Monday, October 30, 2017

Natural Rubber -- An Ancient Resource

Centuries upon centuries before the invention of artificial rubber, ancient peoples in Mesoamerica learned how to make natural rubber using plants. While not the first to make rubber, as far as has been found, among these peoples was the ancient Maya, who used it in several ways.

The Tree They Used
So far, it looks like the ancient Maya, and the peoples in Mesoamerica generally, looked to Castilla elastica. You may also see it called other scientific names -- including C. lactiflua, Ficus gummifera, C. gummifera, and Castilla panamensis. However, a common name for it is the rubber tree.

The rubber tree grows around 33 or 65 to 100 or 164 feet tall, has gray-brown bark, flowers as well as fruits, and has very long leaves (around 8 to 18 inches long!) When the tree's trunk gets cut, a lot of white latex -- a kind of sap -- comes out, and it is this latex that is one of the most important ingredients for ancient Maya and Mesoamerican rubber.

Making Rubber
You make rubber tree latex solid just by cooking it down like you do for stew -- but that doesn't make very good rubber. So how did the ancient Maya make bouncy and strong rubber? They (and the peoples in Mesoamerica generally) may have made rubber by mixing juice from the vines of tropical white morning glories (Ipomoea alba.) The juice has sulfur in it, which affects how the latex's molecules are connected to each other.

One way the ancient Maya used their rubber was to make balls for the ballgame. The rubber balls the players used were as heavy as 6 to 10 pounds! (It's also understood there were lighter ones too. These balls had hollow interiors -- made by placing a skull in the middle.)

Vase from 600 AD to 900 AD that shows a ball game.
From this page on the Los Angeles
 County Museum of Art's site. 

But it wasn't just balls for the ballgame that the ancient Maya made rubber. They also burned it in incense burners/incensarios; and they burned it with copal, or copal and chicle tree latex too. They burned these substances as part of their religious rituals.

An incense burner made of ceramic.
It came from Guatemala and dates to the
400s AD to 500s AD. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"The Ancient Maya of Mexico: Reinterpreting the Past of the Northern Maya Lowlands"; Geoffrey E. Braswell; 2012

"Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya"; Walter R.T. Witschey (editor); 2016

Trails of El Pilar: Rubber Tree

"Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, from the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley"; Jennifer P. Mathews, Gillian P. Schultz; 2009

Swarthmore College: ENVS 02 Human Nature, Technology, and the Environment: "Advancements in Rubber Processing"; Michael J. Pieropan; February 28, 2006

The Free Dictionary: Vulcanize

"Encyclopedia Book of the Year 2011"; Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.; 2011

Michigan State University College of Social Science Department of Anthropology: Rise of Civilization:  Mayan Ball Game

USDA Plants Profile: Tropical White Morning-Glory

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute: Flora Barro Colorado Island: Castilla Elastica

"The Forest of the Lacandon Maya: An Ethnobotanical Guide"; Suzanne Cook; 2016

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Seated Figure (Incensario)

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Ancient Maya Beekeeping

Two copies of bee images -- one of which may be in front of a hive -- 
in the Madrid Codex,taken from "Animal Figures in the Maya 
Codices" (1910) with modification by the author.
That's right, the ancient Maya kept bees too! But they didn't keep honeybees, which belong to the genus Apis. Instead, the Maya back then raised one (or perhaps more)  bees from the Melipona genus -- made up of "stingless" bees, or bees without stingers that work. The history of this activity kept on even past the Conquest and into today -- its modern name is meliponiculture.

The Beginning
So far, it looks like the specific part of the Preclassic Period called the Late Preclassic is the oldest time that archaeologists know there were beekeepers among the ancient Maya. As to where it began in the Maya area, one possibility is a smaller area that included a part of Guatemala, Mexico and Belize. Another source states that the first Maya keepers of stingless bees came from the Yucatan Peninsula.

As you read, the Maya kept at least one kind of stingless bee, these kinds of bees being species that cannot sting. The particular species that we know the ancient Maya kept from was Melipona beecheii. (They may have kept others species. In fact, one book used as a reference for this article said that they also raised species of the genus Trigona.)

Two common names and some spellings for M. beecheii are xunan kab/xunaan kaab/xunan cab and colelcab/kolil kab, which you may see translated as "royal lady bee," "lady bee," or other similar terms. For making hives, xunan kab only pick trees that have become hollow -- and the space in a tree has to be at least 12 inches or so across. They're known to be good pollinators of certain plants including vanilla, though they don't pollinate as many flowers when they're out and about as other bees in the same genus.

