by Stephen Houston (Brown University) and Joshua Schnell (Brown University)

Maya ruins, if excavated well (and if preservation allows), yield a variety of bone tubes (Fig. 1). Some are only a few cm in length, others longer—the size of the animal and its long bones placing obvious limits on dimensions (e.g., Franco C. 1968:18, lám. III; Inomata and Emery 2014:132, fig 8.4.a–d, fig. 8.9, fig. 8.11; Lee 1969:163–165, fig. 122; Moholy-Nagy, with Coe 2008:fig. 214; Taschek 1994:fig. 37). Tube production is well-understood. Epiphyses must be removed and surface irregularities trimmed or polished, leaving a “shaft core” for further working (Emery 2008:211; Emery 2009:fig. 6).


Screen Shot 2018-05-12 at 8.50.58 AM.png

Figure 1.  Variety of bone tubes from Aguateca, Guatemala (Inomata and Emery 2014:fig. 8.4c, d [left]) and Uaxactun, Guatemala (Kidder 1947:fig. 81b [upper right, fig. 81c [lower right]).


Yet the use of such tubes remains unclear. A few may have been left at an unfinished stage, on their way to becoming bone needles, rings, pointed awls, snuff spoons, weaving pins, hair ornaments or slivers and plaques (some appear to be on sale in a market scene from the murals of Str. Sub 1–4 from Calakmul, Mexico [Martin 2012:76, fig. 40]). Marked by transverse grooves, others may have operated as musical rasps, although few of these show expected wear from percussive abrasions (e.g., Coe 1959:fig. 55n, o). “Tubing,” the use of bone cylinders in the Maya past, needs more thought, if only to enlarge the range of possible functions.

Consider curing. Maya healing involved many concepts, from the restoration of unstable, wayward souls or breath-force to the neutralization of noxious spirits, all the while accompanied by incantations, movements, and offerings (Vogt 1069:425–446). Anciently, as among Nahuatl speakers, gods relevant to certain maladies must have been propitiated by “flattery, promises, threats, warnings…and word magic” (Ruiz de Alarcón 1984:25). “Sucking” by specialists to extract objects from patients formed one component of traditional healing, with references attested in Nahuatl as early as the great Molina dictionary, tlacuicuilia [tlacuihcuīliā],chupar el hechizero al enfermo” (Molina 1571:36v; for vowel length, Karttunen 1983:259).

How this was done might have depended on gender. Fifty years ago, among the Totonac of Veracruz, Mexico, “female shamans use[d] the lips or fist to suck, whereas male shamans use[d] a reed” (Dow 2001:87), the object so extracted being either real (pebbles or blades) or merely notional—the distinction did not seem to matter much. Today, specialists performing this task are known as chupadores, “suckers,” who heal alongside healers setting bones, working with herbs, and cleansing and curing with herbs, copal or eggs (Rubel and Browner 2001:302).

Healing tubes are widely known in indigenous North America and even in the toolkit of rain-making shamans (Hopkins et al. 2012:fig. 3; see Hernando Alarcón’s account, from 1540, of such “blowing” in the lower Colorado River [Alarcón 1970:21]). During the Spanish period in California, healers “sometimes sucked and at other times blew, but both as hard as they were able” (McGuire 1899:386–387; for Eastern groups, see Holliman 1970; Olbrechts 1929). Most such bones were thin (an internal diameter of some 10–12 mm), and often, as among the Cherokee, cut from trumpet weed (Olbrechts 1929:21). A decoction of poplar bark might be blown on or over the patient, at a distance if the curer were a male, the patient a female (Olbrechts 1929:272, 279; this account is equally intriguing for linking scarification and skin-pricks by blades and thorns to acts of healing). Accounts are also recorded, in Amazonia, of “each in turn blowing this powder (ground parica or Anadenanthera peregrina) with great force through a hollow cane into the nostrils of his friend” (McGuire 1899:402).

Tubing, then, might have played similar curative roles among the ancient Maya or at least that possibility needs to be entertained. At the least, composite tobacco pipes of straight outline appear throughout the images of the Colonial Aztec Florentine Codex (e.g., Book 4). Used in feasts but also for religious rituals, tobacco might also have been ingested through bone tubes slotted into a second section charged with combustible plant (Wilbert 1987). Being detachable, the tube might have been less subject to fire damage, providing fewer indications of its function to archaeologists.

Then there are handles for rattles (Houston 2008; Taube 2004). Indeed, examples with small holes in Figure 1 might have served to fasten a long-gone gourd, nut or wooden rattle. The most secure examples come from Tikal Burial 116, the tomb of Jasaw Chan K’awiil, a Late Classic ruler of that city (Moholy-Nagy 2008:fig. 198b). The term for “rattle” was, as confirmed by one hieroglyphic spelling, chikab, a word for such instruments in Ch’olti’ and Ch’orti’ Maya (Grube and Gaida 2006:213–214; n.b.: the text, which ran across two, paired handles—the usual for Maya maracas—was on bone tubes only 4.1 cm high, meaning that the handles must have been longer and detachable, perhaps of some other, more perishable material).

Yet that term, chikab, possibly based on an onomatopoeic chik sound, is not clearly present on the Tikal handles, which refers, with its paired rattle, to the burning and death of a young deity of music (MT 29 [Moholy-Nagy 2008:fig. 198a]; see Yukateko chi’ik, “shake the head as when rattles sound” [Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:87]). The opaque narrative may recount some story about the deity, his ties to the first music, with allusions to travails, even death, insofar as deities can die (Houston 2008:endnote 1). Yet, in their grimmer details, these events cannot be matched to any known iconography. The more usual associations are, not death after severe burns, but dance and euphonious performance.

