Thomas William Francis Gann.

The Maya Indians of southern Yucatan and northern British Honduras online

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thong passing between the great and second toes and around the







Fig. 2.— Gold earrings made and worn by the Santa Cruz

back of the heel to the front of the instep, where it is fastened.
Formerly the cotton was grown, spun, and woven at home, but
nowadays it is giving place to cheap imported English and Ameri-
can goods, while the sandals are being superseded by moccasins
and even by imported shoes. The moccasins the Indians make
themselves, tanning the hides (usually of deer or antelope) in lime
and red mangrove bark and
stitching the parts together
with thin strips of leather.
These moccasins, which
are made on crude wooden
lasts, are very comfortable
and wear well.

The women wear two gar-
ments of cotton; the huipil
(yupte) , a loose short-sleeved
blouse, cut square at the
neck, and reaching nearly

to the knees, and a short skirt reaching to between the knee and
the ankle, known as a pik. The neck, the lower border, and the
armholes of the blouse and the edge of the skirt were formerly
beautifully embroidered in varicolored floral and geometrical de-
vices; now, however, cotton manufactured in England or the United
States and stamped in colors to imitate the original embroidery
is rapidly coming into use. The women formerly went barefooted
or wore loose slippers; now they frequently wear imported shoes,
often with .high heels, a feature which renders their walk and
carriage awkward and stilted. They often go bareheaded, but
sometimes wear a sort of shawl (bostch) around the head and shoul-
ders. Many of them wear large round or oval plaques
of gold (tup) in the ears, survivals, probably, of the
enormous round ear disks worn by the ancient Maya
(fig. 2). Some of the women wear long gold chains,
with religious medallions attached, while the smaller
Fig. 3.— cross of tan- children wear a variety of curious objects, as small
corns, shells, beads, dried seeds, and berries, with fig-
urines in wood, stone, pottery, and metal, strung round
their necks. Many of these are worn as charms or amulets to pro-
tect the wearer against diseases, accidents, or evil spirits, or to bring
good luck. A charm worn by nearly all children consists of a
small cross of tancasche bark (fig. 3) which is regarded as a sov-
ereign remedy for flatulence, a complaint from which, owing to the
nature of their diet, nearly all suffer.

casche bark worn
by children.


Industrial Activities

Of all the arts practiced by the Indian, agriculture is by far
the most important; indeed the greater part of his time and labor
are devoted to the milpa (kol), or corn plantation, which
affords him his principal means of livelihood, for if the corn crop
fails he knows that actual starvation will menace his family until
the next crop is gathered. The virgin bush, in which the milpa is
made, is cut down about December or January, only the large and
hardwood trees being left standing. This is the most arduous part
of the work, and the neighbors often assist in it, being helped in
turn when making their own milpas. The bush is allowed to dry
until the end of May (the dry season lasting from January to May),
when it is burned off. After the burnt area has been cooled by the
first shower of rain it is planted in corn (mm). This is a simple
operation, two or three men going over the ground, each with a bag
of corn and a sharp -pointed stick, making small holes at fairly regular
intervals, into each of which they drop a few grains of corn, and
then cover them with earth. About October the corn begins to ripen,
whereupon each stalk is bent about a foot below the ear and allowed
to hang down for several days in order that rain may not gain
entrance and spoil the grain in the final stages of ripening. During
this period the owner spends nearly all his time in the milpa, sleeping
there in a little palm-leaf shack at night, since many animals, as
deer and wild hogs, are very fond of corn, which is subject to raids
also by neighboring Indians and by tame pigs from the village.
When the corn is ripe, it is stored, still in the husk, upon a low plat-
form, in a small house specially built for the purpose, often, in order
to avoid transportation, situated within the milpa. It is shelled as
required for use, the surplus from that eaten by the family and
stock being exchanged at the nearest village for cash or for cotton
cloth, rum, iron cooking pots, ammunition, and other luxuries. The
shelling is done by rubbing the husked ear against a rough flat sur-
face, made by binding a number of corncobs (bacal) together into a
circle with liana. Many fruits and vegetables besides corn are grown
in the milpa, including yams (xaci macal), camote (is), pumpkins
(kuum), squashes {xka), tomatoes (paak), plantains (haz), colalu
(xterkoch), aguacate (on), plums (abal), oranges (ydkaal), siricote
(kopte), sapodillas (ya), mamai (chacal haz), okra, garden egg, melon,
breadfruit, sweet lime, pineapple, and a variety of others.