From what's understood, the ancient Maya kept their bees in hives that were hollowed out logs -- though some used other things, like limestone -- with the sides plugged up and with a hole on one long side as an entrance/exit. Archaeologists have found disks made of stone that they think were plugs for hives' short sides-- they've found this kind of disk in the Postclassic, Preclassic and Classic Periods. 

The ancient Maya took both honey and cerumen -- or wax -- from their bees. The ancient Maya used xunan kab wax as a sort of lighter fluid for their torches. However, this wax not only spits but smokes when you light it, so when it comes to burning solid pieces of wax, honeybee wax is better for burning.

As for the honey, it has a texture that is thinner than honey from honeybees (of which a popular variety is Apis mellifera.) Its color is also darker, and the flavor of it is not the same as honeybee honey. One way the ancient Maya used it was in their cooking, using it, for example, as an ingredient in chocolate drinks. Another way they used honey was for religious purposes: as an ingredient in a drink used in rituals called balche -- a fermented mixture of honey, balche/balché (Lonchocarpus longistylus) bark, and water -- and as an offering to gods. A third way they used honey was in medicinal practices -- like honeybee honey, xunan kab honey's chemical makeup includes hydrogen peroxide, which can kill bacteria.

It seems that the ancient Maya had more than one god of bees. But one that we know about is Ah Mucen Kab. (You may also see other spellings, such as "Mucen" given instead as "Mucan," "Musen," or "Muzen.")  the Madrid Codex, you can see pictures of bees, hives and gods next to beehives -- such as Itzamná (god D) -- in pages that you may see called the bee almanac. Archaeologists think they've found examples of beehives and an image of Ah Mucen Kab as parts of the design of an incense burner/icensario/censer (from Cozumel) that may have been made around 1450 AD.

On a related note, there's a theory that says the ancient Maya thought of one of the Hero Twins, Xbalanque (also known as Yax Balam) had a connection with bees.

Here's a 2011 video on the xunan kab (that I've also used as a reference) -- it includes some of what life is like for them and Maya beekeepers in modern times:


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Ceiba: A Sacred Tree

From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department
of Commerce. Taken by Maxfield Weiss, NOAA NMFS IA.
Two kinds of ceiba live where the Maya lived and live: Ceiba aesculifolia and Ceiba pentandra. Of the two, the species scientifically known as Ceiba pentandra is the one that it seems archaeologists think the ancient Maya held as a sacred tree. Let's look at the tree itself and what the ancient Maya may have believed about it.

This tree has a lot of names. For example, it has two other scientific names: Bombax pentandrum, Ceiba pentandra, and Eriodendron anfractuosum. And as for common names, it is also known as the white silk-cotton tree, bonga, ceibo, kapoctree, kapok tree, bongo and silk cotton tree.

Then there's the ancient Mayan name for the ceiba. It may be yáaxche' or ya'axche -- the first means "first tree," while the second one is "green/blue-green/blue tree." The common opinion, from the sources thus far found, seems to prefer the second name. (You may also see sources give the name/spelling of yaxche' or yaxte' as the ancient Mayan name for this tree.)
One way to draw what's thought to be the
ancient Maya name for ceiba. 

Ceibas rise around 65.6 and 131 feet to 164 feet tall -- some are even 200 feet tall! The tree has gray bark and has buttresses -- wedges around its base that help the tree keep from falling over. Its leaves are made up of stalks off of which smaller leaves grow -- the tree looses these leaves every year, starting in January and going until March.

Though not every year, when its loosing its leaves, the ceiba grows night-blooming flowers that are pollinated by creatures including bats and -- in the morning -- birds like hummingbirds. The flowers' color range includes beige, an extremely pale pink and white.

Another notable feature is inside the seed pods. There is a type of soft fiber in them -- which is called kapok silk -- in which are seeds. Kapok silk is like cotton, though not easy to spin, because it doesn't naturally stick to itself as well as cotton. For ceiba trees, the point of the silk is to have something that floats the seeds away from itself, so that ceibas may grow in other places. But for people -- possibly including the ancient Maya -- the silk is useful in other ways, such as for batting in cushions. (A little more on this substance in the next section.)