Figure 2 MT30.png


Figure 2. Handle of rattle, with reference to Young God of Music (or Wind), and YAX-‘Rattle’-la-WINKIL[li], “First ‘Rattle’ Person,” with possible supervision by a hummingbird (tz’u-nu) in the company of a celestial being (ti-KA’N-la-WINKIL[li]), (MT 30 [Moholy-Nagy 2008:fig. 198b], reading of WINKIL suggested by David Stuart, personal communication, 2014).


Then there is consumption. Bone tubes might well have been inserted into enema clysters, a proposal made long ago by Michael Coe (Coe 1988:230; Furst and Coe 1977; see also Heizer 1939:86, writing of the New World generally, who describes “a hollow cylindrical bone…used for the [enema] tube”; see also Barrera Rubio and Taube 1987:12). But there are alternative uses. A Classic-era painting from Bonanil Actun, Loltun, Yucatan, shows all the features of good and riotous living (Fig. 3). The young music god appears to the left, followed by a distinctive, lashed jar with protruding cylinder, and the probable head of Ahkan, a deity tied to inebriation (Stone 1995:fig. 4–29; see also Grube 2004; Nielsen and Helmke 2017:153–156).



Figure 3. Bonanil Actun, Loltun, Yucatan (photograph by David Hixson, Hood College).


In Postclassic and early Colonial Mexico, the jars containing pulque (octli), an alcoholic drink from the sap of the agave or maguey plant, are often shown with such lashings (Figure 4; see also Nielsen and Helmke 2017:fig. 9). More to the point, at feasts, the collective and sociable practice was to suck out the drink from long tubes, perhaps evoking the extraction, by sucking through an acocote tube of aguamiel sap from the maguy itself (Parsons and Parsons 1990:43–44, figs. 39–42; such sucking of pulque is also highlighted in Nielsen and Helmke [2017], who have discerned such consumption in the “Realistic Paintings” of Tetitla, Teotihuacan). Such a tube could be precisely the object sticking out of the lashed olla at Bonanil Actun. Drinking might have made sense in the inner recesses of that cave, the better to accentuate disorientation. The sequence of the God of Music, then the olla, then a supernatural of inebriation scans almost like a prescriptive ordering of actions, sound to set the stage, drink to lubricate it, then a release into wild-haired drunkenness, impulses barely contained if at all. (In early Colonial Mexico, imbibing that fifth cup was thought to lead to an unseemly loss of self-composure [Córdova 2015]).


Screen Shot 2018-05-12 at 10.43.18 AM.png Figure 4. Pulque jars or ollas and feasting with long tubes (Mural 5, Room 12, Conjunto del Sol, Teotihuacan, with distinctive markings of pulque in three gouts of liquid, perhaps marked with “cotton” textures to denote a white substance [personal communication, Karl Taube, 2018, upper left, Nielsen and Helmke 2017:fig. 3b, photograph by Christophe Helmke]; Florentine Codex, Book 4, Chapters 4–5 [lower left]; and Codex Magliabechiano f. 85r [right]). 


Yet the image with tube from Bonanil Actun is unique. All other Maya images of drunkenness, almost always of youths or elderly debauched gods and their paramours, show jars of pulque (chi in Classic Ch’olti’an) with agave leaves stuffed in—a possible means of intensifying the drink (Houston 2018:128–132)? The scenes are not common, to be sure, but this raises another possible use: that some tubes were about spuming chocolate. For example, a theme found in the figural imagery of West Mexico consists of a figure, tube in mouth, leaning over a proffered cup (Fig. 5).


Figure 5. Jalisco. Seated Couple, ca. 100 B.C.E.-300 C.E. Ceramic, 17 1/2 x 151/4 x 10 in. (44.5 x 38.7 x 25.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Coltrera Collection, 2010.23.1. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2010.23.1_PS6.jpg).

The usual explanation is that pulque is being delicately sipped in this fashion, a reasonable thought given such tubes among the Aztec and the emphasis in other local imagery on parts of the maguey plant (Butterwick 1998:102–105). Nonetheless, West Mexico has a well-attested focus on cacao production, if in selective areas (Mathiowetz 2011:543–569). By now, it is a commonplace in Maya archaeology—the thought goes back as far as Thomas Gann working in then-British Honduras during the 1910s— that vases with constricted necks and built-in, vertical or slightly everted tubes were employed in achieving a chocolate spume that appealed to ancient peoples of Mesoamerica (Houston 2017; see also Powis et al. 2002). This practice, perhaps thought decidedly unhygienic, was then replaced by pouring liquid back and forth to attain a fine bubbly head (S. Coe 1994:141–142).

But what if this account of culinary history were partial and other forms of spuming continued? A cumbersome tube on a pot might have been, in a sense, “detached” and applied more broadly to any manner of ceramics or gourds with chocolate. If the head settled, it might be refreshed by vigorous blowing down a tube.  And then, giving shudders to archaeologists, that same tube might have been used for multiple purposes, for sucking, blowing, smoking, perhaps even attached to a rattle. The ingenuity of Maya tubing requires its own inventive response, with a directive to look for telling residues, where relevant, and tentative experiments, where possible, to assay ancient function.

Acknowledgements   Christopher Beekman was most helpful with comments and encouragement, as were Karl Taube and Leonardo López Luján.


Alarcón, Hernando. 1979. Explorations of Hernando Alarcon in the Lower Colorado River Region, 1540. Journal of California and Great Basin Archaeology 1(1):8–37.

Barrera Rubio, Alfredo, and Karl Taube. 1987. Los relieves de San Diego: Una nueva perspectiva. Boletín de la Escuela de Ciencias Antropológicas de la Universidad de Yucatán 14:3–18.

Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo, Juan Ramón Bastarrachea, and William Brito Sansores. 1980. Diccionario Maya Cordemex. Mérida, Yucatan: Ediciones Cordemex,

Butterwick, Kristi. 1998. Food for the Dead: The West Mexican Art of Feasting. In Ancient West Mexico: Art and Archaeology of the Unknown Past, ed. Richard F. Townsend, 88–105. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago.

Coe, Michael D. 1988. Ideology of the Maya Tomb. In Maya Iconography, eds. Elizabeth P. Benson and Gillett G. Griffin, 222–235. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Coe, Sophie D. 1994. American’s First Cuisines. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Coe, William R. 1959. Piedras Negras Archaeology: Artifacts, Caches, and Burials. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Córdova, James M. 2015. Drinking the Fifth Cup: Notes on the Drunken Indian Image in Colonial Mexico. Word & Image 31(1):1–18.

Dow, James W. 2001. Central and North Mexican Shamans. In Mesoamerican Healers, ed. Brad R. Huber and Alan R. Sandstrom, 66–94. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Emery, Kitty F. 2008. Techniques of Ancient Maya Bone Working: Evidence from a Classic Maya Deposit. Latin American Antiquity 19(2):204–221.

Emery, Kitty F. 2009. Perspectives on Ancient Maya Bone Crafting from a Classic Period Bone-Artifact Manufacturing Assemblage. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 28(4): 458–470.

Franco C, José Luis. 1968. Objetos de hueso de la época precolombina. Mexico City: Museo Nacional de Antropología, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

Furst, Peter T., and Michael D. Coe. 1977. Ritual Enemas. Natural History March:88–91

Grube, Nikolai. 2004. Akan—the God of Drinking, Disease, and Death. In Continuity and Change: Maya Religious Practices in Temporal Perspective, eds. Daniel Graña Behrens, Nikolai Grube, Christian M. Prager, Frauke Sachse, Stefanie Teufel, and Elizabeth Wagner, 59–76. Acta Mesoamerican 14. Markt Schwaben: Verlag Anton Saurwein.

Grube, Nikolai, and Maria Gaida. 2006. Die Maya: Schrift und Kunst. Berlin: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin-DuMont.

Heizer, Robert F. 1939. The Bulbed Enema Syringe and Enema Tube in the New World. Primitive Man 12:85–93.

Holliman, R. B. 1970. Evidence of a Prehistoric Physician in Virginia. Virginia Medical Monthly 97(10):642–644.

Hopkins, Jerry N., Gerrit L. Fenenga, Alan P. Garfinkel, Samantha Riding-Red-Horse, and Donna Miranda-Begay. 2012. Further Reflections on California Rain-Making Shamanism: “The Other Half” of the Tübatulabal Shaman’s Rain-Making Bundle. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 32(2):127–140.

Houston, Stephen. 2008. The xa Syllable as an Example of Onomatopoeia? Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Xa syllable

Houston, Stephen. 2017. Forgetting Chocolate: Spouted Vessels, Coclé, and the Maya. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Forgetting Chocolate

Houston, Stephen. 2018. The Gifted Passage: Young Men in Classic Maya Art and Text. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Inomata, Takeshi, and Kitty Emery. 2014. Bone and Shell Artifacts. In Life and Politics at the Royal Court of Aguateca: Artifacts, Analytical Data, and Synthesis, eds. Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan, 127–157. Monographs of the Aguateca Archaeological Project First Phase Volume 2. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Jolly, Fletcher, III. 2004. Early Woodland Tubular Pipe from Eastern Tennessee: “Medicine Tube” or Smoking Pipe. Central States Archaeological Journal 51(4):13–15.

Kidder, Alfred V. 1947. The Artifacts of Uaxactun, Guatemala. Publication 576. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Lee, Thomas A., Jr. 1969. The Artifacts of Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas, Mexico. Papers of the New World Archaeological Foundation 26. Provo: Brigham Young University.

Martin, Simon. 2012. Hieroglyphs from the Painted Pyramid: The Epigraphy of Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1–4, Calakmul, Mexico. In Maya Archaeology 2, eds. Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 60–81. San Francisco: Precolumbia Mesoweb Press.

Mathiowetz, Michael D. 2011. The Diurnal Path of the Sun: Ideology and Interregional Interaction in Ancient Northwest Mesoamerica and the American Southwest. Ph.D., Department of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside.

McGuire, Joseph D. 1899. Pipes and Smoking Customs of the American Aborigines, Based on Material in the U.S. National Museum. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Moholy-Nagy, Hattula, with William R. Coe. 2018. Tikal Report 27, Part A: The Artifacts of Tikal: Ornamental and Ceremonial Artifacts and Unworked Material. University Museum Monograph 127. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Molina, Alonso de. 1571. Vocabulario en lengua castellana y mexicana. Mexico City: Antonio de Spinoza.

Nielsen, Jesper, and Christophe Helmke. 2017. Los bebedores de Tetitla: representaciones del consumo ritual en los murales de Teotihuacan. In Las pinturas realistas de Tetitla, Teotihuacan: estudios a través de la obra de Agustín Villagra Caleti, eds. Leticia Staines Cicero and Christophe Helmke, 135–163. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia Secretaría de Cultura; Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Olbrechts, Frans M. 1929. Some Notes on Cherokee Treatment of Disease. Janus Revue Internationale de L’histoire des Sciences, de la Médicine, de la Pharmacie et de la Technique 33:271–80.

Parsons, Jeffrey R., and Mary H. Parsons. 1990. Maguey Utilization in Highland Central Mexico: An Archaeological Ethnography. Anthropological Papers No. 82. Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan.

Powis, Terry G., Fred Valdez, Jr., Thomas R. Hester, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Stanley M. Tarka. 2002. Spouted Vessels and Cacao Use among the Preclassic Maya. Latin American Antiquity 13(1):85–106.

