Thomas William Francis Gann.

The Maya Indians of southern Yucatan and northern British Honduras online

. (page 3 of 15)
Online LibraryThomas William Francis GannThe Maya Indians of southern Yucatan and northern British Honduras → online text (page 3 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

of this area, owing to the importation of more convenient and dur-
able vessels. It is undertaken almost exclusively by the older
women, who employ a fine light yellow clay mixed with sand or
powdered quartz. They make vessels in considerable variety, both
as to size and shape, which are used for the storage of water and dry
material, as corn, beans, and achiote, and as cooking pots. They
do not use a potter's wheel, but mold the smaller utensils by hand
and build up the larger by the addition of fragment upon fragment
of clay. The outside is smoothed over with a little wooden spade-
like implement. No polish, glaze, or paint is applied to the pottery,
either inside or out; the highest effort at decoration resulting in
merely a few incised lines just below the neck, or a rough scalloping
around the rim. The pottery is burned in a clear, open wood fire;
when completed the ware is known as ul.


The Indians living in the neighborhood of lakes and rivers possess
dories or canoes which vary in size from tiny craft 5 to 6 feet long
by 16 to 18 inches beam, capable of holding only a single individual,
to large craft 25 feet or more in length, large enough to hold a dozen
people. All their canoes are constructed by the simple process of
hollowing out large logs, the more durable ones being made from
cedar, the lighter ones from wild cotton (yaxche). The boats are







a. Yamal. b. Xunche. c. Sikinche. d. Toboche. e. Cheil. /. Mamacche. g. Yoch. h. Botoch.
i. New spindle, k. Old spindle. I. Cotton cloth.


pointed, bow and stern, and when steel tools are available to their
makers the lines are often very graceful. Many of the boats, how-
ever, follow to some extent the contours of the logs from wliich
they were made, being exceedingly clumsy and difficult to manage.
On the rivers and lakes the only method of propulsion is by means
f a broad-biaded cedar paddle about 5 feet long, or, where the water
$s shallow and the bottom hard, a long pole. Both men and women
;We acquired considerable dexterity in paddling and can keep it
up at a 4-mile-an-hour gait from early morning till late at night,
with very short intervals for refreshment. They use their canoes
|or trading corn, vegetables, lime, and live stock among villages
along the river banks, for line fishing, spearing, and netting, and
for getting from place to place. On the large lagoons and along
the seacoast they sometimes use the pole to support a lug sail.


Spinning (Jkuch) is done by means of a spindle Qiechech) of hard-
wood, 12 to 14 inches long, weighted about 3 inches from the bottom
with a hardwood or pottery ring
(pi. 5). The upper end is re-
volved by the finger and thumb
of the right hand, which are con-
stantly rubbed on a piece of stone-
like substance, made from deer-
skin burned and ground to a
powder, to prevent them from

, • i • /n „ v mi ,, Fig. 9.— Stonelike substance used to prevent fingers

Sticking (fig. 9). The COtton from sticking while spinning.

(taman) may be held in the left

hand, or on the shoulder; the lower end of the spindle rests in a
small calabash (luch), which is cemented into a support of woven
liana (met), the luch and met together being known as toll (fig. 10).

Weaving is done on a simple loom consisting of a cloth beam and
yarn beam (xunche) of light strong wood, connected by the warp
(cheil) (pi. 6) . The cloth beam is. attached round the back of the
weaver by a thick henequen cord (yarned), enabling him to tighten the
warp at will by simply leaning backward. The yarn beam is usually
attached to a doorpost. The shuttle (botosh) consists of a light
stick, pointed at both ends, on which the wpit is wound obliquely.
All the alternate warp strands may be raised together by means of
a heddle (mamacche) consisting of a number of loops- attached to a
rod, each loop passing round a warp strand, so that when the rod is
raised the warp threads are raised with it. The lease rods (halaMeh)
consist of splints of hard heavy wood, usually sapodilla, 2 to 3 inches
broad, one-third of an inch thick in the center, with sharp edges and
pointed ends. A loose rod (toboche) about the size of the yarn beam



[bull. 64

is used to roll up the completed material (yoch). The loom for
cotton cloth is usually 2\ to 3 feet broad, but much smaller looms
are frequently used for narrower strips of material


Tobacco Curing

the roof of
ill they are

The tobacco leaves are hung in bunches, often under
the corn house, in the milpa, in a free current of air,
thoroughly dry; they are then powdered in a shallop basin, or
the bottom cut from a large calabash, and mixed with the leaves of
the chiohle, a species of vanilla, which gives a distinctive flavor and
fragrance to the tobacco; finally the mixture is rolled into cigarettes
(filiiople) in a covering of corn husk (coloch) .

