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The Secret of Tulum.

The Castillo of Tulum.​

From Galveston to Mexico

A newly passed captain taking a break from ELISSA, swimming in the turquoise Caribbean in front of the pre-Columbian Castillo at Tulum, the maritime historian in me asks, “Why is this building here; so precariously perched on the cliff’s edge?”  The search for an answer results in a National Geographic grant for an investigation by Pilar Luna and her team from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and subsequent documentation by the Discovery & History Channels. Tulum turns out to be the oldest, most sophisticated lighthouse in the Americas.

Tulum may have served as a port city for the Maya site of Coba as there is a sacbe road connecting the two.  However, it was more likely a principal way station along a Putun Maya ocean trade route stretching from Panama in the South to Champoton on the Gulf of Mexico to the North.  Called the Phoenicians of the New World by archaeologist Eric Thompson, the Putun had a monopoly on Western Caribbean sea trade in the year 1000CE (Fig.1). 

Tulum’s location to the Southwest of the principal Putun entrepot of Cozumel Island meant that large, ocean going canoes could depart for Cozumel almost no matter what the weather, nor how strong the Northbound current, which forms the beginnings of the mighty Gulf Stream, was running at the time.  The substantial landside fortifications of Tulum are more in keeping with coastal island’s requirement for a secure port on the mainland (Fig. 2), as the modern municipality of Isla Mujeres maintains Punta Sam and Cozumel formerly administered Playa del Carmen.

The Secret of Tulum was rediscovered in 1982 by amateur nautical archaeologist Michael Creamer.  In 1984, representing the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA)  he joined an expedition led by Pilar Luna of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology’s Nautical Archaeology and History (INAH) funded by a grant from National Geographic. Professor Luna’s team conducted experiments that demonstrated Tulum’s El Castillo served as an aid navigating the narrow gap in the offshore coral reef (Fig. 3) that protects Tulum’s convenient landing beach (Fig 2).  The experiments were later successfully repeated on several occasions and documented on film for Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious Universe –‘The Mysterious Maya for Discovery Channel’ (English) and History Channel (Spanish).

Fig.1     Putun Maya Trade Routes    M. Creamer

Fig.2       Tulum Landing Beaches      Luis Gomez

Fig.3          Tulum Reef Passage        Janice Rubin

El Castillo, the principal structure at Tulum, consists of two pairs of very sophisticated horizontal range lights – a day signal and a night signal (Fig. 4).  Both sets work equally well Northbound or Southbound from beyond the world’s second longest barrier reef to safely guide a vessel through the natural reef opening.

The day signals are a pair of windows in the first floor stone work on either side of the main tower. During daylight hours, the sky is visible through them from beyond the reef opening.  As long as the Windows appear of uniform width the approaching vessel is within the safe channel. If one window appears to be reduced in width, the vessel’s course must be altered towards the narrowing window or it will come to grief on the reef or one of the several coral heads on either side of the channel within the reef confines.

The night signals are two windows situated in the upper floor of the Castillo tower (Fig 5). The South Window measures about 45cm x 45cm and projects a light beam wider than the safe reef opening.  The North Window, slightly taller and narrower projects a light beam exactly the width of the reef opening (Fig. 6).

When one sees the single light from the South Window from offshore of the reef, it is time to ‘Get ready!’  When light from the North window becomes visible, ‘Get set!’  The moment both lights are equally brilliant; GO!  As with the Day Signals, due to the thickness of the stone walls through which the light beams are projected, the beam of light decreases and increases as one deviates from, or returns to the main channel – very sophisticated indeed!

The Putun Maya ocean going canoes of the Post Classic period had raised bows and sterns (Fig 7 after Hammond, and Fig. 8 after Morris). Even if they were of expanded dugout construction (planked up canoes were unknown) yielding the most freeboard possible from a single log, the freeboard would still have been rather low and the vessels easily swamped, especially when turning to enter through the reef even in moderate seas. Cargos of cacao, copper, jade, obsidian and quetzal feathers were of immense value, as were the royal passengers bound for the sacred temples of Ixchel on Cozumel and Isla Mujeres. Thus, the substantial investment in a navigational aid such as the one described at Tulum would have been justified. Since the rediscovery of Tulum’s true function, today’s Mexican fishermen look over their shoulders at El Castillo to check their bearings when exiting through the reef channel and use the day signals when returning home.

How does the oldest lighthouse in the New World work?

Fig.4       El Castillo Lights at Sunset       Janice Rubin

Fig.5       South & North Castillo Light Windows     Janice Rubin

Fig.6         El Castillo Light Range           M. Creamer

Fig.7    Classic Maya Canoes    Tikal Burial 116   After Hammond

Fig.8      Maya Canoe from Chichen Itza    After Morris

The Secret of Tulum

Film from Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious Universe –‘The Mysterious Maya for Discovery Channel’.

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