Rubel, Arthur J., and Carole H. Browner. 2001. Curing and Healing. In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures: The Civilizations of Mexico and Central America, eds. Davíd Carrasco and Scott Sessions, 300–304. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ruiz de Alarcón, Hernando. 1984. Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions that Today Live Among the Indians Native to This New Spain, 1629, trans. & ed. J. Richard Andrews and Ross Hassig. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Stone, Andrea. 1995. Images from the Underworld: Naj Tunich and the Tradition of Maya Cave Painting. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Taschek, Jennifer T. 1994. The Artifacts of Dzibilchaltun, Yucatan, Mexico: Shell, Polished Stone, Bone, Wood, and Ceramics. Middle American Research Institute Publication 50. New Orleans: Tulane University.

Taube, Karl A. 2004. Flower Mountain: Concepts of Life, Beauty, and Paradise among the Classic Maya. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 45: 69-98.

Vogt, Evon Z. 1969. Zinacantan: A Maya Community in the Highlands of Chiapas. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press.

Wilbert, Johannes. 1987. Tobacco and Shamanism in South America. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Finding the Founder: Old Notes on the Identification of K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ of Copan Reply

KYKM name

Figure 1. Name of K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, from Altar Q of Copan (Photo by D. Stuart).

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)

One of the most famous of ancient Maya rulers is K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ (KYKM) (“Solar-Green-Quetzal-Macaw”), the Early Classic founder of the Copan dynasty (Figure 1). He was celebrated by ancient Copanecos throughout the site’s 400 year history, and his legend lives on today in the key sources on Copan’s archaeology (W. Fash 2001; B. Fash 2011:35-47). He was even the subject of a 2001 PBS documentary, The Lost King of the Maya.

Given KYKM’s notoriety it’s interesting to reflect on how little we knew of his history before the mid-’80s. By that time archaeologists and epigraphers had a general outline of Copan’s Late Classic dynasty, and KYKM’s glyph had even been recognized as a personal name of some sort (the K’inich prefix being a strong indication, given its established use as a pre-posed title on late royal names at Palenque). But whose name? Proskouriakoff identified the glyph as a title, a reference to “certain ‘parrots’ that seem to turn up in troubled times” (Prouskouriakoff 1986:129). And both Gary Pahl (1976) and Lounsbury (corresponding in 1978) were closer to the mark, each seeing the glyph as a personal name but still unsure as to its exact nature. Pahl proposed it to be a variant name of the sixteenth ruler, whereas Lounsbury couldn’t commit to any historical identification, but thought it to be in reference to a Late Classic figure as well.

KYKM note

Figure 2. Stuart’s 1984 notes on identifying KYKM as an Early Classic ruler

COP St J back

Figure 3. Back of Copan, Stela J. (Photo by D. Stuart, 1987)

In retrospect this ambiguity is understandable, for the name glyph was in those years known only from much later inscriptions dating the reigns of the last five or six Copan kings (very early texts from close to KYKM’s reign finally appear in excavations during the 1990s, such as the “Xukpi Stone” and the “Motmot Marker”). It’s no wonder therefore that Proskourikoff surmised the glyph to be a general title for troublesome parrots (are there any other kind?), and not that of a definable historical figure.

This all changed in the mid 1980s, when KYKM’s true role in Maya history finally came into focus. In 1984 I became convinced that he was not a Late Classic protagonist at all but rather an early king, probably the founder of the dynasty and the first in the long line of sixteen rulers. I recently came across my old notes from that time (Figure 2), showing my line of thinking in proposing his early placement at or near the beginning of the dynasty (Note 2). The famous mat-shaped text on Stela J (Figure 3) offered the most important clue, for it showed that KYKM’s accession could be linked to the much earlier Bak’tun ending of, in 435 AD. Another piece of the puzzle came a couple of years after these scribblings when, in the summer of 1986, Linda Schele and I recognized that the the first figure depicted on Altar Q wore on his headdress an elaborate combination of the sings K’IN-YAX-K’UK’-MO’, placing  him at the very beginning of the famous sequence of sixteen kings (Figure 4) (Stuart and Schele 1986).  The inscription atop Altar Q soon made more sense as well, for it became clear that that the opening three dates belonged to this same Early Classic time-frame, narrating KYKM’s ch’am-k’awiil accession rite at Teotihuacan in September 6, 426 followed by his arrival back at Copan 152 days later. The last two dates of the altar’s text concerned its dedication centuries later in 775, early in the reign of the sixteenth ruler, Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat (Note 3).

KYKM Alt Q name

Figure 3. The name-headdress of K’inich Yan K’uk’ Mo’ on the west side of Altar Q (Photo by D. Stuart).

Of course we have learned a good deal more about KYKM since the 1980s. Soon after he was properly placed in Copan’s dynastic sequence, some archaeologists still expressed informal doubts about his historical veracity, positing that he might not have been a true ancestral king but a character in some constructed, questionable history (a strangely cynical outlook on Maya histories in general, I think). But then in the 1990s his tomb and resting place were identified deep within Copan’s acropolis by the University of Pennsylvania excavations, within the so-called Hunal building phase directly under Structure 10L-16 (see Bell, Canuto and Sharer [2004] for an excellent overview of early Copan archaeology and history). Since then, one epigraphic clue suggested that KYKM may originally have been from the site of Caracol, Belize. KYKM’s story remains enigmatic in many ways, but we know that he settled at Copan in 427, probably in anticipation of the great Bak’tun ending that came less than a decade later. After several generations he was remembered as the singular cultural and political hero of ancient Copan, and after nearly twelve centuries of obscurity he’s emerged once again as a great figure in Maya history.


Note 1. In my overview of early Copan history I mistakenly noted that the identification of KYKM’s role as the dynastic founder came in 1983 (Stuart 2004:227). The dates on surrounding pages in my notebook make it clear it was in 1984.