Fig. 10. — Calabash with liana base used in spinning.
Basket and Mat Weaving

Baskets are woven from a special thin tough liana and from split
cane; those of liana (ok), which are large and coarse, are ccmmonly
used for carrying corn from the milpa, slung over the shoulders like
a macapal. The split-cane baskets, which are smaller and more
neatly woven, are used in the house for all sorts of domestic purposes.

Henequen fiber is used by the Indians for a great variety of pur-
poses. The fiber is obtained from the leaf, which is cleaned upon a
smooth board (poJcche) about 4 feet long by 6 inches broad, in the
following way*: The top of the board is held against the lower part
of the operator's chest while the lower end rests on the floor. The
leaf is placed on the board and the juilp scraped from the fiber with
a bar of hardwood, triangular hi section. At the upper end of the
board is a deep notch in its side, in which the cleaned part of the
leaf is clamped, thus fixing the part which is being scraped. The


cleaning has to be done very early in the morning, as when the sun
gets hot the juice from the pulp produces an unpleasant itching rash
upon the skin. The fiber when cleaned and dried is made into rope
and cord; from the cord hammocks, sacks, a coarse kind of cloth,
and many other articles are manufactured. Candles are made by
dipping a wick of twisted cotton into melted black beeswax (box Tceb),
obtained from wild bees. Sometimes a number of the logs in which
the wild bees hive are brought in to the village and placed one above
the other, on trestles, to form a sort of apiary, in order that honey
and wax may be always obtainable.

Oil for cooking and for burning in small earthenware lamps with
twisted cotton wicks is obtained by breaking up the kernel of the
cuhoon nut and boiling it hi water. A clear rather thin oil floats to
the surface, which may easily be skimmed off. Near the sea coconut
oil is prepared in the same way.


The villages vary in size from two or three houses to two hundred
or more, with inhabitants numbering from 10 or 12 to more than
1,000. In the smaller villages the houses are very irregularly dis-
posed; in the larger they are arranged more or less regularly so as
to form streets around a large central space, or plaza, where the
dance house and church are usually situated. Each "house is sur-
rounded by its own patio, or yard, generally inclosed in a fence of
"tasistas," in which the bush is allowed to grow to a considerable
height in order to provide a convenient latrine for the women and
children. Dogs, pigs, and vultures serve as scavengers. Many of the
Indians, especially the Santa Cruz, are at great pains to conceal the
whereabouts of their villages. Along the main roads only a few
scattered groups of huts will be seen, while the larger villages are
approached by tracks so inconspicuous that they may easily be
missed. The villages themselves are surrounded by a maze of narrow
tortuous paths, in which a stranger may wander about for some time
before finding his way in. The Santa Cruz are said sometimes to
cut the tongues from their cocks in order to prevent them crowing
and so betraying the situation of the village.

The Indians are very jealous of outside interference hi their affairs
and do not permit foreigners to reside in their villages. An exception
was made in the case of a number of Chinese coolies imported into
British Honduras many years ago, most of whom ran away to the
Santa Cruz country, where they were well received and married
Indian wives. Among their offspring, it is interesting to note, are
found a very unusual proportion of defectives. On one occasion the
Mexican Government commenced to cut a road through from Peto
to Santa Cruz, the Indian capital. Five of the Santa Cruz Indians
went to see the work going on and were well received and given useful
presents. On returning to their own country, however, they were
executed by the head chief as traitors for encouraging the entry of
outsiders into their territory.

