Bamboo–A Neglected Maya Material?

by Stephen Houston (Brown University), Karl Taube (UC-Riverside), Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach (UT-Austin), and Timothy Beach (UT-Austin)


Building sites in Hong Kong often show a collision between tradition and modernity: bamboo scaffolds, some thirty stories high, envelop skyscrapers under construction (Figure 1; Waters 1998; also Sky-high scaffoldsBamboo spider-men). The virtues of the material are that it is “primitive without being old-fashioned, time-saving without being insecure, and economical without being impracticable” (Waters 1998:20). Less eloquent explanations are that, unlike scaffolds of metal, bamboo can be stored in the open without risk of theft; the material is also inexpensive, sustainable, flexible, reusable (up to three times, depending on conditions of storage), quickly erected, and cantilevered with relative ease over empty spaces (Waters 1998:26, 30).



Figure 1. Bamboo scaffolding, Causeway Bay neighborhood, Hong Kong (Photograph by Claire Gribbin, Creative Commons License).


Bamboo tends to be seen as quintessentially oriental. Its tender shoots, processed to remove toxins (cyanogenic glycosides, also in cassava), find their way into many dishes, and an entire sub-genre of Chinese painting, the “Four Gentlemen” or “Noble Ones,” focuses on its depiction along with peers like the plum blossom, chrysanthemum, and orchid (bamboo embodies the summer, the others, respectively, winter, autumn, spring; see also Cahill 1997:187–192; see also Bickford 1999:147, on literary and visual traditions of bamboo and other plants; Hsü 1996:25, on links to gentlemanly virtue). The experience of a bamboo forest, as Houston has experienced it on the outskirts of Kyoto, figures among the “100 Soundscapes of Japan” under protection by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment (Torigoe 1999).

But bamboo occurs more widely than that, and with consequences for understanding the ancient Maya. According to one source, “New World bamboos account for approximately half of the total generic and specific bamboo diversity” (Clark 1990:126; for Guatemala, see McClure 1973:88, 105, 106). An ethnobotany of the Tzotzil in Zinacantán, Chiapas, accords a page to them, and gives the plants a full array of local terms: bix (the generic category, “all bamboos, reeds or sprawling, reed-like plants,” Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:150), muk’ta ne kotom, yaxal otot, antzil bix, ton bix, chanib, and k’ox ne kotom (Figure 2; re: muk’ta ne kotom, “large coati tail,” there is a ko-to-ma on La Rejolla Stela 1:I9 [files at the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Harvard University], but the context is unclear; note, too, that the term “bamboo,” evidently of Malay origin, did not enter European languages until the 1590s or later, etymology). Some grow to over 20 m long, within “ravines in the understory of tropical deciduous forests in the lower temperate and lowland areas” (Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:150). Others are cut by men but brought home to women for use in looms, or do service as banner poles or the staffs of shamans (Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:150). A vigorous shake of a staff will protect the shaman from watchdogs. Many native species are known in Guatemala (bamboo in Guatemala). Today, in the Peten, the northernmost province, workers on archaeological projects used saplings or bamboo in equal measure, depending on proximity (Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2017).


bamboo breedlove.jpg


Figure 2. Bamboos among the Tzotzil Maya (Breedlove and Laughlin 2000:plate 10). 


While charged with working on the stuccoes of the Diablo pyramid at El Zotz, Guatemala, one of us (Taube) noted the presence of scaffold images with unusual attributes (Taube and Houston 2015:219–221). Criss-crossed poles had cross-wise stripes (a sign of darkness or even the color red? [see Stone and Zender 2011:124–125]), symmetrical volutes at what appeared to be natural joins in the material, and signs of lashing to keep the frame solid (Figure 3A). It soon became clear that the sign appeared on a variety of so-called “accession scaffolds” ranging in date from the San Bartolo murals of c. 100 BC to stelae at Piedras Negras, Guatemala, of Late Classic date (Figure 3C; Taube and Houston 2015:fig. 5.12). Other such trussed scaffolds exist, as on Stelae 1 and 2 at Cancuen, Guatemala, but there with what appear to be ta/TAJ signs for “pine,” also a lightweight material (Maler 1908:plates 12.2, 13.1; Figure 3B). For the first set of images, Taube conjectured that the vegetal material was none other than bamboo, in which small tufts shoot directly out of the surface (the culm internodes), often at joins (Figure 4).



Figure 3. Bamboo in Maya imagery: (A) Diablo Structure F8-1 Sub IB, with cross-bands indicated (image by CAST); (B) Cancuen Stela 1, east side, with queen, pine struts cued (Maler 1908:plate 13.1); and (C) Piedras Negras Stela 11, base (drawing by David Stuart). 