Both men and women take for the first meal of the day a hot
thick drink known as posol, made from ground corn and water,
often flavored with honey; later they eat tortillas, beans, and chili
pepper, accompanied with a cold drink made from corn. In the
evening they make their principal repast, which includes game,
pork, fish, or eggs, with beans and other vegetables, plenty of chili
pepper, and either chocolate or some hot drink made from corn.
They use a great variety of drinks concocted of ground maize and
water, including chocosacan, a solution of the masa from which
tortillas are made, in water, flavored with a little salt; pinol, a
solution of ground toasted corn -seasoned with pimento and other
spices; posol, boiled corn ground to a paste and mixed with hot
water; sacJia, very much like posol, but the corn is not cooked
soft, so that the beverage is gritty; and, lastly, atol, which is cho-
cosacan boiled till the mixture becomes thick and glutinous.

Tortillas, or corn cake, sometimes eaten hot, sometimes cold,
and at times toasted, are the Indian's chief mainstay in the way
of food, as they appear at every meal, and at a pinch he can exist
on them alone for a very long period. Tortillas are made in the
following way: The grain is first soaked overnight in a lye of wood
ashes, treatment which softens the grain and loosens the outer husk.
The softened grain is next ground into a fine paste on an oblong
stone, slightly concave, known as a metate (ka), by means of a
stone rolling pin thicker in the middle than at the ends, designated
as a brazo (u Jcabka). This procedure takes considerable time, as
the grain has to be ground a number of times in order to get the
paste to the required degree of fineness. When the paste or masa
is ready it is flattened by hand into small round cakes (tortillas),
which are baked on an iron or earthen plaque (xamach) over a glow-
ing wood fire.

The hunters are experts at barbecuing {macaii) the carcasses of
various birds and animals, chiefly deer, peccary, wild turkey, and
curassow, as they often get a large supply of game when several
days' journey from the village, which, unless preserved in some way,
would quickly spoil. The carcasses are cut into joints; the birds
plucked, cleaned, and split open; and the meat thus prepared is
hung in a small palm-leaf shack rendered as nearly airtight as pos-
sible, upon the floor of which is kindled a fire of damp cedar chips.
These give off some heat and great quantities of aromatic smoke,
so that in about 24 hours the meat is sufficiently cured to last for
several weeks. Meat prepared in this way is considered a great
delicacy. If it is wished to preserve the meat for longer periods
the process is prolonged and salt may be rubbed in. Strips of meat


and carcasses of birds may sometimes be seen hanging from the
rafters over the fire in the kitchen so desiccated, hard, and black-
ened that it would appear impossible to eat them; but after months
of drying this meat, when soaked in warm water for 24 hours, is
not unpalatable. The Indians wash their hands before and after
eating, a very necessary practice, as they eat exclusively with their
fingers, using the tortillas to scoop up gravy, beans, and other
mushy foodstuffs. They eat at small round tables about 16 inches
high, sitting, or rather squatting, around them on little blocks of
wood 4 to 5 inches high. They are very fond of salt, which among
the coast Indians is obtained by evaporating sea water, among the
inland villages by trade from Yucatan and Guatemala. Since this
supply has been almost cut off, owing to the troubles with Mexico, the
Indians frequently use for salt the ashes obtained by burning botan
tops. Men and women do not eat together, as the women are pre-
paring relays of hot tortillas for the men while the meal lasts. Their
food and mode of eating is well described by Landa (chap, xxi,
p. 120) :

Que por la mafiana toman la bebida cablente con pimienta, como esta dieho y
entre dia las otras frias, y a la noche los guisados. Y que si no ay carne hazen sus
salsas de la pimienta y legumbres. Que no acostumbravan comer los hombres con
las mugeres, y que ellos comian por si en el suelo, o quando mucho sobre una serilla
por mesa: y que comen bien quando lo tienen, y quando no, sufren muy bien la
hambre y passan con muy poco. Y que se lavan las manos y la boca despues de