Marriage and Children

The Indian girls married formerly at about 14 or 15, the boys

at about 17 or 18 years. After the conquest of Bacalar, however,

and the expulsion of Yucatecans from Indian territory a law was

passed making marriage compulsory for all girls of 12 years of age



and upward. This was probably done with the idea of increasing
the population, which had been considerably depleted by the long-
continued war. Formerly, the first question of a girl's father to
her suitor was " Hai tzak a kul hai tzak taman? " (How many macates
of corn and cotton have you ?) ; but at the present day there are
not enough men to "go round." The Indians of British Honduras
are usually married by the Catholic priest, though the actual cere-
mony is often performed months or even years after the young
couple have set up housekeeping together, since owing to the re-
moteness of many of the Indian settlements the priest can visit
them only at long intervals. Among the Santa Cruz marriages are
not considered legal unless performed by an official known as the
yumxerib (probably derived from the Maya Yum, "lord," and Span-
ish escribano), who holds a position somewhat analogous to that
of colonial secretary in a British colony.

The babies and smaller children in general are pretty, merry
little things. The mothers almost invariably nurse them well into
the second year, as the mammary glands are remarkably well devel-
oped and the secretion is abundant and long continued. Children
are much desired by both parents and are well treated and loved,
though not spoiled. If the father and mother separate, the very
young children remain with the mother; of the older children, the
boys go with the father, the girls with the mother. If small chil-
dren are left destitute by the death of both parents, the nearest
relative takes them, and in the absence of relatives they are dis-
tributed by the subchief among families of his choosing in their
own village. When a man dies his widow takes the home, furniture,
domestic annuals, corn, and plantations; other possessions, if such
exist, are divided equally between the widow and the older chil-
dren, each taking such articles as will be most useful to him or her.
When a woman dies her jewelry, ornaments, and clothes are divided
between her daughters. The marriage tie is a somewhat loose one,
and the more the Indians come in contact with civilization the
looser it seems to become. In British Honduras, where the Indians
are closely associated with Spaniards, Mestizos, Negroes, and other
races, the women change their partners with the utmost facility.
The Negroes are called kisinbosh, "black devils," by the Indians,
a term which, however it originated, is now employed without any
particularly opprobrious significance, as many of the Maya women
show no repugnance to a Negro husband. A good deal of the
immorality is brought about by the cheapness of rum and* the facil-
ity with which it is obtainable by the Indians. The husband takes
to drmk, neglects his wife and family, and probably gets entangled
with some other woman; the wife, in order to obtain food, clothing,
70806°— 18— Bull. 64 3


and a shelter for herself and children, is driven to an alliance with
some other man who is a better provider. The consequence is that
in British Honduras all degrees of racial mixture are to be found
between Indian women and European, East Indian, Chinese, and
Negro men, who, again intermarrying, produce a bewildering racial

The Indians are a short-lived race, a fact due partly to their
indigestible and badly cooked food and partly to the prevalence
among them of malarial fever (chokuil), with accompanying anemia
(xcan mucui) and splenic enlargement (canchikin) , but chiefly to
overindulgence in alcohol whenever an opportunity offers. Notable
exceptions to this rule are, however, not uncommon, and once an
individual passes the four-score mark he or she is quite likely to live to
well over 100 years; dried up, wrinkled, and feeble, but clinging to
life with an almost incredible tenacity.


Landa frequently mentions the fact that in his day drunkenness'
(halted) was the curse of the Indians and the cause of many crimes
among them, including murder, rape, and arson. 1 At the present
time these remarks apply equally well; indeed, drunkenness is prob-
ably more prevalent than formerly, as the rum is made locally and
is far more intoxicating than the balclie, which Landa describes as a
drink made from fermented honey, water, and roots. Moreover, the;
people drink rum at all times and seasons, whereas both the prepara-
tion and consumption of balclie were to some extent ceremonial, as
was the resulting intoxication. Drunkenness is not considered in
any way a disgrace, but is looked on rather as an amiable weakness.
The women, especially the older ones, drink a good deal but they
usually do so, in the privacy of their own houses. I have seen,
however, a little girl of 14 or 15 purchase a pint of rum in a village
liquor store, and go out on the plaza, where she drank it in a few
gulps; then, lying down in the fierce heat of the afternoon sun, she!
lapsed into alcoholic coma. Alcohol effects an extraordinarily rapid
change for the worse in the Indian's temperament; from a quiet,
polite, rather deferential individual, he is converted almost in a
moment into a maudlin idiot, staggering about singing foolish
snatches of native songs, and endeavoring to embrace everyone he
comes in contact with. When thwarted while in this condition his
temper is likely to flare up at the slightest provocation, whereupon
the thin veneer of civilization and restraint is sloughed in a moment,,
and he becomes savage, impudent, overbearing, and contemptuous,

