Isla Cerritos—Skeptics' Beachrock Theory Sunk!
2000-Year Old Maya Breakwater Made From Cut Beachrock
by Dr. Greg Little
I've wanted to go to Isla Cerritos for about a year, after I was captivated while reading about it during our earlier trip to Piedras Negras. Several textbooks on the Maya briefly mentioned Cerritos as having the most unique harbor in the entire Maya world. But virtually no additional details were given about it. Cerritos is located off the coast of Yucatan situated right off the middle of the Yucatan Peninsula. Its position is at the location where the Gulf Stream and Carribean join. It is about 5 kilometers from the small fishing village of San Felipe and is a place where few tourists venture. The island was first reported in archaeological journals in 1963 and has been the focus of several intense excavations. Information on it has been published in highly specialized, hard-to-find journals such as "Mexicon" and the old "National Geographic Research Reports." We had to go to Vanderbilt University to actually find the published reports. Not a single research article on it is online, but there are three brief summary reports about it online.
In 1984/85 a massive excavation was done by a team of archaeologists who wrote that it was the most unique site in the Maya world and that they had never encountered anything like it in their combined professional histories working in Yucatan. In one of their (15) 6 x 6 foot test pits, they dug through 13 separate habitation layers which included 8 separate floors from different buildings dated to different eras. Carbon dating showed that the island was actively used by the Maya (and others) between 300 BC to the 1400s. In 1984-85 the excavations recovered over 49,000 artifacts from the island during a surface collection--mostly pottery. The island, no more than 650 feet in diameter, was completely covered with 29 buildings and structures and had a seawall (a 'stone' retaining wall) encircling its edges. All of these are still visible but in total ruins, of course. Numerous huge elevated platforms were built into the water from the shore. These were mooring areas and quays. The breakwater, almost all of which has been looted for its huge stone slabs, is all under about a foot of water now, extending up from the bottom about 4-5 feet today. A few remaining slabs of vertical stone stick up above the surface during low tide. As all the articles stated, there is nothing else in the Americas that compares to Cerritos. My interest was peaked by none of the articles...not one...identifying the type of stone used in the construction of the massive shipping structures on the island or the breakwater. They all simply stated that massive "stone slabs" were used, but they never clarified what the stone slabs were. I found that omission a glaring fact that seemed intriguing.
Archaeologists believe that Cerritos was a major stronghold that served as the main shipping outpost for Chichen Itza. In truth, I'm puzzled by the claim. It is probably true, but there's no real evidence that really supports that particular idea. In 1984-85 they found trading artifacts from the Guatemalan highlands, Belize, the highlands of Mexico, the Bahamas, and even Florida on the island. Strangely, they keep it all very, very quiet. It is definitely Mayan, and is in the official Yucatan registry of Maya archaeology sites.
Cerritos is difficult to get to. The day trip from Cancun (taken in early August) lasted 14+ hours. The one-way drive, speeding at 100-120 kph all the way, is over 4 hours. There is only one small boat and one boat operator (a single person) who is authorized by the government to go there and he's only available for about 5 months of the year. It is in a restricted National Nature Reserve. Mexicans (and natives of Mexico) are not allowed to visit the island. We assume that is to reduce looting. The boat operator told us that only foreigners can go there but they are not allowed to go ashore without some sort of special permission, but we were allowed to go ashore.
The boat trip itself lasts a little over one hour each way. It was a small fishing boat about 10 feet long, a lot like a common rowboat with a small outboard. The boat operator (about 70-years old) doesn't speak English and speaks some dialect of Spanish that is quite different from normal Mexican. Doris Van Auken who, along with the ARE's JohnVan Auken accompanied us on the expedition, speaks Spanish, and all that could be done is the simplest of communication with the boat operator.
Walking along the shore of the island, I found literally thousands of pottery sherds in shallow water along the shoreline, huge red pieces of pottery including beautiful lips of bowls and jars. In some places the shallows are actually completely covered with pottery and artifacts. Many of these pieces were painted. For those who will wonder about it, we took nothing from the island except photos and video.