Note 2. Looking at my old notes, students of epigraphy will see that I make use of old sign readings that are rejected today and may even seem unfamiliar – Thompson’s “hel” reading for the TZ’AK sign, for example, and Lounsbury’s “mak’ina” for what we know to be K’INICH. In fact, on the right margin of the notes here illustrated, one can see the clear inklings of the K’INICH decipherment, noting the K’IN-ni-chi substitution found on Copan’s Hieroglyphic Stairway and in a few other texts. This was confirmed around the same year.

Note 3. In my hand-written notes I botched the Long Counts for the Early Classic dates on Altar Q, even though I correctly placed them roughly 17 k’atuns before the altar’s dedication. I wasn’t using a computer program, and I was thrown-off by the mention of “17 k’atuns” which I took far too literally as a precise expression of elapsed time. It did not take much time to realize that this was instead a rare rounded Distance Number, used from time to time in Copan’s inscriptions. The actual dates on Altar Q’s top are: 5 Caban 15 Yaxkin (“takes k’awiil”); 8 Ahau 18 Yaxkin (“comes from the ‘wite’naah'”); 5 Ben 11 Muan (“arrives”); 6 Ahau 13 Kayab (PE dedication); 5 Kan 12 Uo (unknown). On the west face we find the isolated record of Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat’s accession on 6 Caban 10 Mol, placed between his portrait and that of the founder.


Bell, Ellen E, Marcello Canuto and Robert J. Sharer (eds.). 2004. Understanding Early Classic Copan. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Fash, Barbara. 2011. The Copan Sculpture Museum: Ancient Maya Artistry in Stucco and Stone. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum Press.

Fash, William L. 2001. Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copan and the Ancient Maya. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Pahl, Gary. 1976. A Successor-Relationshop Complex and Associated Signs. In The Art, Iconography, and Dynastic History of Palenque, Part 3, edited by M.G. Robertson, pp. 35-44. Pebble Beach, CA: Robert Louis Stevenson School.

Proskouriakoff, Tatiana. 1986. Maya History. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Stuart, David. 2004. The Beginnings of the Copan Dynasty. In Understanding Early Classic Copan, ed. by E. Bell, M. Canuto and R.J. Sharer, pp. 215-248. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Stuart, David, and Linda Schele. 1986. Yax K’uk’ Mo’, the Founder of the Lineage of Copan. Copan Notes no. 6. Proyecto Acropolis Arqueologico Copan.

New Book: The Gifted Passage by Stephen Houston Reply


The Gifted Passage: Young Men in Classic Maya Art and Text
by Stephen Houston
Yale University Press, 2018

“Deep, smart, and thoughtful, this book should be read by every scholar of Mesoamerica.”—Mary Miller, Yale University

“Lucid and engaging, with a secure grasp of the wider anthropological issues at hand, this volume is without question a significant contribution to Maya studies.”—Simon Martin, University of Pennsylvania MuseumFrom Yale University Press:

In this thought-provoking book, preeminent scholar Stephen Houston turns his attention to the crucial role of young males in Classic Maya society, drawing on evidence from art, writing, and material culture. The Gifted Passage establishes that adolescent men in Maya art were the subjects and makers of hieroglyphics, painted ceramics, and murals, in works that helped to shape and reflect masculinity in Maya civilization. The political volatility of the Classic Maya period gave male adolescents valuable status as potential heirs, and many of the most precious surviving ceramics likely celebrated their coming-of-age rituals. The ardent hope was that youths would grow into effective kings and noblemen, capable of leadership in battle and service in royal courts. Aiming to shift mainstream conceptions of the Maya, Houston argues that adolescent men were not simply present in images and texts, but central to both.

Stephen Houston is Dupee Family Professor of Social Science and Professor of Anthropology at Brown University.

Order here from Yale University Press.

A quick video look at the book from Yale University Press.

Cotton, Snow, and Distant Wonders

by David Stuart (University of Texas, Austin) and Stephen Houston (Brown University)

Dedicated to our dear friend, Alfonso Lacadena

We seldom think of wintry wonderlands when considering mostly tropical Mesoamerican landscapes. But parts of the Maya highlands in Guatemala sometimes see very occasional snowfall during the winter months, always exciting curiosity and wonder, if not a little consternation and concern over crops (Figure 1). Whenever snow falls and coats the ground, public media must explain the phenomena to local readers, describing its distinction from hail (see Prensa Libre 4/21/2017; also Prensa Libre 12/18/2016). Recently, the national disaster agency (CONRED) even thought it necessary to report that snow can be “associated with precipitation and low temperatures” (Boletín Informativo No. 3046). While rare and noteworthy, snow was ever-present in a few select areas of the central Mexican highlands, atop prominent volcanic peaks such as Orizaba, Popocatépetl, and others.



Figure 1. A rare snowfall in Cerro Cotzic, Ixchiguan, San Marcos, Guatemala, Jan. 25, 2013 (Creative Commons 2.0 Generic). 


For those who have never experienced snow, it might come as a challenge to describe verbally its many sensations and textures — slushy, clump-flaked, powder-dry, and so on. Then there is the messy residue as it melts, along with its endurance, over months, at altitude or to the far north. At root, to show distant wonders or to talk about them is an imaginative task, drawing on all the tools of the story-teller and the wiles of visual artists. For this, analogies or metaphors work well, especially when distances are great and the unfamiliar acutely strange.