iQue los indios eran muy dissolutos en bever y emboracharse, de que les seguian muchos males, comd
matarse unos a otros, violar las camas . . . y pegar fuego a sus casas, — Landa, Relation de las Cosas de,
Yucatan, chap. XXII, p. 122.


toward the stranger, and ready to draw his machete and fight to
kill, with friend or foe alike.


On the death of the head chief (noh calan or noJboch yumtat) among
the Santa Cruz and Icaiche the oldest of the subchiefs (chan yum-
topilob) is supposed to succeed him; as a matter of fact there are
always rival claimants for the chieftainship, and the subchief with
the strongest personality or greatest popularity among the soldiers
usually succeeds in grasping the office. There are nearly always
rival factions endeavoring to oust the chief in power, and the latter
rarely dies a natural death. The village subchiefs are elected by
the people. The power of the head chief is practically absolute
over the whole tribe. Some years ago, when Roman Pec was head
chief, one of the subchiefs came to Corozal, the nearest town in
British Honduras, to purchase powder, shot, and other supplies.
He remained some time, as he had many friends in the place, and
obtained, among other things, a bottle of laudanum to relieve tooth-
ache. On returning to his village he was met by three soldiers,
who informed him that he was to go with them at once to the head
chief, as the latter was angry with him on account of his long absence
from the country. Aware that this was equivalent to a sentence of
death, he asked permission to retire to his house for a few minutes,
to get ready for the journey, and taking advantage of the oppor-
tunity, he swallowed the whole contents of the bottle of laudanum.
This began to take effect very shortly, and' long before reaching the
capital he was dead.

The method of executing those sentenced to death is curious.
The accused does not undergo a formal trial, but the evidence
against him is placed before the head chief; if he is convicted,
he has an opportunity of defending himself and of producing wit-
nesses in his behalf. Three or four soldiers are chosen by the chief
to carry out the sentence; this they do by chopping the victim
to death with their machetes when they catch him asleep or off
his guard. Several men always perform this act, all chopping the
victim at the same time, so that no single individual may be directly
responsible for his death. Imprisonment as a punishment for
crime is unknown, fine, flogging, and death being the only three
methods employed for dealing with criminals. Fines and flogging
may be administered by the subchiefs, but sentence of death can
•be passed only by the head chief. The severity of the flogging
is regulated by the nature of the offense, and after it is over the
recipient is compelled publicly to express sorrow for his crime and
go around humbly kissing the hands of all the spectators, after which
he is given a large calabash of anise to drink. The heaviest pun-


ishment is inflicted for witchcraft or sorcery, as the pulya, or sor-
ceress, is greatly dreaded by the Indians. She is literally chopped
limb from limb; but whereas the bodies of other victims executed
in this way are always buried, that of the pulya is left for the dogs
and vultures to dispose of. <

Military service is compulsory for all adult males among the
Santa Cruz, though many avoid such service by payment to the
chief of a certain sum in money or its equivalent. Small garrisons
were kept up at Santa Cruz, Chan Santa Cruz, Bacalar, and other
Indian towns where soldiers were permanently stationed. No uni-
form was provided, thoTigh many of the men were armed with
Winchester rifles. They were provided also with a ration of corn
and beans, and often took their wives along with them as cooks.

Diseases and Medicines

Indian men and women of all ages and classes, when attacked
by any serious malady, are found to be lacking in vitality and
stamina; they relinquish hope, and relax their grip on life very easily,
seeming to hold it lightly and as not worth a fight to retain.
An elderly man or woman will sometimes take to the hammock
without apparent physical symptoms of disease beyond the anemia
and splenitis from which nearly all suffer, and merely announce
lie in cimli, "I am going to die." They refuse to eat, drink,
or talk, wrap themselves in a sheet from head to foot, and finally
do succumb in a very short time apparently from sheer lack of
vitality and absence of desire to continue living.