 Figure 4. Bamboo: (A) trunk with tufts at natural breaks [culm nodes] (Creative Commons); and (B) curling tufts, Sagano Bamboo Forest, Arashiyama district, Kyoto, Japan (photograph by Stephen Houston).


A singular advantage of Maya text and image, where both stand in close relation, is that, if plausibly interpreted, one helps to explain the other. It is possible that two spellings buttress the reading: one comes from a tomb painting at Río Azul, the other from the name of the Temple of the Foliated Cross (or at least its interior temple) at Palenque (Figure 5; see also the spelling on the altar of Temple XXI:G10). The example at Palenque may be our best point of entry, for it appears to contain bamboo struts, as well as two other elements (a snouted being and K’AN crosses). The one missing element, other than the NAAH for “structure,” are three vertical sprouts of vegetation. That is, an epigraphic control exists in which bamboo and its glyphic referent appear to be isolable. In fuller form, as at Río Azul, another part of the sprouted glyph appears, in this case a sign with vertical lines and horizontal dots. This glyph recalls another, a slightly distinct one, with tufts rather than leaf-like extrusions, that carries a proposed reading of AK or AKAN, “grass” (Stuart 2005:180 fn.59).



Figure 5. Bamboo in imagery, possibly in text: (A) East wall of Río Azul Tomb 6 (photograph by George F. Mobley, courtesy George Stuart); (B) glyphs of the Temple of the Foliated Cross, Alfarda:H1 (drawing by Linda Schele, photographer unknown); (C) roof of interior shrine, Temple of the Foliated Cross, bamboo cross-struts with K’AN crosses, corresponding to elements of name glyph (drawing by David Stuart); and (D) wall panel from interior shrine, Temple of the Foliated Cross (drawing by Linda Schele, Schele and Mathews 1979:#302). 


But what to make of the sign that appears to refer to bamboo, the element with three vertical shoots? Pondering this evidence, Houston posited a reading of JAL because of the subfixed la syllable at Río Azul; a second such version, spelling ch’o-ko ?JAL-la yi-?cha-ni AJAW, is far later, from a jamb in Temple XIX at Palenque [Stuart 2005:fig. 20a]). Moreover, the YAX-JAL-la NAAH, “Green-blue Bamboo House” (a notional arbor?), seemed quite similar to the term for “bamboo” in Tzotzil: yaxal otoot (the latter being the word for “dwelling,” see above).

Of further interest were the following entries in Ch’orti’ Maya, the language closest to most of the inscriptions (Wisdom 1950, with the usual substitution in that language of r for l in some contexts):

harar                 ‘reed [generic], carrizo (a tall wild grass), arrow’

harar ak           ‘cane grass, reed grass [generic]; zacate amargo (tall wild carrizo-like                                                grass)’

noxi’ harar       ‘a wild cane’

…and the telling gloss,

mak te’ harar   ‘vara de bambu (lowland dwarfish bamboo)’

Makte’ is simply a term for “fence” (“enclosure-tree/wood”), here specified as to construction material. Note too that, in cognate terms, j substitutes for h in many other Mayan languages, hence har/hal equates in such cases to jal (Kaufman 1983:1158). The usual trajectory of glyphic research is for someone else to have been there first. So too here, in a lexical listing by Erik Boot (2009:26, 82). Boot however, focused on “reed,” when other plants, namely, varieties of bamboo, might have been the actual target here.

The implications for Maya civilization are potentially momentous. Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world. The Guinness Book of World Records mentions species known to thrust upwards at 91 cm a day (Guinness). The rhizome-dependent pattern of growth in bamboo also makes them, to many a gardener’s dislike, hard to control yet endlessly abundant under certain conditions. Was this, in fact, an overlooked resource in Mayanist research, planted, tended, harvested, and widely employed when other vegetation proved scarce because of deforestation?

In the Orient, bamboo goes into buckets and all manner of receptacles, medicines, building materials, delectable food (again, if processed). A list from a traditional village in China dizzies with possibilities: “They live in bamboo houses, eat bamboo shoots, wear bamboo hats and shoes, cook food in utensils made of bamboo culm internodes, walk over bamboo bridges or cross rivers on bamboo rafts, and farm with bamboo tools” (Yang et al. 2004:161, Table 4). Such broad use, including use in the making of musical instruments, occurs throughout the indigenous Americas (Berlin et al. 1974:131; Judziewicz et al. 1999). Utensils in some Maya imagery might have been made of this perishable material, providing, according to one proposal, the formal source of Maya cylinder vases, later reproduced in fired clay (Bruhns 1994). The segmentation of bamboo also characterizes the depiction of atlatl or spear-throwers at the beginnings of the Late Classic period (Figure 6). Bamboo would have been grown, selected for desired width, and cut to suitable length.