As one example, taking us closer to the Precolumbian past, an unknown maker of woodblock prints devised the first known European image of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Published, probably, in Augsburg, Germany, in 1522, it refers to the city of “dem konig Madotzoma…herr von grossen Venedig,” displaying the causeways or dikes of that city as arching bridges, sailboats passing underneath, and the many temples as turreted buildings (Figure 2; Newe Zeitung). Square-shoed burghers with hose stockings, flat caps, belt purses, and fur collars would have dumbfounded the Mexica Aztec they depict. But they do at least try to describe the unfamiliar. There are settlements like European ones (if walled and likened to Venice, a frequent comparison of the time, going back to Cortés and others [Kim 2006]), and people dressed in the everyday garb of Augsburg.


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Figure 2. Earliest European depiction of Tenochtitlan (Unknown 1522:5, John Carter Brown Library, Providence, RI).


The Classic Maya may have been no different. Among the texts linked to contact with the civilization of Teotihuacan, and almost surely with Teotihuacan itself, is the famous  “Marcador” of Tikal, found during excavations overseen by Juan Pedro Laporte south of the Mundo Perdido Group (Figure 3, Laporte and Fialko 1995:66–70). This object is strikingly similar to so-called “ball markers” from Teotihuacan, ranging from one depicted in the murals of Tepantitla (perhaps a goalpost for a stick game) to a carving with separable components at La Ventilla; the latter is well-garnished with yet other cultural references, to the volutes of El Tajín, Veracruz (Solís 2009:#124). The semantic layering in these images and carvings is rich and only partly understood, as there must also have been a reference to standing, banner-like shields (e.g., Taube 2009:figs. 2b, c). The Tikal find, from Group 6C-XVI, potentially bears another link to ballplay. A large raised area nearby, thought by earlier investigators to be a natural hill, is revealed by LiDAR to be eerily close in orientation and layout, if at halved-scale, to the Ciudadela at Teotihuacan (processing and interpretation by Houston and Thomas Garrison of Ithaca College). As if by cue, the Ciudadela has just been shown to contain, in an earlier phase of its existence, a large ballcourt (Gómez Chávez and Gazzola 2015).



Figure 3. Tikal Marcador, Group 6C-XVI, on display in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología de Guatemala (photographer unknown). 


In part, the historical links between Tikal and Teotihuacan (or its proxies) have been understood for some time (Proskouriakoff 1993:8–9; Stuart 2000; see also Martin and Grube 2000:29–31). An enigmatic personage whose name was probably Sihyaj K’ahk’, “Born from Fire” (coming from a fiery war dart to boot), “arrived” (huliiy) or “completed” a journey (tzutzyi) to Tikal on 11 Eb 15 Mac in the Maya calendar, or Jan. 16, AD 378 in the Maya-Christian correlation we favor. His presence was clearly martial, as indicated by the Marcador glyph that situates the arrival in terms of conquest, using the familiar term och ch’een, “to cave-enter”  Most likely too, Sihyaj K’ahk’ galvanized or even reorganized the political geography of much of what is now northern Guatemala. Every few years or so a new reference to him comes to light, suggesting that many more are to be found (e.g., Estrada-Belli et al. 2009; Stuart 2014; note that the Maya could also hint at later ambivalence about Teotihuacanos [Houston et al. 2016]).1

The Marcador text is relevant for another reason. In addition to the “arrival,” which highlights the first part of the inscription, the second side of the monument reaches back to two dates: (1) May 5, AD 374 [, 11 Ajaw *3 Wayeb, an unusual, perhaps dire date, presumably, as it falls in the five final days of the year], the evident accession of another figure associated with Teotihuacan, “Spearthrower [ja-tz’o?-ma] Owl” (Martin 2003:13; Stuart 2000:483); and (2) Jan. 24, AD 414 [, 12 Muluk 12 K’ank’in], the dedication of Marcador itself (Figure 4).


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Figure 4.  Tikal Marcador, E1–H9 (rubbing provided by Juan Pedro Laporte, with heightened contrast). 


In part, the Marcador remains a highly opaque text. Yet an apparent place name tied to Spearthrower Owl contains recognizable elements, including the number 5, a glyph known since the time of Eric Thompson to represent the downy texture of “cotton” (Thompson 1972:83–83), a syllabic ma (shown in its fuller form, as a prefix and suffix framing the main sign), and the well-known WITS, “hill, mountain” (Figure 5). Thus: the “5 ‘something’ Hills/Mountains,” and as locations or a single place affiliated in some way with a person tied to Teotihuacan or its proxies.


5 snow mountains

Figure 5. Place name associated with Spearthrower Owl, Tikal Marcador, E4, G6 (drawings by Linda Schele).


The one undeciphered sign is probably a representation of “cotton.” The rows of small “u”-shapes are standard in Mesoamerican art as markers for spun cotton or cotton as shown by iconographic clues assembled by Karl Taube and others (e.g., Taube 1993:657). In Maya art we also see the same “u”-shapes on cloth, as on the panel fragment from Palenque shown in Figure 6, depicting the ruler K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Nahb aiding with what might be a cotton bundle containing tribute goods (Stuart 1998:413).


PAL tribute panel

Figure 6. Panel fragment from Palenque, showing large cloth tumpline bundle with “cotton” markings (Drawing by David Stuart).

John Dienhart suggested that the hieroglyphic sign with these same u-shapes reads NOK’, “clothes, cloth” (Dienhart 1986:53). Almost epigraphers have accepted, from multiple sets of evidence, a syllabic value of no, derived, following Dienhart’s lead, from nok’, “clothes, cloth” in Common Ch’olan (Kaufman and Norman 1984:127). The decipherment makes sense. It explains expressions with antipassive suffixes such as ‘a-AK’-no-maak’-n-oom, in the area of Cancuen (Príncipe Maya Panel:E5), ‘a-k’a-no-ma, ak’-n-oom, at Palenque (Temple of the Inscriptions, West Tablet:C6) or the “shaker” title employed frequently by later rulers of Calakmul (yu-ku-no-ma, yuk-n-oom, Martin 2017).

