Christopher Columbus, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, was on his fourth voyage to the New World. After a brief stop at Jamaica, Columbus arrived at Guanaja in the Bay Islands off the coast of the modern-day country of Honduras.
The day was July 30, 1502. Columbus observed a large canoe with 25 rowers onboard laden with cargo. This indicated to the Europeans that the indigenous people of Central America had the capability of traveling large distances and had established trade routes. How far that large canoe was capable of traveling was anyone’s guess.
Classic Maya civilization ended some 500 years before Columbus’ voyages to the Americas. Scholars have long agreed that the ancient Maya homeland was contained in an intense area located in what is now eastern Mexico and parts of the nations of Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.
People in ancient times did manage to get around, and the Maya were no exception. Their trade contacts with faraway cultures such as Teotihuacan in central Mexico are well documented. How far beyond these established civilizations did the Maya venture is up to much speculation and interest.
There are some theories that suggest the ancient Maya crossed the Gulf of Mexico and established themselves in Florida. We will look at possible evidence from three places: ancient settlement evidence around Lake Okeechobee, the Crystal River site on the Gulf Coast and on Key Largo in the mysterious pyramids of Key Largo.
The Crystal River site on the Gulf Coast of Florida has been called enigmatic for decades due to the puzzling artifacts and architecture found at the site.
From the site design featuring rectangular, flat-topped pyramids with associated plazas, (the first of their kind in the Southeastern U.S.,) to carved stone stellar like those of the Maya, researchers have long noted its similarity to sites in Mexico of the same time period.
About A.D. 1 or shortly before, the Mexican State of Veracruz contributes a complex of cultural traits to the northwest coast of Florida which inspires the Crystal River Complex.
As to the mode of transmission, a seagoing mechanism seems most likely since there is no evidence for Crystal River Complex traits intervening between northern Veracruz and the northwest coast of Florida.
The stelae, their spatial relationships, and the ceremonial deposits are evidence of influences from southeastern Mexico. Upon the discovery of multiple stone stelae at the Crystal River site, archaeologist Ripley Bullen concurred and stated in his 1966 article “Stelae at the Crystal River Site, Florida.
At the Crystal River site up the Gulf Coast past the Tampa-St. Pete area there are other possible connections to the ancient Maya. Archaeologists describe the ruins at Crystal River as being part of a trading outpost and its development began around 250 AD which put it contemporaneous with the beginnings of Classic Maya civilization.
On Roberts Island in Crystal River there exists a curious ancient structure: a stepped pyramid made of mortar and seashells. Not only is it unusual to find a pyramid at all in the continental US, but it is very strange to have one so similar to a stepped pyramid in the Mexican state of Tabasco.
The pyramid at the Isla de los Cerros site in Mexico was made of the same materials as the one in Florida and is exactly the same size.
As the Crystal River Site was most likely just an outpost, this shell pyramid was the extent of the complex architecture at the site. Some researchers have compared iconography found on pottery at Crystal River with that of the ancient Maya.
Venus symbols from the ancient Maya look eerily similar to repeated patterns found on pottery from Crystal River. Also, at Crystal River archaeologists discovered depictions of what has been called the “Diving Bird Deity.”
At multiple sites in the ancient Maya world archaeologists have found a similar image called the “Descending God” which is often shown dressed as a bird. There is also an interesting linguistic connection here that ties the region to ancient Mexico.
According to the Chontal Maya of Mexico, their ancient homeland was called Acala. When Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto visited the area east of Crystal River in the 1530’s, he noted in his diary that the indigenous people of this part of Florida called their territory Ocale.
The modern-day city of Ocala, Florida gets its name from this long-forgotten Indian province. De Soto also mentioned that the main city of this province of Ocale was called Uqueten.
Pyramid structures also once existed on the island of Key Largo but are no longer there. In an obscure article published on September 1, 1985 in the South Florida Sun Sentinel the author describes the curious archaeological site on the island.
Today it is little more than a growth-infested pile of coral rocks hidden away from U.S. (Highway) 1 by the jungle-like foliage of Key Largo — vandalized by would-be treasure hunters, desecrated by trespassing campers.
Whatever the purpose of these structures, the settlements associated with them were built around 800 AD and abandoned no later than the year 1175.
The Key Largo ruin with its pyramid and complex architecture for the time was just getting started when the Maya world in Mexico was beginning to crumble. Were the settlements in the islands in the Straits of Florida built by refugees fleeing a collapsing civilization?
But hundreds of years before the Spanish first set eyes on the Florida Keys, the pile of rocks was part of a sacred Indian temple with causeways, ceremonial platform and ramps shaped like a giant crab.
Built entirely of coral, it rose to 15 feet, had a flat surface on top and was 100 feet long by 50 feet wide. It faces a low hill like a miniature amphitheater and was probably a gathering center for hundreds of Pre-Columbian inhabitants who worshiped unknown gods.
Archaeologists have uncovered and described two interconnected sites near Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida, the Fort Center site and the site known as Ortona Mounds.
Some researchers believe that the people inhabiting these locations controlled a vast trade network covering both coasts of Florida and stretching very far into the interior of the North American continent, possibly as far as the valley of the Ohio River.
Clay pipes found around Lake Okeechobee in Florida have their origins in the area of modern-day Ohio while feathers from birds native to Florida are found as far north as the Ohio River valley.
There is great speculation on where these organized traders who established themselves in south Florida originally came from. Researchers have found evidence of corn being grown in this area sooner than in other parts of the United States.
This evidence seems to discount an overland sharing of the tradition of planting corn traveling up through Mexico, across Texas and the southeast and down into Florida.
The fact that corn cultivation started in southern Florida first – in the early centuries BC – implies a more direct connection to Mexico.
Mexico Unexplained / ABC Flash Point News 2021.