These trees also have a surprising feature -- spines shaped like cones can grow right out of their trunks. It's believed that these spines keep away animals that eat plants. More often, you'll find it easier to see these spines for yourself by looking for ceibas that aren't very old.

Possible Ancient Maya Uses
There are different ideas that talk about possible uses the ancient Maya may have had for  the ceiba. One idea is that the ancient Maya may have used ceiba wood to make canoes.

Other ideas, focus on kapok silk. One idea wonders if the Maya used the fiber to stuff cushions for thrones. Another wonders if they spun it along with cotton to help compensate its inability to stick to itself like other fibers used to make cloth.

Ancient Maya Cultural Connection
The ancient Maya thought this tree was the World Tree. They believed that there was a ceiba that touched all three of the worlds that they thought existed: the upper world, the world of humans and the underworld, where the tree's roots were. The ancient Maya also thought the ceiba kept these worlds as the separate levels. (However, it must be noted that there are images of the World Tree as a different being, such as a crocodile.)

Ceiba Trees in Art/Writing
Some examples of ancient Maya representations of the ceiba tree can be found at the site of Palenque, where they liked to draw it kind of like a cross. (Why a cross? An explanation is that when ceiba trees aren't very old, that's what they kind of look like.) You may have seen one of these already: it's part of the coffin of the famous ruler, Pakal. Very noticeable among the coffin top's carvings is an image thought to be a ceiba.

If you look through the Maya codices, you can find pictures and sentences involving the ceiba. Using the search engine in the site The Maya Hieroglyphic Codices, it looks like drawings of as well as references to ceibas can be found in the Dresden Codex and the Madrid Codex. (The Paris Codex has, at least now, only references to ceibas, and the Grolier Codex didn't show up in the results.)

And there are even more artifacts. Some ancient Maya incense burners or incensarios as well as funerary urns may also be connected to the ceiba. Why? Because the artists who made them used spikes as part of the design, which may have been meant to look like ceiba spines.

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service: Plants Databas: Plants Profile: Ceiba pentandra (kapoctree)

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute: Bocas del Toro: Species Database: Ceiba pentandra

University of California, Santa Barbara: Institute of Social, Behavioral and Economic Research (ISBER): MesoAmerican Research Center: Trails of El Pilar: Plants of El Pilar: Ceiba

Integrated Taxonomic Information System: ITIS Report Page: Ceiba pentandra

USDA Forest Products Labratory: Center for Wood Anatomy Research: Technology Transfer Fact Sheet: Ceiba pentandra

"Maya Sacred Geography and the Creator Deities"; Karen Bassie-Sweet; 2008

"Animals & Plants of the Ancient Maya: A Guide"; Victoria Schlesinger; 2001

"Space and Sculpture in the Classic Maya City"; Alexander Parmington; 2011

Google Books: "The Origins of Maya States"; Loa P. Traxler, Robert J. Sharer (editors); 2016

The Maya Hieroglyphic Codices: Search Results  (for ceiba)

"Beyond Kinship: Social and Material Reproduction in House Societies"; Rosemary A. Joyce, Susan D. Gillespie (editors); 2000

"Ancient Maya Commerce: Multidisciplinary Research at Chunchucmil"; Scott R. Hutson (editor); 2017

Florida State University: DigiNole: "Highland Maya Effigy Funerary Urns: A Study of Genre, Iconography, and Function"; Kathleen Garrett McCampbell; 2010

University ofAlbany SUNY: Institute for Mesoamerican Studies Occasional Publication No. 17"Postclassic Pottery Censers in the Lowlands: A Study of Form, Function and Symbolism"; Bradley W. Russell; 2017

Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing No. 54: "The Idol-Makers in the Madrid Codex"; Mary A. Ciaramella; 2004

FAMSI: Maya Codices: The Dresden Codex (pages 60 to 74)

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Ix Wak Chan Ajaw (Lady Six Sky)

Author's note: The names of places refer to specific cities that are now archaeological sites, but they also refer to city-states that existed at the time.

Guatemala colored in blue.
From the CIA World Factbook.

When you see her name in English, it's Lady Six Sky or Lady Six Sky Queen. When written down in its original form you'll see Ix Wak Chan Ajaw or Ix Wac Chanil Ahau -- and there's also the mixture of English and Mayan, Lady Wac-Kan Ahaw. A child of Lady B'ulu' and a ruler named B'alaj Chan K'awiil, she became part of Calakmul's desire to keep a hold on Naranjo.