Dienhart may have been both wrong and right: wrong because the “cotton” sign, as a logograph, was perhaps incorrectly deciphered as NOK’ (“cloth”), but right because it did correspond to a word for “cotton.” The logical candidate we propose here is tinam, read TINAM as a glyph, a term well-attested as meaning “cotton” in Common Ch’olan and all its descendant languages (Norman and Kaufman 1984:132). On the Marcador, the term explains the ma syllable—here serving as a reinforcement for TINAM. A no syllable would not account for this usage, yet there can be little doubt that, as a visual form, the glyph corresponds to that fluffy substance.

There may even be a more general protocol in place for generating signs. A Maya innovator (it is hard to see this as anything other than a singular, intentional act) first extracted a syllable no from nok’, the former no longer having any meaning. The scribe then used that sign to record a distinct if conceptually related term, one for the material itself. The motivating word had been left behind, to be replaced in logographic usage by another, loosely linked term. To our knowledge, a “fish” sign, a ka syllable, never references its motivating word, kay, a to syllable fails to deliver tok, “cloud, fog,” and so on. One of the few exceptions may be bi and BIH, “road,” a handy term for a people who liked to move in processions and on various journeys.

But why “cotton” mountains? Why “5” of them, why the tie to Teotihuacanos? And how is this an evocative, analogical description, of the unfamiliar made familiar to readers in a tropical zone?

Central Mexico, the general setting for Teotihuacan, is a far colder place than steamy Tikal, Guatemala. Peaks in visible range of Teotihuacan—at least in times prior to urban pollution—are girt with snow, some of it seasonal, some few examples perennial. A poetic analogy for someone describing this distant, fantastical land might be to reach for the familiar (cotton) to picture the radically foreign (snow). The scribe composing the Marcador text, masterfully proficient in Maya writing, knew much about Spearthrower Owl’s civilization—the text of the Marcador contains several non-Maya signs, and the overall carving exhibits many Teotihuacano elements. It may thus have been referring to a place he had not visited but could describe in terms of fluffy white “down” on high mountains, five of them in fact, perhaps Popocatépetl, Iztaccíhuatl, Orizaba, and others. (One of the authors [Stuart] is collaborating with David Carballo in a future study that will consider these specific connections in more detail.)

The analogy might have been familiar in parts of Mexico. In Oaxaca, the Codex Nuttall, a Mixtec pictorial book from the 14th century, portrays a couple between two peaks (Figure 7). They are a pair, Lady 1 Flower and Lord 1 Jaguar, who founded a particular Mixtec dynasty (Anders et al. 1992:108). Cotton marks, a spread of small “u”-shapes, cover and streak down the peaks, and a small cotton spool at the base of the mountain to the right both accentuates this conceit and employs, according to one interpretation, a Mixtec homophone, yuhua, “cotton spool” or “snow” (Anders et al. 1992:107fn5). A commentary on the Nuttall describes these as the “Montes Nevados” (the snowy mountains), and possibly as a particular location, Icpantepec Nieves in the Mixteca Baja of Oaxaca, Mexico (Anders et al. 1992:33). Snow may have been as unfamiliar to them as to the Lowland Maya of the Early Classic period, but, as on the Marcador, they invoked a metaphor that worked with wit to excite the imagination.


Nuttall 11.png

Figure 7. “Cotton-covered” mountains, possibly Icpantepec Nieves, Mixteca Baja, Codex Nuttall, p. 11, detail, British Museum ADD.MSS 39671 (© Trustees of the British Museum, Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0). 


  1. In 1983 or so, Houston saw another text referring to Sihyaj K’ahk’. It was on an exquisitely inlaid shell in the temporary keeping of Gordon Ekholm, then a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Etched lightly with glyphs, the shell displayed areas of jade and Spondylus, inserted by some clay-like adhesive into drilled areas of the surface. A scene of emergence, with a single head looking upwards through a symmetrical effusion of foliage, served as the principal image. At the time, Houston made a quick sketch of the text, including an evident statement of overlordship by Sihyaj K’ahk’. The object, considerably damaged by erosion in its hollow, has since disappeared. It may have been in the process of evaluation by Ekholm and his associate, Robert Sonin, an authenticator and former curator at the Brooklyn Museum, who came to Ekholm’s office during Houston’s visit.

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Acknowledgements  This essay has benefitted greatly from discussions with David Carballo, Karl Taube, and Marc Zender.



Anders, Ferdinand, Maarten Jansen, and Gabina A. Pérez Jiménez. 1992. Crónica Mixteca: El rey 8 Venado, Garra de Jaguar, y la la dinastía de Teozacualco-Zaachila, libro explicativo del llamado Códice Zouche-Nuttall, Ms. 39671 British Museum, Londres. Madrid/Graz/Mexico City: Sociedad Estatal Quinto Centenario/Akademische Druck-u. Verlagsanstalt/Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Aveleyra Arroyo de Anda, Luis. 1963. La Estela teotihuacana de La Ventilla. Cuadernos del Museo Nacional de Antropología I. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México.

Beliaev, Dmitri, David Stuart, and Camilo A. Luin. 2017. Late Clasic Maya Vase with the Mention of Sihyaj K’ahk’ from the Museo VICAL, Casa Santo Domingo, Antigua Guatemala. Mexicon XXXIX(1):1–4.

Dienhart, John M. 1986. The Mayan Glyph for Cotton. Mexicon 8(3):52–56.

Estrada-Belli, Francisco, Alexandre Tokovinine, Jennifer Foley, Heather Hurst, Gene Ware, David Stuart, and Nikolai Grube. 2009. A Maya Palace at Holmul, Peten, Guatemala and the Teotihuacan ‘Entrada’: Evidence from Murals 7 and 9. Latin American Antiquity 20(1):228–259.