Indeed, the foregoing description would apply almost as well to
Indians of the more remote villages of the present day as to those
of the time immediately after the conquest. In localities where
they have come in contact with more civilized communities their
menu has been considerably enlarged by the introduction of im-
ported foodstuffs, while their methods of eating have been changed
by the introduction of knives, forks, and spoons. The native
methods of cooking are very primitive. Three large flat stones
so placed as to form an equilateral triangle, known as koben, form
the only fireplace; in this is kindled the fire of sticks or split logs,
over which is placed the earthenware or iron cooking pots or plaque
for baking tortillas, resting on the stones. Fire (Jcaak) is usually
obtained through the use of matches among the Indians of British
Honduras. Hunters and others who spend a great part of their
time in the bush employ flint and steel. Among the Indians in the
remote villages fire is still made by swiftly rotating a sharp-pointed
shaft of some hardwood (usually dogwood) in a hole made in a
small slab of very light dry wood (commonly gumbo limbo) . There
is no chimney to the kitchen, the smoke finding its way out as best
it can through the doors and crevices in the walls; consequently



the whole of the interior, with its permanent furnishings, is colored
a fine rich brown.


It must be admitted that the Indian is no sportsman in the pur-
suit of game, the claims of the pot being always paramount. He
rarely shoots at a flying bird unless to fire into the midst of a flock
of parrots or wild ducks, and when after the larger game he waits
till he can deliver the contents of his gun point-blank into some vital

Fig. 4.— Powder horn and measure of bamboo used by the Indians.

part. This practice may be due partly to the limitations of his
weapon, which till recent years consisted of a muzzle-loading section
of gas pipe, nearly as dangerous when discharged to the hunter
as to the game, and partly to the fact that the bush is usually so
dense that an animal, if not shot at point-blank range, can not
be gotten at all. It is probably not more than four generations
since the use of the bow and arrow died out among the Indians
in the western part of British Honduras, as old men among them

Fig. 5.— Watertight box for caps, matches, or tinder, with corncob stopper.

have told me that they could remember seeing a few still in use
when they were very young. The flint arrowheads, they said,
were obtained down the Mopan River. This seems quite possible, as
at Baker's, not far from Belize, there is an outcrop of flint, where,
judging by the great heaps of fresh-looking chips and rejects still
in existence, a considerable " factory" must have existed at a com-
paratively recent date. Some of these old men could still make
fairly serviceable bows and arrows, the heads of the latter being cut
from hardwood.


The principal game animals of this region are the deer (ke), two
species of wild hog, the warri and peccary (Jcekem), gibmit (halib),
armadillo (vetsh), wild turkey (kutz), parrot (tut), pigeons of various
kinds (mucui), curassow (kambul), quam (cosh), quail (num.), and
partridge (mankolom). Besides these, birds in great variety, rep-
tiles, and mammals are killed and eaten from time to time, including
plovers, garzas, toucans, water hens, wild ducks, and chichalacas.
The iguana (tolok) is eaten by the Indians in the west of British Hon-
duras, as are also the woula (ochkan), a large constrictor snake, and
the rattlesnake, known as the cazon i leash, or "little shark of the
woods." Turtles (sacak) are often captured along the east coast of
Yucatan and the adjacent islands, and their eggs in the breeding
season form a great delicacy for the Santa Cruz Indians living in
the neighborhood of Tuluum. Hicatec (ak) and bucatora are caught
in great numbers in all the rivers and lagoons. The tiger (balam),
puma (coh), picote (chic), monkey (maash), tapir (tzimin), squirrel
(kuuk), cane rat (tso), and other animals are hunted from tune to
time, either for their skins or flesh. Deer are secured in considerable
numbers in the rutting season by imitating their call with a wooden
whistle (fig. 6) ; they are also found in the milpas, just after the burning,

Fig. 6.— Whistle for attracting deer by imitating their call.

where they come to lick the slightly saline ashes. At this time the
owners build platforms on poles 10 to 12 feet high, on top of which
they spend the whole night in an extremely cramped and uncom-
fortable position, waiting for deer or other game to approach near
enough for an easy shot. A favorite method of hunting the larger
game animals is to go out at night with a split-pine torch attached
to the hat; this attracts animals of all kinds, whose eyes may be
seen gleaming in the dark, affording an easy mark, though not
infrequently a neighbor's errant pig pays the penalty of curiosity.

