The History of Swimming: From the Maya to the Aztecs…And More

aztec drowning

The History of Swimming: From the Maya to the Aztecs…And More

Swimming is universal to all races and cultures. However, in these times, we see very few representatives from the indigenous populations of Africa, the Americas or Oceania competing in aquatic sports at the Olympic Games. This fact has led some to question the physical capabilities of these people as swimmers.

There is no truth to these racist stereotypes. In fact, prior to the destruction of their native aquatic cultures by mostly Western nations, the indigenous populations of the so-called “uncivilized world” were universally regarded by those who saw them as being the best swimmers and divers in the world.

The purpose of this series is to educate people about the universal history of swimming in the hope that these stories may inspire more people—of every race, religion and ethnicity—to swim.


Most of what is known about the swimming abilities of the indigenous populations of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica comes to us from observations made by the early conquistadors and archaeological evidence. In the 1940s, archaeologists discovered a series of murals in the homes of wealthy or powerful citizens of Tepantitla, a suburb of Teotihuacan, one of the most remarkable cities of the ancient world. The murals date from A.D. 100 to 650, when the city was abandoned.

One mural depicts a “Great Goddess” who is thought to have been responsible for creation. In another scene, water drips from the hands of the Goddess, creating the mountain streams of Tlalocan, the heavenly paradise ruled over by the Aztec rain god, Tlaloc.

Scholars have differing interpretations of the meaning of these murals, but for me, the mountain resembles a modern waterpark-like scene, with mortals going down water slides, using a variety of strokes to swim and having fun in the water.

While the builders of Teotihuacan remain a mystery, the inhabitants included a patchwork of cultures from the Maya, Mixtec, Zapotec and other tribes. This may account for the different colors of the swimmers.

Another important archaeological artifact is a Totonac stone carving of a swimmer dating to A.D. 600-800, and found near Veracruz, Mexico. The Totonacs were one of many pre-Aztec tribes who may have built or inhabited the multi-ethnic city of Teotihuacan. The decline of Teotihuacan has been correlated to lengthy droughts and uprisings against the ruling classes.


In 2009, archaeologists uncovered two massive carved stucco panels in the Mirador Basin of Guatemala’s northern rain forest. Known as the El Mirador Swimming Panels, they are the earliest known representation of the Mayan creation myth, predating other such artifacts by a millennium.

According to researchers, the panels—26 feet long and 20 feet high—with images of monsters, gods and swimming heroes—date to 300 B.C. They formed the sides of a channel that carried rainwater into a complex system of stepped pools, where it was stored for drinking and agriculture.

The carved images of swimmers, which have an uncanny similarity to the modern “wave breaststroke,” depict an important scene from the Popol Vuh, the centerpiece of Mayan beliefs for well more than a millennium and which stands as one of the world’s enduring religious stories. A text of the Mayan myth was first recorded and transcribed in the 16th century by a Dominican monk.

The saga’s two main characters are the Hero Twins, named Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who were like a double dose of Hercules. They were the sons and nephews of another set of twins, Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu, who were passionate ball players.


Photo Courtesy: ISHOF

They were so good that they came to the attention of the Lords of the Dead in underworld, Xibalba, which was at the bottom of the sea. There the two men were defeated, sacrificed and decapitated. The sons were born predestined to avenge their father and uncle, and the El Mirador sculpture and the images that appear on pottery found throughout the Mayan lands, shows them swimming down to Xibalba to defeat the Lords of the Dead, which they did.

But it’s not just Mayan gods who swam. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of Mayan villages all along the Yucatan and Central American coastlines with piles of shells, proving the Mayans were skilled watermen who harvested food from the sea, like all other indigenous tribes throughout the Americas.

Today, inland Maya are not good watermen, few can swim, and many are drowned in lakes and streams. It is strange that along the shores of Lake Atitlán—one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and one of the most visited tourist attractions in Guatemala—most of the local inhabitants cannot swim and do not bathe in it.


When the conquistador, Hernando Cortez, and his men began their approach to the Aztec capital, they landed in Veracruz, where Cortez’s chronicler, Bernal Diaz, observed that the Indians of both sexes were excellent swimmers who “were as much at home in the water as on land.” When the Spanish horsemen attacked the Aztecs on the causeways of Tenochtitlan on Lake Texcoco, Diaz wrote that “the barbarians (Indians) threw themselves quickly into the water—for like crocodiles or seals, they swim as easily as they walk on land.”

According to the Aztecs, if you drowned, it wasn’t by chance. Whoever died a watery death did so for one of two reasons: Either you were such devout subjects that the Tlaloque gods, assistants to Tlaloc, selected you as a worthy inhabitant of their watery, heavenly paradise or they had hoarded precious jade stones or other action that angered the Tlaloque gods enough to kill you! (It must have left relatives guessing.)


The importance of swimming in pre-Columbian American cultures cannot be overestimated, although little has been written on the subject. Perhaps no people on earth took more pains to learn to swim nor were any better at it. There certainly were no people whose avocations of life more often called for its use, as many of the tribes spent their lives on the shores and in the waters of our beaches, lakes, rivers and swamps.

But they also swam for fun and understood the benefits of hydrotherapy as a cure all for injuries and illness. It was for these reasons that children of both sexes were taught by their parents to swim as soon as they were old enough to walk.

Unfortunately, for a variety of historical, social and cultural reasons, the descendants of these ancient swimmers have become detached from their rich aquatic traditions and heritage. But in communities where swimming has been encouraged, like in the City of Commerce, Calif., we can get a glimpse of what these incredible people can do in the water.

Take the case of water polo great, Brenda Villa, who can trace her proud ancestry to first peoples of the Americas and who, at the time of her retirement in 2012, was the most decorated athlete in the history of the women’s game with four Olympic medals (one gold, two silver, one bronze).

With more communities like the City of Commerce embracing the ISHOF concept of “Every Child a Swimmer,” we will not only see a healthier and happier society, but much needed increase in diversity in the aquatic sports.

Bruce Wigo, historian and consultant at the International Swimming Hall of Fame, served as president/CEO of IHOF from 2005-17.


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