Coba (Spanish: Cobá) is an ancient Mayan city on the Yucatán Peninsula, located in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. The site is the nexus of the largest network of stone causeways of the ancient Mayan world, and it contains many engraved and sculpted stelae that document ceremonial life and important events of the Late Classic Period (AD 600–900) of Mesoamerican civilization. The adjacent modern village bearing the same name, reported a population of 1,278 inhabitants in the 2010 Mexican federal census.
The ruins of Coba lie 44 km (approx. 27 mi) northwest of Tulum, in the State of Quintana Roo, Mexico. The geographical coordinates of Coba Group (main entrance for tourist area of the archaeological site) are North 19° 29.6’ and West 87° 43.7’. The archaeological zone is reached by a two-kilometer branch from the asphalt road connecting Tulum with Nuevo Xcán (a community of Lázaro Cárdenas, another municipality of Quintana Roo) on the Valladolid to Cancún highway.
Coba is located around two lagoons, Lake Coba and Lake Macanxoc. A series of elevated stone and plaster roads radiate from the central site to various smaller sites near and far. These are known by the Maya term sacbe (plural sacbeob) or white road. Some of these causeways go east, and the longest runs over 100 kilometres (62 mi) westwards to the site of Yaxuna. The site contains a group of large temple pyramids known as the Nohoch Mul, the tallest of which, Ixmoja, is some 42 metres (138 ft) in height. Ixmoja is among the tallest pyramids on the Yucatán peninsula, exceeded by Calakmul at 45 metres (148 ft).
Coba was estimated to have had some 50,000 inhabitants (and possibly significantly more) at its peak of civilization, and the built up area extends over some 80 km². The site was occupied by a sizable agricultural population by the 1st century. The bulk of Coba’s major construction seems to have been made in the middle and late Classic period, about 500 to 900 AD, with most of the dated hieroglyphic inscriptions from the 7th century (see Mesoamerican Long Count calendar). However, Coba remained an important site in the Post-Classic era and new temples were built and old ones kept in repair until at least the 14th century, possibly as late as the arrival of the Spanish.
The Mayan site of Coba was set up with multiple residential areas that consisted of around 15 houses in clusters. All clusters were connected by sacbeobs, or elevated walkways.
Six major linear features were found at the Coba site. The first feature that was often found at Coba was the platforms that were connecting the clusters to the sacbeobs. These were found at almost every single cluster of houses. Single or doubled faced features that were found around the majority of the household clusters. These were often linked to the platforms that led to the sacbeobs. A lot of features found tended to connect to something or lead to something but the other end was left open-ended. Coba has many features that are platforms or on platforms. The last major linear feature that was constantly found was sacbeob-like paths that were someway associated with natural resources of the area.
Sacbeob (Mayan plural of sacbe), or sacbes, were very common at the Coba site. They are raised pathways, usually stone paths at this site, that connected the clusters of residential areas to the main center of the site and the water sources.These paths were the connecting points to most things at the Coba site. They were the major feature discovered and preserved. Sacbeobs were the main reason why maps of Coba could be created. The sacbeobs were one of the ways they figured out how to excavate the site and transect the area. The sacbes were used to help determine the size of Coba.
Archaeological evidence indicates that Cobá was first settled between 50 BC and 100 AD. At that time, there was a town with buildings of wood and palm fronts and flat platforms. The only archaeological evidence of the time are fragments of pottery. After 100 AD, the area around Coba evidenced strong population growth, and with it an increase in its social and political status among Maya city states which would ultimately make Coba one of the biggest and most powerful city states in the northern Yucatán area. Between 201 and 601 AD, Coba must have dominated a vast area, including the north of the state of Quintana Roo and areas in the east of the state of Yucatán. This power resided in its control of large swaths of farmland, control over trading routes, and — critically for a Mayan city — control over ample water resources. Among the trading routes, Coba probably controlled ports like Xel Há.
Coba must have maintained close contacts with the large city states of Guatemala and the south of Campeche like Tikal, Dzibanche, or Calakmul. To maintain its influence, Coba must have established military alliances and arranged marriages among their elites. It is quite noteworthy that Coba shows traces of Teotihuacan architecture, like a platform in the Paintings group that was explored in 1999, which would attest of the existence of contacts with the central Mexican cultures and its powerful city of the early Classic epoch. Stelae uncovered at Coba are believed to depict that Coba had many female rulers.