How she helped achieve this goal makes her and the politics of the time something of a mystery. Though it seems she always kept her connection to her home, this royal lady is known for being one of Naranjo's rulers, her reign taking place in the Late Classic (around 600 AD to 800 AD.) Which wasn't that common for when she lived.

Ix Wak Chan Ajaw came from the family that ruled Dos Pilas, located in the south of the Peten region, in Guatemala. Calakmul controlled Dos Pilas and B'alaj Chan K'awiil -- Ix Wak Chan Ajaw's father -- seems to have been completely fine with this.

Meanwhile, Naranjo wasn't. It had also been under Calakmul's power, but two rulers (the 36th and 37th) had tried to rebel. However, neither of these two rulers won their wars.

Because of their actions, Ix Wak Chan Ajaw was sent all the nearly 94 miles to Naranjo. She was to bring it properly back into Calakmul's hands. This is the mystery of Ix Wak Chan Ajaw, because from what archaeologists understand, ancient Maya rulers following tradition wouldn't have sent her. They would have ordered their second sons to go, not their daughters.

To achieve the goal of making Naranjo's acceptance of Calakmul's authority permanent, Ix Wak Chan Ajaw may have married someone who belonged to a different branch of Naranjo's royalty. This would have made that branch more impressive -- and whoever agreed to marry her would, of course, be agreeing to do what Calakmul wanted. Either that or her status was enough to start a royal line with whoever she married.

Yet it wasn't simply as a wife that she went. Ix Wak Chan Ajaw ruled.

Though you won't find her name in Naranjo's list of rulers, Ix Wak Chan Ajaw's reign began in 682 AD. From what this author can tell, this date is thought to be the start of her reign because of an inscription that says she arrived at her destination that year, on August 27th. This record may or may not be literally true, due to nuances around the word "arrive." (Apparently, there's a nuance connected to this word about starting royal lines.) At any rate, five years after she "arrived" at Naranjo, the future ruler of Naranjo was born.

The name of this future ruler name was K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Chaak, and he became Naranjo's ruler officially in 693 AD, even though he was five years old. K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Chaak (who is also known today by a number of names including Smoking Squirrel) may or may not have been Ix Wak Chan Ajaw's son -- the likelihood of this depends on who you talk to. But just because Naranjo had a new "real" ruler, it doesn't mean that Ix Wak Chan Ajaw's power ended.

(On a side note, one possible piece of evidence that she was his mother involves monuments. K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Chaak would always have a monument made for her each year -- each time he had a yearly monument made to mark his becoming Naranjo's ruler. These monuments seem to have been made to say that her lineage was the reason he deserved to be the ruler, which could mean he was her son.)

For instance, a stela at Naranjo called Stela 22 lists eight war-related events, starting in 693 AD -- these events seem like they must have been brought about through the orders of Ix Wak Chan Ajaw. (Though K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Chaak was ruler in title and was the one given the credit, he would seem to be far too young, at five years old.) K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Chaak seems to have eventually started ordering his own military actions, though.

Why did Ix Wak Chan Ajaw go to war so much? Some actions may have been for the sake of Calakmul. Others may have been because other nearby city-states thought they'd try their luck warring against Naranjo when a woman was ruler.

Death and Considerations
Ix Wak Chan Ajaw may have passed on in 741 AD, possibly on either February 11th or February 10th.  (A record of her passing was found at Dos Pilas.) No one knows whether or not K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Chaak ruled Naranjo after that, because he may have died before she did.

If she did live longer than K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Chaak, then she may have kept his successor from taking his place, continuing to rule Naranjo until she died too. You may even see 741 AD as the year listed for the end of her reign. However, since the death dates aren't nailed down, nothing is for sure. (On a related note, the successor, Yax Mayuy Chan Chaak, was taken in a war started by Tikal in 744 AD.)


Mesoweb Encyclopedia: Lady Six Sky

Mesoweb Encyclopedia: K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Chaak

"Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya"; Walter R.T. Witschey (editor); 2016

"Ancient Maya Women"; Traci Arden (editor); 2002

"The Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks, and Ancient Cities"; James D. Nation; 2006

Monday, October 16, 2017

Ancient Maya Weaving

Author's note: For a related post, on clothing, go here.
From Yale University's Art Gallery Collections.

Much has been lost through the passage of time, but archaeologists do know some things about how the ancient Maya made cloth. They also have some ideas about what they did with it after it was made. Curious? Then keep reading!

