp, when I was a child. Florida Seminoles continue to build piras from cypress logs.

The Cho’i-te (Chontal Maya) of the Tabasco coastal marshes were the supreme mariners of the Pre-Columbian Americas.  Their homeland is identical to the tidal marshes of the South Atlantic Coast between Charleston and Jacksonville or the mouth of the Apalachicola River on the Gulf of Mexico.   As the established colonies elsewhere in Mesoamerica, they also were called the Tamate, Tamauli, Tamahiti,  Potan, Potafa and if mixed with Nahua Peoples, the Tamatli.   Guess what?  All six of those words can be found among Native American towns in the Lower Southeastern United States.

The Itza-te (Itza Maya) were originally the same people as the Cho’i-te and Tama-te, but lived in the highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala.  As indicated by their “te” suffix for “people”, they were not ethnic Mayas, but over the past 1400 years have absorbed many ethnic Maya words.  During the Classic Period (200 AD – 900 AD) they were considered illiterate barbarians by the true Mayas living to the east and north.   They only built earthen mounds and stone-walled terrace complexes during that era.   As can be seen below, a Chontal Maya town was virtually identical to a Muskogean town.  Itza terrace complexes were identical in every detail to those in northern Georgia and east-central Alabama.

There is little doubt that both the Cho’i-te and Itza-te came to the Southern Highlands.  At the beginning of the 18th century, the two principal towns in the Nacoochee Valley of northeastern Georgia were Chote and Itsate.   Near the mouth of the Little Tennessee River, the Cherokees took over a town named Itsate during the early 1720s.   According to Cherokee tradition, Itsate’s “nickname” was Chote.  Over time that became its better known name.   When the Cherokees established a new capital on the site of a Kansa town on the Oostanaula River, they called it, E-chote.   The E prefix is pure Itza grammar, now also used much more extensively by Creek languages.  Its use means “principal town” of a province named Chote.   Thus, when De Soto’s chroniclers stated that they entered the town of Ychiaha,  they meant the capital of the province of Chiaha.  Chiaha is an Itza word which means “Salvia River.”  In 16th century Castilian,  the letter Y indicated a long E sound. 

A typical Chontal Maya town in the coastal marshes of Tabasco State, Mexico around 1000 years ago. Note the horseshoe shaped ball court.

Canoes and boats built from lumber

At some point in the past, the Chontal and Itza Mayas began to build canoes and boats out of wooden boards, rather than hollowed logs.  These canoes and boats were much lighter, plus had higher side walls, thus could cross ocean water with larger cargoes.  Just like Scandinavian boats and ships, these craft were “sewn” together with ropes dipped in pitch, plus wooden pegs.  They had exactly the same nautical qualities as Viking longships.   Another change was that they were designed with high prows and sterns so that ocean waves were less likely to splash into the interior of the boat.  Indigenous Americans never developed the technology of a steerable rudder.    Interestingly enough, Itsate (Proto-Creeks) living near Lake Okeechobee, Florida and in Georgia constructed high bows and sterns like the Maya canoes, but they were carved out of solid logs, not assembled from boards.

An Itza Maya canoe  in a riverine swamp


Chontal Maya  coastal cargo boat


Itza war boat


The Chontal Maya Sea Craft had woven split cane sails and was about the same size as a Viking Longboat.


The canoes on Lake Okeechobee, Florida looked like plank-built canoes, but were carved from solid timbers.




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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    My understanding has been that “piraeu” came from the French pirogue ‘canoe’. But then, where did “pirogue” come from? I found this:
    1660s, from French pirogue, probably from Galibi (a Carib language) piragua “a dug-out.” Compare Spanish piragua (1530s).

    –Steve Jett

    • The Creek word for a canoe is definitely from the Panoan word. I suspect that the Arawak word, Piroque evolved from the Panoan word also. We didn’t call it a piroque, but a pireau or piro. Waycross was originally called Tebeauville and was founded by French Acadians. However, the Okefenokee Swamp was occupied by Creeks until the 1890s, when timber companies filed deeds for the watery landscape in order to cut down all the virgin cypress trees. The Creeks then spread out around the edge of the swamp and initially worked for the turpentine industry as foremen for African-American laborers.


    Stephan J. and Richard T., The words Piragua, Pira and Pila for canoe is very similar to the Island Southeast Asian and Oceanic word Perahu (also Prahu, Prau, Proa). As you know; fairly recent dna research found Oceanic DNA in some South American natives/tribes.
    Maybe Perahu is related (direct origin?) of Piragua later shortend to Pera which became Pira and Pila.

    Additional info on wikipedia:


    Richard, This type of flat board boat roped together certainly reminds me of ancient ships found by the Egyptian Pyramids (3000 BC). The Irish (Togha?) have some lore about connections with the Egyptians and the more accurate name of the first Irish people were called “Tuatha”. The newest DNA finds of the first Irish do have a Middle Eastern connection. The Tuatha arrived in advance ships which created “a dark cloud” perhaps primitive steamboats?
    It was passed on from the Egyptian lore that “Thoth” brought the written script in a boat from the West and there are many connections with the Micmac people of Newfoundland script and Egypt’s according to Dr. fell works. The Irish lore is the Tuatha lived on a island West of them….the Azores? The Greeks called the Azores “Ogygia” and also the island Gozo by Malta. Does that word have any meaning in a Native language?


    Can you share your sources for the claim Mayan canoes had sails? because many other authors have stated that the Classic (and pre-Conquest) Maya probably did not possess boats with sails as all images of naval vehicles in Maya art that only depict canoes without sails, plus the only know vessels with sails in the Pre-Columbian Americas used by South American Pacific coast natives seem to have worked with latten sails previous to European contact, However you show is square as if inspired by 18th century native vessels of Ecuador and Peru.

    • Around 2004 or 2005, Douglas T. Peck, who spent about the last 30 years of his life, studying the Chontal Maya, sent me eyewitness Spanish descriptions, engravings on stone and dimensions of three types of Chontal Maya seagoing vessels. All were plank built. The coastal/inter-island cargo vessel generally was about 40-50 feet, 6-8 feet wide, had a side rudder and rowers, the war craft was 4-5 feet wide, shallower draft, up to 90 feet long and had rowers. The sail craft was 40-60 feet long, 6-8 feet wide and had essentially a square, woven split cane mat as a sail, plus a cabin, constructed of river cane. With CADD, I created 3D models of these craft. Peck also identified a much smaller scale catamaran than the Chontal Mayas used on lakes and marshes, which had a woven mat sail, that was either lateen or square. The catamaran could been steered with a paddle like a canoe or by the occupant holding onto the sail. Interestingly enough, the canoes and boats on Lake Okeechobee copied the form of Chontal Maya boats and canoes, but were carved out of single logs, not plank built.


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