After 600 AD, the emergence of powerful city states of the Puuc culture and the emergence of Chichén Itzá altered the political spectrum in the Yucatán peninsula and began eroding the dominance of Coba. Beginning around 900 or 1000 AD, Coba must have begun a lengthy power struggle with Chichén Itzá, with the latter dominating at the end as it gained control of key cities such as Yaxuná. After 1000 AD, Coba lost much of its political weight among city states, although it maintained some symbolic and religious importance. This allowed it to maintain or recover some status, which is evidenced by the new buildings dating to the time 1200-1500 AD, now built in the typical Eastern coastal style. However, power centers and trading routes had moved to the coast, forcing cities like Coba into a secondary status, although somewhat more successful than its more ephemeral enemy Chichén Itzá. Coba was abandoned at the time the Spanish conquered the peninsula around 1550.
The first mention of Coba in print is due to John Lloyd Stephens where he mentioned hearing reports of the site in 1842 from the cura (priest or vicar in Spanish) of Chemax, but it was so distant from any known modern road or village that he decided the difficulty in trying to get there was too daunting and returned to his principal target of exploring Tulum instead. For much of the rest of the 19th century the area could not be visited by outsiders due to the Caste War of Yucatán, the notable exception was Juan Peón Contreras (also used the nom de plume Contreras Elizalde) who was then director of the Museum of Yucatán. He made the arduous journey in September 1882, and is now remembered for the four naive pen-and-ink sketches that he made at the ruins (prints made from them exist in the Peabody Museum and in the collection of Raúl Pavón Abreu in Campeche). Teoberto Maler paid Coba a short visit in 1893 and took at least one photograph, but unfortunately did not publish at the time and the site remained unknown to the archeological community.
Amateur explorer (and successful writer of popular books wherein he described his adventures and discoveries among Maya ruins) Dr. Thomas Gann was brought to the site by some local Maya hunters in February 1926. Gann published the first first-hand description of the ruins later the same year. Dr. Gann gave a short description to the archeologists of the Carnegie Institution of Washington (CIW) project at Chichen Itza, he spoke of the large mounds he had sighted, but not visited for lack of time, lying to the northeast of the main group. It was to examine these that Alfred Kidder and went for a two-day inspection of the site in March. Two months later Thompson was again at Coba, forming with Jean Charlot the third CIW expedition. On this trip their guide, Carmen Chai, showed them the “Macanxoc Group”, a discovery that led to the departure of a fourth expedition, since Sylvanus Morley wanted Thompson to show him the new stelae. Eric Thompson made a number of return visits to the site through 1932, the same year he published a detailed description. In 1932 H. B. Roberts opened a number of trenches in Group B to collect sherds.
In 1948 two graduate students in archaeology, William and Michael Coe, visited Coba, intent on seeking the terminus of Sacbe 15. They were unaware, unfortunately, that E. Wyllys Andrews IV already reported it ten years prior. In an editor’s note following their report Thompson blames himself as editor for failing to detect the repetition of prior work in their contribution, while excusing the young authors for ignorance of a paper published in a foreign journal. But the Coes reported the previously unknown Sacbes 18 and 19 and mapped the large mound at the terminus of Sacbe 17, which they named Pech Mul (they were unlucky again in failing to complete their circuit of its platform, or they might have discovered the sacbe leading out of it, no. 21).
The site remained little visited due to its remoteness until the first modern road was opened up to Coba in the early 1970s. As a major resort was planned for Cancún, it was realized that clearing and restoring some of the large site could make it an important tourist attraction. The Mexican National Institute of Anthropology & History (INAH) began some archeological excavations in 1972 directed by Carlos Navarrete, and consolidated a couple of buildings. Expectations of new discoveries were borne out when El Cono (Structure D-6) and Grupo Las Pinturas came to light, among other features. In the same year, much of Grupo Coba was cleared on the instructions of Raúl Pavón Abreu; not even its tall ramón trees were spared.
In 1975 a branch road from the asphalted highway being built from Tulum to Nuevo X-Can reached Coba (fortunately the road engineers heeded objections by archaeologists and abandoned their original plan of incorporating Sacbe 3 in the roadbed). A project camp was built in 1973, and in 1974 the Project Coba proper, under the auspices of the Regional Center of the Southeast of INAH was able to begin its operations. During the three-year existence of the project, portions of the site were cleared and structures excavated and consolidated, (the Castillo and the Pinturas Group by Peniche; the Iglesia by Benavides and Jaime Garduño; El Cono by Benavides and Fernando Robles); the sacbes were investigated by Folan and by Benavides, who added 26 to the list of 19 previously known; the ceramics from test pits and trenches were studied by Robles; and Jaime Garduño surveyed two transects of the site, one of 10 km north-south and another of 5 km east-west.
At the start of the 1980s another road to Coba was opened up and paved, and a regular bus service begun. Coba became a tourist destination shortly thereafter, with many visitors flocking to the site on day trips from Cancún and the Riviera Maya. Only a small portion of the site has been cleared from the jungle and restored by archaeologists. As of 2005 the resident population of Coba pueblo was 1,167. It grew to 1,278 by the 2010 census.