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The Phoenicians of Middle America

By Tim Hazell

Among the Maya, from the beginning of the pre-classic period, communities were reaching out, often over considerable distances, to obtain raw materials or finished goods. By the time the Spanish came, the Maya were participants in a widespread network of trade and exchange reaching south as far as Panama and north to central Mexico. Columbus, on his fourth voyage of 1502, encountered an Indian canoe near the Bay Islands off Honduras as long as a western galley and eight feet in width. The cargo consisted of cotton cloth of many designs and colors, shorts that reached the knees, flint knives, swords of wood with pieces of flint set along the edges, produce from Honduras, copper axes, bells, and cacao beans, which were the standard Mesoamerican unit of currency.

Analysis of the contents points to a connection with central Mexico for the copper implements, Yucatan for the cotton clothing, and Belize for the cacao beans which had probably been picked up on the way down the coast for shipment back to the Yucatan on the return voyage. The trip had probably begun in the Gulf of Mexico at the great Maya-Aztec hub of Xicalango on the Laguna de Terminos where land, river, and sea routes meet, destined for the Gulf of Honduras where similar ports existed at Naco in the Ulua basin and Nito on the Rio Dulce.

The merchants and crew would have been Chontal Maya from the Laguna de Terminos area, dubbed the “Phoenicians of Middle America.” The Chontal knew of sites as far down the coast as Panama and Costa Rica. Gold and gold alloy metalwork from this isthmian area indicate that a movement of goods had begun at least by the early classic period, at the same time as Mayan influence had begun to be felt along the coast as far southeast as Costa Rica.

Honey and beeswax were important post-classic products of the northern lowlands. Long-distance export of Mexican obsidian—a kind of volcanic glass, gray-black and occasionally green or gold in color that flakes easily into razor sharp implements—had begun before 1000 B.C.

The soul of Yucatecan cooking is red, black, and roasted garlic recados, incendiary pastes made from chilies, garlic, herbs, and spices. To make a recado, grind all the ingredients very fine, and moisten with enough “bitter orange” juice to make a solid paste, adding salt to taste. Lime juice or a mix of orange and grapefruit juice works well as a substitute.


Roast Garlic Recado


20 large garlic cloves

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. black pepper

1/2 tsp. cloves

2 tsp. oregano

Salt to taste

Lime juice



Roast the garlic (broiling in oven, or roasted in foil over open flame). Peel and mash with the spices and salt. Mix with enough lime juice to make a paste. Use as a rub for chicken or pork. Marinate for at least one hour before stewing, grilling, or roasting.


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