Traps of two kinds are in common use. One employed to snare
larger game is constructed in the following way: A path frequented
by game in going to and from a watering place is found; along this
is dug a shallow trench opposite a good springy young sapling; two
stakes are driven in, one on each side of' the trench, the one farthest
from the tree being crooked at the top. A piece of henequen cord,
provided with a noose at one end, and with a stick long enough to
extend from one stake to the other, firmly tied by its middle above
the noose, is attached to the top of the sapling by its other end.
The sapling is then bent down and held in place by the stick above
the noose, which is fixed lightly between the crook in one stake and



the stake opposite to it, the loop hanging suspended between the
two. Lastly, a number of sticks and leaves are scattered lightly over
the trench and beside the stakes and loop. Animals coming along
the run are very apt to put their necks in the loop, and by pulling
on this, to release the cross stick, whereupon they are immediately
suspended in the air by the jerking back of the bent sapling.
Animals of all sizes, from rabbits^to tigers, are caught in traps of
this kind, the strength and adaptability of which vary with the size
of the bent tree and the adjustment of the noose. Another trap,
used only for small animals, consists of an oblong cage made of split
bamboo or cabbage bark. Over the opening, which is in the top,
rests an accurately balanced strip of board, baited at one end- with
corn. When the animal endeavors to reach the bait it is precipitated
into the trap, and the board swings back into place, covering the
exit. Before they obtain guns the boys use slings, with which they
can throw pebbles with remarkable force and accuracy, bringing
down birds, squirrels, and other small game. They keep many tame
animals, some for food, others as pets, including pigs, dogs, cats,
peccaries, gibnuts, rabbits, quashes, nicos de noche, and squirrels;
also birds, as parrots, doves, quam, curassow, chichalaca, sinsonte,
pavo real, and many others.


Many fish are found in the coastal waters, in the rivers, and in the
lagoons of the interior, including cazones, tarpon, skipjacks, snappers,
eels, baracoudas, stone bass, cobarli, jewfish, tubers, bay snooks,
river snooks, and a variety of others. They are caught with hook and
line, in cast and seine nets, in traps, and by spearing or harpooning.
Fish traps are cylindrical in shape, with a funnel-shaped opening
at each end, the apex of the funnel pointing toward the center of the
trap, so that entrance is easy but exit very difficult. The traps,
made of split bamboo, are placed upon the bottoms of rivers or
lagoons, baited with "masa," which attracts multitudes of the tiny
fish there abounding; these in their turn attract larger fish, which
enter the trap in pursuit of the small fry and are captured. Har-
pooning at night by the light of a split-pine torch is about the nearest
approach to real sport which the Indian enjoys; this is usually done
near the bar of a river, on a calm dark night, by three men in a
canoe, one paddling, one holding the torch, and the third wielding
the harpoon. This implement consists of a slender cane 10 to 12
feet in length provided with a sharp barbed spindle-shaped steel head,
fitting into the hollow at one end, so that on striking the fish the
head parts from the shaft to which it is attached by a cord held in
the hand of the harpooner. The fish are attracted by the light of
the torch, and the harpooner strikes at the swirl which they make



[bull. 64

alongside the dory. Harpooning is rather an exciting form of sport,
as it is impossible to tell what sort of fish has been struck until it
is landed. Hicatee and bucatora are harpooned with an unbarbed
triangular point, this giving the best hold on their tough shells ; they
are captured also by spreading small nets in the vicinity of the stumps
and holes along the river banks, which they frequent.


The Indians construct their houses
in the following manner: First a
number of straight trees about 8
inches in diameter at the base and
crotched at the top are selected in
the bush for posts. These are usu-
ally Santa Maria, chichem, sapo-
dilla, or some hardwood. They are
cut down, and after having been
peeled are dragged to the site of the
new house, where they are firmly
^planted, one at each of the four cor-
ners and others, the number de-
pending on the size of the house, at
short intervals between in the lines
of the walls. In the crotches other
slightly smaller poles 5 to 6 inches
in diameter, also peeled, are laid; to
these are attached still smaller poles,
which run up to the ridgepole
Qionache), forming rafters (uinciche).