Figure 6. Possible use of bamboo atlatl or spear-throwers (K2036, Photograph by Justin Kerr, © Justin Kerr). 

Other thoughts intrude: were the external holes in walls at Tikal simply for ventilation, or did some serve as footings for bamboo scaffolds? The relentless assault on plaster in the tropics, with the logical need for future repair, might explain these features (Figure 6, upper left; see also Coe 1990:figs. 209, 321; also, Penn Tikal Archive, #C63-004-0021, for close-up views of Temple I and its comparable holes). That is, provision was made for continued refurbishment or washes of lime-plaster. The complete decay of some vault-struts, now seen only as holes, many round, raise the possibility that at least some of them were of bamboo. Moreover, at Piedras Negras, Guatemala, Houston and his team found bushels of bajareque, mud placed on wattle that had baked into near-ceramics by random (or set) fires in buildings. The bajareque often preserves evidence of cylindrical wattle, perhaps also of readily harvested bamboo (unfortunately, few sections are long enough to detect its distinct segmentation); a similar find, wit. Such remains were found with wattle-and-daub at Cerén, El Salvador (Lentz and Ramírez-Soza 2002:34). And if deforestation were at all relevant, as appears to be true in many places, bamboo, with its rapid in growth and varied use, might even have been cultivated.



Figure 7. Upper left, back of Structure 5D-23, 1st-B, rear elevation, holes highlighted in red (Coe 1990:fig. 129), and, lower right, bajareque, Operation PN11A-3-4 (photograph by Stephen Houston).


A chart of biosilicates extracted from the main aguada or reservoir in El Zotz, Guatemala, reveals a possible signature of this cultivation: the abundance, in the Late Classic period, of “native grasses,” which may represent the residue of bamboo (Figure 8; Beach et al. 2015:272). Bamboo has been found in late tombs in Río Bec, Mexico (Dussol et al. 2016:67), as well as in Chinikiha, also in Mexico (Trabanino and Núñez 2014: 156), but it seems also that the “great anatomic homogeneity of the monocotyledons [a flowering plant category to which bamboo belongs], as well as the lack of an anatomic reference collection specific to neotropical bamboos,” complicates their precise detection (Dusoll et al. 2016:67, for quotation, 63). Further, as archaeological residue, bamboos are fragile, preserve poorly, and “rapid combustion [of them] generally does not produce charcoal remains” (Dusoll et al. 2016:66). Another specialist underscores the problems of identification: “Poaceae pollen [in the taxonomic family that contains bamboo] is very plain in appearance via light microscopy, and the palynologist must always be careful not to confuse maize pollen with the similar-looking pollen of other grasses, aquatic grasses, or bamboos” (Morse 2009:177, citing Horn 2006:368). For his part, Kazuo Aoyama (personal communication, 2017), the most expert practitioner of microwear analysis in the Maya region, has actually tested bamboo and found it indistinguishable from other woods and pithy material in its effect on lithics (Aoyama 1989:202; Aoyama 1995:131; 1996:Tables 3.13. 3.14). Its “signature” appears to be ambiguous.

Perhaps, as has been suggested for pine, such plants were more commonly used than supposed, to be grown, moved, and traded as valued resources (Lentz et al. 2005). Its working, if discernible as to family or genus, may yet appear as residue on Maya stone tools (Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2017). Or, like bamboo in many places, the plants grew to copious extent but became less salient in Maya lives as the forests (and other vegetal materials) recovered, populations declined, and need dropped. Of sufficient importance to appear in Classic art, and in dynastic and godly shrines, bamboo had receded in cultural and practical importance: it had become the stuff of shamans’ staffs yet sidelined from widespread use.



Figure 8. Diagram of biosilicates, including possible bamboo pollen from El Zotz, Guatemala (Beach et al. 2015:Fig. 12.5).


Acknowledgements  This essay benefitted greatly from discussions with David Stuart, who drew our attention to the Boot citation. Our good colleague, Jeffrey Moser, helped with sources on Chinese painting, Kazuo Aoyama commented on bamboo and microwear, Barbara Arroyo provided a key source, and Andrew Scherer offered comments on plant use in Peten, Guatemala.



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