At the end of the Pleistocene Era, North America was populated with a wide variety of animals that have now become extinct. The northern group of these animals, the equus, or modern horse, and the camelus, the modern camel, migrated to Asia where they became domesticated and supplied the power and transportation for all the great civilizations of Asia, Africa and Europe. The southern herds remained in North American and were victims of mass extinction at the end of the last ice age. Humans migrating to the continent did not find candidates for beasts of burden until they encountered llama or vicuna, all the way down in South America. When next seen in the Maya zone, the horse had a Spanish Conquistador on its back.


Along with being referred to as a Stone Age culture, the Maya were a cast in a negative light because it was thought that they did not understand the concept of the wheel. In reality, without adequate beasts of burden, a wheeled cart was of no practical use to them. In lieu of beasts of burden, the Maya developed manpower to supply the kinetic energy to power their civilization. They determined that it was more efficient to use a man to transport materials than to pull the weight of a cart in addition to the “pay load” in the cart.


The Maya developed a manpowered transport device known as the tumpline or “mecapal”. This enabled a single man to carry 125 pounds on his back with relative ease. The tumpline enabled a man to traverse rough trails that would be impossible for cart or wagon travel. The tumpline consists of a head strap positioned on top of the head, or across the forehead, to direct loads from the skull directly into the spinal column. The ends of the head strap are connected to a frame or to other straps to support and carry the load.

Drawing of tumpline

11-1 Drawing of tumplineThe tumpline is a simplistic tension-based mechanism that distributes load from the mass of the burden directly into the load paths that frame the human body.

Modern Tumplines

11-2 modern tumplinesThe tumpline bearers were the “teamsters” of the Maya civilization and the tumpline technology is still in use today.