Fig. 7.-Indian carrying load of bejuco, a liana All ^big framework is firmly bound
used as ropo in houcs building. . , ,, „ , .

together by means ot ropes or liana
(fig. 7) . Rows of long thin pliable sticks are next bound round the
rafters, and to these are attached layer upon layer of " huana " (sJiaan)
leaves till a thatch, sometimes 18 inches thick and quite impervious
to rain, is formed (pi. 4).

The walls between the posts are filled in with "tasistas," a small
palm trunk, or in some cases with strips of split cabbage palm. The
outer sides of the walls may be daubed with a mixture of mud and
hair, or of chopped fiber (paHoom), and whitewashed, or they may
be thatched with palm leaves. The floor is made of marl dust
pounded down to a flat hard surface.

Doors and windows may be made of wickerwork of liana, of split
cabbage palm, or of a frame of sticks thatched with palm leaves.
When a man undertakes the building of a new house his neighbors













usually help him, and the residence is ready for occupancy in a few
days, as all the materials are growing ready to hand in the neighbor-
ing forest, and require only cutting down and assembling. The
facility with which their dwellings are constructed, and the difficulty
in getting more than one or two crops in succession from each plan-
tation, with their primitive agricultural methods, probably account
for the frequent changes in site which one notices in Indian villages.
As the lands in one neighborhood become impoverished, the popula-
tion has a tendency gradually to desert the old village, and start a
new one in a more favorable locality.

The kitchen, which is a replica of the house on a small scale, is
usually placed a few yards be-
hind it.'

The furniture is of the sim-
plest, consisting of a small
round cedar table, with a lit-
tle bowl-shaped projection
which contains a lump of masa
when tortillas are being made
and chili peppers or salt at
mealtimes. The seats are mere
blocks of wood, 3 or 4 inches
high (caanche), with perhaps
one or two more pretentious
low hollow-backed wooden
chairs covered with deer skin
or " tiger" skin. A number of
calabashes of all shapes and
sizes, with a few earthen
water jars, iron cooking pots,
and plaques for baking tortil-
las, are found in all houses.
Hammocks (Man) of cotton or henequen fiber are always conspicu-
ous articles of furniture, as they are slung all around the room,
making it very difficult to move about in it when they are let
down. In many houses contact with the hammocks is not desir-
able, as lice have a habit of leaving the body of the hammock
during the day and secreting themselves in the knots between
the body and the arms, whence they may transfer themselves to the
garments of the unwary. If the hammock is large the father and
mother often sleep in one, their heads at opposite ends, while the
smaller children, frequently to the number of three or four, occupy
another. There can be no such thing as privacy, as the whole family
commonly sleep, live, and eat in a single room, which at most is divided
into two apartments by a flimsy cotton curtain. A prominent

Fig. 8.— Domestic altar.


object in most Indian houses is an altar (cancJie), or high square
table, upon which stands a wooden cross (fig. 8). The altar is
covered with a cotton cloth, embroidered in flowers and religious
symbols; the cross is draped with ribbon or strips of colored fabric,
and sometimes with crude models, in silver or gold, of legs, arms,
and hands, representing thank offerings to some favorite Santo for
the healing of corresponding parts of the body. Little images in
wax, and, if the Indian can obtain them, religious oleographs and
medallions, with colored-glass vases, are commonly found upon the
altar, which is frequently dressed with fresh flowers.

The Indian's only tool is his machete, a heavy cutla^s-like knife,
about 16 inches long; with this he cuts and cleans his mnlpa, makes
his house and most of his furniture, digs postholes, and fights and
defends himself.

His indispensable belongings consist of a hammock, a few cal-
abashes and pots, a machete, and a cotton suit, all of which he
can carry slung over his back in a macapal; with his wife and
dogs trotting behind him, he can leave his old home and seek pas-
tures new with a light heart and untroubled mind, knowing that
the bush will provide for all his needs.


Pottery making is rapidly dying out through the greater part

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Online LibraryThomas William Francis GannThe Maya Indians of southern Yucatan and northern British Honduras → online text (page 2 of 15)