Expert opinion
A Great Deal Still to Learn
The majority of specialist texts which look at the pre-Hispanic history of the San Gervasio site and the island of Cozumel highlight its role as a pilgrimage site and as a trading port, during the Late Postclassic from 1250 to 1550 AD. The information that follows is a brief summary designed to make a visit to the site more rewarding.

According to the chroniclers of the Conquest, when the Spanish arrived on the island of Cozumel it was a prosperous community with various coastal settlements. Bernal Díaz del Castillo referred to at least three important settlements in his True History of the Conquest of New Spain (c. 1568), which are also mentioned by Diego López de Cogolludo and the Chilam Balam of Chumayel. They were San Miguel Xamancab, the present day San Miguel de Cozumel; Santa María Oycib, the town which Ralph Roys linked to El Cedral; and also a third town which was unnamed, but which Roys identified as Tantun. None of the chroniclers left a description which coincides with the site of San Gervasio, perhaps because it is inland and they never strayed far enough from the coast. Nevertheless when Díaz de Castillo wrote of Hernan Cortes’ first encounter with the island’s inhabitants, he referred to the presence of “trading Indians.”

Nor were there any mentions of the site in explorers’ tales from the end of the nineteenth or the early twentieth century. The first documented archeological visit to the site was published by Alberto Escalona Ramos in 1946, who noted ten archeological sites on Cozumel as part of the Mexican Scientific Expedition of 1937. Another member of this expedition was Miguel Ángel Fernández, who published an article on the Cozumel sites in 1945, but only referring to sites close to the coast.

It was not until 1972 that Jeremy A. Sabloff and William L. Rathje arrived at Cozumel to carry out a more in-depth research project. The archeological record began to support the notion that during the Late Postclassic the island had been a trading port visited by the traders from across the Mayan region and beyond. This view had already been voiced by Scholes and Roys in 1968 and by Thompson in 1990 on the basis of strong ethno-historical evidence (see Andrews, 1990). Since Cozumel has neither fertile soil nor products for export, these authors suggested that the source of its commercial success was the presence of a sanctuary and oracle devoted to the goddess Ixchel, who was traditionally identified as the patron of medicine, childbirth, weaving and flooding. Sabloff’s and Rathje’s hypothesis is that the numerous isolated structures built by the Maya along the coasts would have formed part of this system.

From this perspective it might be anticipated that San Gervasio, like the other sites excavated to date on the island, would produce a sample of the archeological material coming from the same regions as the pilgrims and traders who visited it. Nevertheless, investigation of the material found has shown the opposite. For example in 2005 Carlos Peraza published an exhaustive analysis of the ceramics of San Gervasio and found that “the Postclassic San Gervasio ceramics were exclusively of a style and shape identical to the coastal sites of Quintana Roo,” except for a few which came from the Chontal region of Tabasco.

On the other hand, recent research has demonstrated that Postclassic Mayan iconography did not feature the lunar goddess Ixchel, protector of women. Instead there were several female deities with a variety of symbolic roles, as shown by Traci Arden in 2006. This author emphasizes that the archeological record of Cozumel and other areas of the East Coast has not produced any clear association of that goddess with the buildings or representations known today.

And so it is probable that some of the people who lived on Cozumel were long distance traders and that the site of San Miguel Xamancab, which no longer exists today, was the site of an oracle attracting pilgrims from different regions. Nevertheless it is also feasible that the rest of the population of the island had a similar means of subsistence to their contemporaries on the mainland, who were farmers, makers of tools, builders and local traders in subsistence goods, forming part of an enormous and complex socio-economic system which we have still not fully understood.

San Gervasio was built in the center of the island to be above the largest and most permanent aquifer, which certainly ensured the survival of its inhabitants. To date we do not have any evidence allowing us to link any of its buildings with the goddess Ixchel.

Visitors to Cozumel find this site very attractive, as an example of the natural and cultural context of the island’s ancient people, quite apart from its history as a trading, pilgrimage or ceremonial site; aspects which still merit further study.
Under translation
Under translation

Andrews, Anthony P., 1990, “The Role of Ports in Maya Civilization”, en Vision and Revision in Maya Studies, F.S. Clancy y P.D. Harrison (eds.), Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press.

Arden, Traci, 2006, “Mending the Past: Ix Chel and the Invention of a Modern Pop Goddess”, en Antiquity, vol. 80, núm. 307.

Escalona Ramos, Alberto, 1946, “Algunas ruinas prehispánicas en Quintana Roo”, en Boletín de la Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística, vol. 61, núm. 3, México.

Fernández, Miguel Ángel, 1945, “Exploraciones arqueológicas en la isla de Cozumel, Quintana Roo”, en Anales del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México, INAH, vol. 6, núm. 1.

Patel, Shankari, 2016, “Peregrinaciones a la isla de Cozumel”, en El papel de la arqueoastronomía en el mundo maya: el caso de la isla de Cozumel, México, Oficina de la UNESCO en México/Gobierno del Estado de Quintana Roo.

Peraza Lope, Carlos, 2005, “Ceramic Analysis and Sequence from San Gervasio, Cozumel”, en Quintana Roo Archaeology, J.M. Shaw y J.P. Mathews (eds.), Tucson, The University of Arizona Press.

Roys, Raph L., 1957, The Political Geography of the Yucatan Maya, Washington D.C., Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication, núm. 613.

Sabloff, Jeremy A. y William L. Rathje, 1975, A Study of Changing pre-Columbian Commercial Systems: the 1972-1973 Seasons at Cozumel, Mexico, Cambridge, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Scholes, Frances V. y Ralph L. Roys, 1968, The Maya Chontal Indians of Acalan-Tixchel. A Contribution to the History and Ethnography of the Yucatan Peninsula, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press.

Thompson, J. Eric S., 1990, Maya History and Religion, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press.


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