Not to my surprise, the bottom foundations of the structures are all definitely made from coarse beachrock (a low-quality limestone). The looted remains of a dozen of the platforms that extended into the water are still there. They are all made the same way, with cut beachrock slabs stuck into the bottom vertically to form an enclosure. They then filled the inside area with smaller stones (beachrock) and then used flat slabs of beachrock to make flat tops on the platforms. Most of the large slabs have been looted by various groups over the years for construction, but some large pieces of beachrock remain on the platforms, quays, and dock areas. I also counted at least 5 large mooring stones next to the platforms and docks. Some of these had holes bored through the tops but all had rounded rope abrasion marks on them. The island itself is dangerous to walk around because many of the deep holes made by the archaeologists are still there. They are now covered with dense vegetation making walking and seeing the ground difficult. A hurricane that hit the area also left the island in a tangled mess with trees and vegetation lying on the surface everywhere. The remains of several pyramid structures remain and a fair amount of higher quality limestone, used for the exterior, is still there.
The seawall on the shoreline of the island is only partially intact in various places. It was about 4-feet high and encircled the whole island creating a barrier to the waves. Again, it is also made from slabs of beachrock stuck vertically into the ground, a unique feature.
The breakwater that enclosed the harbor is 1000-feet long and a fairly uniform15 feet wide. It is about 120 feet from the shoreline. We filmed the entire length of the breakwater underwater. As the archaeological reports stated, it was made by first sticking "slabs of stone" (beachrock) vertically into the bottom forming a 15-foot wide enclosure extending 1000 feet. The interior was then filled with smaller stones. Then, slabs of cut, flat beachrock were placed on the top forming a massive breakwater enclosure. Only a dozen or so of the large slabs from the top are still there. The archaeological reports stated that most of the large stones had been looted and used for other construction during the past centuries. The ones that remain definitely look like the stones from the Bimini Road and Andros Platform. The largest ones we saw were perhaps 4 x 6 feet and a foot thick.
On the breakwater, we saw and filmed quite a few slabs of beachrock situated on top of each other. In general, the remaining breakwater is about 4-5 feet high and is covered with coral and very dense vegetation. In fact, it is downright beautiful and is teeming with fish and beautiful plants. As the reports stated, the majority of the vertical slabs that formed the sides had been looted, but we found 40-50 of them still there. But thousands of them were once there. Some of them still extend through the surface of the water. The interior fill of small stones is generally intact. It is consistently a foot below the surface throughout the entire 1000-foot length.
There were at least three openings into the harbor through the breakwater. These were exactly where the archaeological reports placed them on their surveys. The ends that formed these openings had large beachrock stones piled together, often on their sides, to make a solid ending point for the openings. The largest opening, incredibly, had two very large platforms on each side that extended well above the waterline. These two platforms, according to the archaeological reports, had "perishible structures" erected on them, apparently guard towers and perhaps lighthouses. We found the remains of these larger platforms, but the "perishible structures" had, of course, long ago perished. Archaeologists speculate that the harbor housed 300-400 trading canoes at a time.
John and Doris Van Auken accompanied Lora and I to the site and were duly impressed, and it gave us quite a bit of information and lends real credence to the breakwater theories for both Andros and Bimini. Skeptics who have demonstrated that the Bimini Road is constructed from beachrock have considered the origin of the road settled: it was a natural formation that fractured into square and rectanglar blocks while in place. This conclusion is based on less than 20 corings done on stones at the Bimini Road. Because the corings showed that the stones seemed to be similar, the geologists who penned the skeptical articles assume that the beachrock formation is completely natural. They never seemed to consider the idea that natural beachroch cut from a shoreline would have been used piece-by-piece to form a breakwater. It seems like a parsimonious methodology that would have been used by ancient people. In fact, that is how many of the ancient Mediterranean breakwaters were made.
Interestingly, not one of the skeptical geologists has studied the hundred or so ancient breakwater harbors in the Mediterranean, nor do they mention them in their articles. The vast majority of those ancient Mediterranean harbors were constructed from beachrock. It is likely that if geologists had "discovered" the Mediterranean harbors they would have declared all of them to be natural. In sum, the skeptical claims proposing that the Bimini Road is a completely natural beachrock formation doesn't hold water.
With the verification that ancient harbors in both the Mediterranean and the Maya region were constructed from nearby sources of beachrock, it should now be clear that the Bimini Road and the Andros Platform may well be harbor formations. It's doubtful that any of the skeptics will like or accept the idea, but the facts aresimple and intriguing. We hope that our pending expeditions may reveal compelling evidence.
At the October Ancient Mysteries conferenceat the ARE, we will show video of the Cerritos harbor and other structures on the island.