The ancient Maya made cloth with a species called upland cotton (Gossypium hirsutum.)(They also may have gotten cooking oil from the seeds of this plant.) Was this the only plant they used to make cloth from? No, it wasn't.

Upland cotton seeds. Some still have some cotton fibers.
Steve Hurst, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.
It seems like they would take fiber from the leaves of the century plant -- also called the maguey -- (Agave americana) to make cloth. (They also used thorns from the tips of maguey leaves to make needles.)

Agave americana. From the National Park Service's
Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

How They Made Thread
The ancient Maya spun their thread with what's called a spindle whorl. It's made with a disk called a whorl, which has a hole that a stick is stuck into. The spindle is spun, and the whorl's weight helps to keep the spindle moving -- this spinning motion twists fiber attached to the spindle into thread.

How They Wove
The Maya wove with a loom called the backstrap loom. One of this loom's ends has a strap whose middle rests against the back of the weaver's waist -- its sides pass under the weaver's arms. The other end of the backstrap loom gets tied to a tree. Weavers changed the tension on their weaving projects by changing the pressure they put on the strap -- aka leaning a different way.

Now, in weaving, there's the weft, which is what you weave with, and the warp, which you weave the weft through. For a making a weaving, the ancient Maya would use what's called a warping frame to get the right amount. After they'd got the right amount, they'd treat the warp thread to help keep it from snapping as they wove.

What They Wove
The Maya made cloth items including (but not limited to) curtains, clothes and wraps for items that held supernatural power that they used as part of their religious beliefs. Like other cultures, it's possible they used cloth as part of burying someone who had passed on. They also made cloth to be used for trade.

The climates in the Maya area tend to be too humid -- that is, there's too much water in the air -- for cloth to last. But archaeologists have found pieces of cloth (see the Significance: Cloth Artifacts section further on in this post.) They also study other ancient Maya artifacts, ones that show people. Here's a small gallery with some examples of artifacts that show people:

gallery image

Weaving and Gender
Was weaving women's work? So far, the answer looks like yes. Pre-Colonial art seems to say so. And, at times, archaeologists have also found weaving tools in burials of elite women. This connection was in ancient Maya religion as well -- there are images of beings thought to be creator goddesses who wear items in their hair connected to weaving.

Consideration: Decoration
One of the ways that the ancient Maya decorated their cloth was by dying it -- two sources of dye they used came from logwood or palo de tinte (Haematoxylum campechianum) and the females of different types of cochineal bugs (which belong to the genus Dactylopius.) Painting cloth was another way they decorated with colorants, though the source (Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya) did not say whether dyes were used as paint or the ancient Maya actually used paint.

There are two other ways the ancient Maya fancied up their cloth -- at least towards the end of the Postclassic Period. One was embroidery. The other was brocade. (This technique is when you weave a design into your cloth that is thicker than the rest of the cloth, making it stick up.)

Significance: Cloth Artifacts
One place archaeologists have found cloth is the Sacred Cenote, a cenote at the site of Chichén Itzá, in the Yucatan Peninsula. They dug up the bottom, and they found various types of cloth like twill, gauze and brocaded cloth. (They also found other artifacts.)

Another place archaeologists have discovered Maya cloth is Chiapas, a state in Mexico. One place they've found cloth in Chiapas is Chiptic Cave. However, while the pieces that came from there may date to the Postclassic period, they also may have been created after the Conquistadors showed up. This is because they date to around 1500 AD.


"Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya"; Walter R.T. Witschey"; 2016

 Yale University Art Gallery Collections: Seated Female Weaver

"The Ancient Maya" sixth edition; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006

"The Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks, and Ancient Cities"; James. D. Nations; 2006

"Top 100 Exotic Food Plants"; Ernest Small; 2012

"Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization"; Arthur Demarest; 2004

"Ethnobotany: A Phytochemical Perspective"; B.M. Schmidt, D.M. Klaser Cheng; 2017

"Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia: An Encylopedia"; Susan Toby Evans, David L. Webster (editors); 2001

"Bound in Twine: The History and Ecology of the Henequen-Wheat Complex for Mexico an the American and Canadian Plains, 1880-1950"; Sterling Evans; 2007

The Free Dictionary: Humidity

The Free Dictionary: Brocade

Image Gallery Credits:
In chronological order: Images one through three -- Yale University Art Gallery; images four and five: Metropolitan Museum Museum of Art.