Malaria is without doubt the chief scourge of the Indian's existence.
Many of the villages are built in low-lying situations, with mosquito-
breeding swamps all round them, while the scrubby bush and rank
vegetation are allowed to grow in the yards right up to the houses,
furnishing good cover and an excellent lurking place for the insects;
moreover, the Indians seldom use mosquito curtains, as they seem
to have acquired a sort of immunity to the irritation caused at night
by the noise and biting of the pests. Practically all Indians suffer
from malaria, which is the main cause of the splenic enlargement and
anemia so prevalent among them. In some cases the spleen reaches
an enormous size, nearly filling the abdominal cavity, and deaths from
a slight blow or fall, causing rupture of this organ, are by no means
uncommon. Malaria is usually treated by means of profuse sweating
(kilcabankil) , the patient lying wrapped in a cotton sheet in the
hammock, with a fire burning beneath and drinking sudorific bush
medicine. This in itself is an excellent remedy, but in the midst of
the sweat patients frequently plunge into cold water, thue becoming
thoroughly chilled, a procedure very apt to bring on pneumonia, to
which they are peculiarly subject.


The splenic enlargement is treated by applying a number of small
circular blisters (xacal) containing chichem juice to the skin, over
the affected organ, which seem to be remarkably efficacious in reduc-
ing the swelling.

In. the winter when the nights are cold the Indians often lie out
all night in the wet, a practice which frequently results in pneumonia
and death. Hookworms and many other varieties of intestinal para-
sites are prevalent, owing to the earth-eating habits of the children,
the earth being taken usually from the immediate vicinity of the
house, where pigs and other domestic animals have their quarters.
This disgusting habit no doubt accounts in part for the swollen bellies
and earthy color of many of the children.

Smallpox (leak) invading an Indian village is a terrible scourge,
far worse than in a more civilized community of the same size, where
partial immunity has been acquired. Sometimes the whole unaffected
population depart en masse, leaving the dead unburied and the
stricken lying in their hammocks, with a supply of food and water,
to do the best they can for themselves. The Indians employ the
same mode of treatment for this disease as for malarial fever —
sweating followed by immersion in cold water, treatment which, it
need hardly be said, is not infrequently followed by disastrous results.

Venereal diseases of all kinds are remarkably rare among all the
Indian tribes. Among the Santa Cruz and Icaiche such diseases were
practically unknown. Even among the mixed breeds of British
Honduras they are comparatively rare, notwithstanding the fact that
these natives have come much in contact with people of many other
races, especially of late years with Mexican Chicleros, nearly all of
whom are affected with venereal disease in one form or another.

Simple fractures of the long bones are set very neatly and skill-
fully in the following way: The fractured limb is pulled away
from the body with considerable force in order to overcome the dis-
placement; over the fractured bone is wound a thick layer of cotton
wool, and over this are applied a number of small round, straight
sticks, completely surrounding the limb, their centers corresponding
nearly to the seat of fracture; these are kept in place by a firm
binding of henequen cord. The limb, if an arm, is supported in a
sling; if a leg, the patient is confined to his hammock till the fracture
is firmly knit. Excellent results are secured by this method, the
union being firm, and the limb nearly always uniting in good position.

Bleeding, a favorite remedy for all complaints, is especially resorted
to in cases of headache and malarial fever. Usually the temporal vein .
less frequently one of the veins in the front of the forearm, is opened,
having been first distended with blood by tying a ligature around
the upper arm. A chip of obsidian, a sharp splinter of bone, or a
snake's tooth, serves as a crude lancet; the use of the last causes


considerable pain, but is believed to have some esoteric virtue con-
nected with. it.

Decoctions made from the charred carcasses of animals at one time
were much employed, certain animals being regarded as specifics
for certain diseases. Thus, during an epidemic of whooping cough
{xinki sen) a decoction from the charred remains of the cane rat
was almost exclusively given to the children to relieve the cough,
though in this case it is difficult to trace the connection between

1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryThomas William Francis GannThe Maya Indians of southern Yucatan and northern British Honduras → online text (page 3 of 15)