Log rafts were a key form of travel for both the prehistoric Peruvians and Salvadorans. Their common ancestors arrived to Monte Verde, Chile, in 12,500 BCE, most likely in log rafts from across the Pacific Ocean. From there one group migrated by raft to Taima Taima, Venezuela, another one to El Abra-Tocancipa, Columbia, and still yet another to the Lapa do Boquete, Rio Sao Francisco region of Brazil.
The four founding families of Mesoamerica arrived from South America to Playa Toluca, El Salvador, in four rafts in about 8700 BCE. The remains in the form of the sailing stones, which were both ballast and functional, can still be seen at Toluca. Both before and after their journey to El Salvador it is likely, inevitable, this group sailed back across the Pacific Ocean.
Thor Heyerdahl, in Early Man and the Ocean, provides a drawing of a potential log raft design:
The rafts would have been made with a rather buoyant wood, but the size of the logs was also important. The logs would have been repeatedly coated in a resin to make them more water resistant. From early Spanish accounts Heyerdahl calls the rafts jangadas and mentioned the importance of the centerboard, called guara.
Both of these words are significant in Ch'orti' and it's likely that they were retained cultural words from the time before Ch'orti' and proto-Andean separated. Jangada is chan (snake) + k'aht (anything laid across) in Ch'orti'. "Snake laid across" refers to the latticing or bindings that tied the logs together and likely refers to the last component of the raft to be perfected in Asia before the initial journey across. The reference to snake helps explain the prevalence of serpent symbolism in Mayan culture. "Snake latticing" produces a curious parallel to b'ahram, the word for tame jaguar, which means "spider latticing", referring to the weave of the jaguar cage. Guara, the centerboards, is wa'ar in Ch'orti' and means "standing" or "perpendicular".
The Maya likely had a much harder ocean trip on the raft until they discovered and were able to produce rafts out of Peru Balsam (myroxylon). Heyerdahl placed the balsam forests in Ecuador. While it is likely true that the Maya helped their Andean cousins to transplant a balsam forest there, the Peru Balsam is uniquely native to El Salvador. It lives in upland areas of 800 to 1,300 meters in the departments of Sonsonate and La Libertad. This is located only about 20 kilometers from Lago Coatepeque, one of the four island homes of the early Mayan/Mesoamerican people.
While the Maya likely discovered the balsam prior to their defeat of Xibalbha in about 7500 BCE, they could not produce rafts without putting themselves at extreme risk of the Xibalbhans. With no threat from Xibalba, the Maya could move forward with full-scale raft production. What is most noticeable about the balsam is the sap. They most likely tried to light it to use as an incense or charcoal, as well as to rub onto canoes and rafts.
At some point the Maya were able to get a balsam log into standing water - not so easy from the steep Cordillera de Balsam. They noticed four things about the balsam that make it the best tree in the Americas for ocean-going rafts and perhaps the best in the world:
- The size of the logs both in terms of width and length - the trees grow 40 meters tall;
- The straightness of the trunk;
- The resin-laden wood which makes it extremely resistant to water, including salt water;
- The buoyancy of the wood.
The Maya quickly noticed the buoyancy. The balsam is named for "wet latticing" (par + tz'am or tz'ah). And it has a second meaning of "get rid of weight" referring to its buoyancy (bar + s'at).
The U.S. National Forest Service rates the qualities of various trees, including their buoyancy. Of 156 rated trees only three have a specific gravity or buoyancy greater than the peru balsam, which is rated 81 and 74 (green). These are the southern live oak, the osage orange, and the mesquite. The former is too twisted to be used in a raft while the latter two are too small to use in raft production.
The geography of the Balsam Range and the surrounding area made it hard for the Maya to harvest balsam logs and produce balsam rafts. There are rivers on the south side of ridge top that go directly to the ocean. However after a rain the current is strong and there is no place to catch the logs coming down. They would go directly into the ocean. On the north side of the ridge top there are several creeks, like the Talnique, the Shutia, the Cashal, and the Apalata. These all flow into the Sucio River which then flows north to meet the Lempa River, which flows northeast then south to the ocean. The Sucio is rather flat so it is a good place to catch the loose logs and assemble them into flotillas to make the trip to the mouth of the Lempa River, where the community of Tehuacan was waiting to construct the rafts.
The creeks in the Cordillera del Bálsamo are primarily seasonal. Without rain they have little flow, like the Shutia at right. This means that harvesting of the balsam logs would only take place in the rainy season and only after a heavy rain could they send the logs down the creeks. A local person told me that the Shutia would rise one meter or more after a heavy rain. Yet I'm sure that someone had to run alongside the logs with a pole to try to dislodge any logjams.
Let's look at some of the local place names which will confirm the balsam production in this areas:
Apalata (a creek near Jayaque):
ab - swinging container, hammock
laht' - anything carried
ha' - water
I think this refers to a sling placed under the front end of a log with a person on each side to guide the log through a tight place.
ha' - water
ak' - covering, object resting on another
I understand this to mean "logjam over the water".
Sucio (watershed of the north side of Balsam Range)
susi - smooth down, cut, trim
The balsam logs were cut and trimmed on the flatter Rio Susi (Sucio) near the later San Andres structure. From there they were bound temporarily and were guided down the Rio Susi (Sucio) by a pilot with a pole to the Lempa River and then down the Lempa many days to the lower Lempa near Tehuacan where the logs were taken out and reassembled into a raft with a sail, and slots for centerboards. In many cases there was cargo stored on either the Usulutan or San Vicente side of the Lempa ready to go. For example, the name of Tecoluca, the municipality on the western (San Vicente) side of the Lempa:
te' - trees, sticks
k'or - transport
uh - sacred
kah - beginning
So Tecoluca is "beginning of the sacred log transport" referring to rafts that were assembled there.
Returning to the Rio Susi, the nearby archeological site San Andres is likely a memorial to the balsam log workers who live there part of the year, captured the loose logs, bound them and guided them down the river. This is evidenced by the indigenous name for San Andres, Tecpan. The Wisdom Ch'orti' dictionary says that tecpan means Catholic church and plaza and that it came from Nahua. It is the other way around. When the Maya needed a word for Catholic church they thought of their model for a plaza and thought of Tecpan (San Andres). The meaning of Tecpan is clear:
te' - tree(s)
ek' - down
pan - loose, sprout
Tecpan means "loose trees coming down" (from the Balsam Range). This would seem to indicate that San Andres may have been one of the first structures. Previously we discussed how it forms a line with Tazumal at Chalchuapa, where the Siete Principes site at the base of Lago Coatepeque is at the half-way point.
Even when geography proved to be difficult the Maya found a way to move forward. They found and assembled the logs which would allow them to sail long and far in the oceans, just as Thor Heyerdahl suspected of the indigenous in the Americas.