Gómez Chávez, Sergio, and Julie Gazzola. 2015. Una posible cancha de juego de pelota en el área de la ciudadela, Teotihuacan. Anales de Antropología 49(10):113–133.

Houston, Stephen, Simon Martin, and Karl Taube. 2016. Xenophobia and Grotesque Fun. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Xenophobia

Kaufman, Terrence, and William M. Norman. 1984. An Outline of Proto-Cholan Phonology, Morphology and Vocabulary. In Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, Institute for Mesoamerican Studies Publication 9, eds. John. S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell, 77–166. Albany: State University of New York.

Kim, David Y. 2006. Uneasy Reflections: Images of Venice and Tenochtitlan in Benedetto Bordone’s Isolario. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 49/50:81–92.

Laporte, Juan Pedro, and Vilma Fialko. 1995. Un reencuentro con Mundo Perdido, Tikal, Guatemala. Ancient Mesoamerica 6(1):41–94.

Martin, Simon. 2003. In Line of the Founder: A View of Dynastic Politics at Tikal. In Tikal: Dynasties, Foreigners, and Affairs of State, ed. Jeremy A. Sabloff, 3–45. Santa Fe/Oxford: School of American Research Press/James Curry.

Martin, Simon. 2017. Secrets of the Painted King List: Recovering the Early History of the Snake Dynasty. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Secrets

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2000. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. London: Thames and Hudson.

Proskouriakoff, Tatiana. 1993. Maya History. Rosemary Joyce, ed. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Solís, Felipe (ed.). 2009. Teotihuacan, Cité des Dieux. Paris: Musée du Quai Branly.

Stuart, David. 1998. ‘The Fire Enters His House’: Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts.” In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, ed. S. D. Houston, 373–425. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Stuart, David. 2000. ‘The Arrival of Strangers’: Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History. In Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, eds. D. Carrasco, L. Jones, and S. Sessions, 465–513. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Stuart, David. 2014. Naachtun’s Stela 24 and the Entrada of 378. Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography Naachtun’s Stela 24

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Taube, Karl. 2009. La religion à Teotihuacan. In Teotihuacan, Cité des Dieux, ed. Felipe Solís, 152–159. Paris: Musée du Quai Branly.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1972. A Commentary on the Dresden Codex: A Maya Hieroglyphic Book. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 93. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

Unknown. 1522. Newe Zeittung. Von dem Lande. Das die Sponier funden haben ym 1521. Iare genant Jucatan.; Newe Zeittung vo[n] Prussla, vo[n] Kay: Ma: Hofe 18 Martze. 1522.; Newe Zceyt von des Turcken halben von Offen geschrieben. Augsburg? [John Carter Brown Library, J522 .N543z]

The 2018 Mesoamerica Meetings Reply


January 9-13, 2018

The 2018 Mesoamerica Meetings are coming soon! Please join us in Austin next month for our stimulating series of workshops and our two-day symposium, focused on “Mesoamerican Philosophies.” Registration for the Meso Meetings is open to the public and all are welcome. Presenters include Chris Beekman, Linda Brown, David Carrasco, Michale Carrasco, Andrew Finegold, Patrick Hajovsky, Chrisptophe Helmke, Lucia Henderson, Julie Hogarth, Nick Hopkins, Zack Hruby, Danny Law, Elliot Lopez-Finn, Leonardo López Luján, James Maffie, Barbara Macleod, Alexus McLeod, Osiris Sinuhe Gonzalez Romero, David Stuart, Alex Tokovinine, Karl Taube, and Marc Zender.

Workshops, Symposium Program and Registration Information


Forty years ago, in 1978, UT Austin hosted the first Maya Hieroglyphic Workshop by Linda Schele, and an institution was born. Over the years the annual event grew as an open and vibrant gathering of scholars, students and others, sharing in the newest research in (mostly) Maya art, archaeology and related disciplines. 2018 brings exciting new changes, marking not only the beginning of our third k’atun, but also our new identity as the UT Mesoamerica Meetings, emphasizing the interconnectedness of all Mesoamerican cultures. To celebrate our anniversary and our new direction, we will devote our 2018 conference to a novel topic: Mesoamerican Philosophies: Animate Matter, Metaphysics, and the Natural Environment.

Ancient Mesoamerican religion and worldview hinges on a special understanding of “matter” and the metaphysical expression of the sacred. The world and what inhabited it – landscapes, buildings, objects, illnesses, even time itself — were considered animate and “living” in some sense, creating a dynamic system of interactions and relationships between people, gods, and things. These ideas found a constant expression, at different scales, in the region’s art, imagery, architecture, and ritual deposits, yet it is fair to say that these elemental notions have not been organized as a cohesive philosophy in any systematic way. At the 2018 Mesoamerica Meetings scholars and students will bring ancient Mesoamerican philosophy and religion into sharper focus, looking at how the ancient Maya, Aztecs, and other Mesoamerican cultures communicated these important ideas, and developed many notions of their own. In short, the conference will be looking at some of the most foundational but least articulated concepts of a cohesive ancient Mesoamerican worldview.

Among the questions we will be asking are: How do we refine our picture of Mesoamerican ideas as a cohesive system, a philosophy that might be placed alongside other ancient traditions worldwide? How did Mesoamerican peoples represent and interact with “living” things, spaces, materials and landscapes to express their understanding of human action in an animate world? Can we come up with a more accurate idea of “animism” in describing aspects of the Mesoamerican worldview? In what ways do such ideas have direct bearing on archaeological interpretation? These are large issues, and other related questions will no doubt arise during the conference. We see it as the beginning of a new and necessary foray into defining Mesoamerican thought as a set of philosophical traditions with key repercussions in scholarly research and cultural understanding.

Workshops, Symposium Program and Registration Information