Bone Collectors and Sacred Trash

October 1st, 2008

By DeLene Beeland

To the Maya, throwing away the bones of hunted animals is as wasteful as throwing away the entire animal itself. In fact, it’s pretty much one and the same.

Belize

When you finish your chicken dinner, your next step is most likely to toss the leftover bones in the garbage. And if you hunt, you probably discard the bones after skinning and gutting your hard-earned carcass. What else would you do with old bones, right?

But if you’re a modern Maya in Guatemala, this would be sacrilege. To the Maya, throwing away the bones of hunted wild animals is as wasteful as throwing away the entire animal itself. In fact, it’s pretty much one and the same, said Kitty Emery, assistant curator of environmental archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

In the summer of 2007, Emery and her colleague Linda Brown, an ethnoarchaeologist from George Washington University, traveled to Guatemala’s highlands along with several of Emery’s graduate students to investigate a few remote ritual shrines where modern hunters ceremonially deposit, or cache, the carefully cleaned and protected sacred bones of hunted wild animals. The hunting shrines had not been documented until Brown’s ethnographic work a few years earlier, and the researchers wanted to learn more about the modern beliefs surrounding them and their bone deposits.

Maya ritual

Maya ritual practitioner (a “day-keeper” or aq’i’j) from the neighboring town of Nahuala, conducts a ceremony at the Pa’ Ziguan hunting shrine, petitioning permission for researchers’ work from the Guardian of the Animals. Photo by Linda Brown

Each had a different research goal — Brown was interested in further investigating the modern use of wilderness locations for rituals while Emery hypothesized the shrines might help explain several intriguing archaeological cave deposits she’d recently come across while analyzing faunal remains for a separate project. She believed many of these cave deposits, located in Guatemala and Belize, to be thousands of years old.

“Many of these sites contained literally enormous quantities of animal remains, including artifacts and ritually important species,” Emery said. “One site, called the Cave of the Quetzal Bird, is amazing. The bone deposits are more than a meter deep in places, and it is obvious that this was a very intentional process of someone depositing these bones, probably during ceremonial activity.”

Brown revealed to Emery that Maya living today use similar ritual sites, to cache the bones of hunted wild animals, and so the pair decided to investigate what sorts of animal bones were cached at specific shrines, what activities took place and to what degree the stated beliefs and practices of the Maya villagers matched the physical evidence of the deposited bones. Emery was particularly interested in whether or not there was continuity from millennia past to modern times in terms of rituals and beliefs linked to the sacred sites.

According to Emery and Brown, the modern Maya typically locate their hunting shrines on steeply sloped hills and beneath rocky outcrops far from villages, in areas they conceive of as wilderness because they are not suitable for agriculture or human habitation. Certain rock shelters are believed by the Maya to be doorways to a realm where a special spirit resides, the Guardian of the Animals. They locate their sacred caches on his threshold because they believe that at night, the Guardian collects newly offered bones and brings them back to his world to be refleshed and made new. By offering the bones of their hunt, the Maya believe they are facilitating the replenishment of wild animals and game populations.

“There is a concept that if you throw the bones away, you won’t have more animals to hunt later,” Brown said. “They believe that the special handling of these bones is related to the future abundance of the wild animals.”

deer mandibles

White tailed deer mandibles from the Pa’ Sak Man hunting shrine, part of a study of deer age-at-death at the Atitlan hunting caches. Photo by Erin Thornton

For Emery, questions about the ritual shrines had begun emerging the summer before when she was working with living Maya to better understand how they discarded their household trash and food items. Some participants’ answers surprised her.

“They would tell me, ‘Oh, we never throw away turtle bones, you save those for medicine, or throw them in a lake,’ or ‘You never throw away fish bones, because they’re sharp and can cut you, so you burn those to ash on the kitchen stove,’ ” Emery said, recounting things the study participants told her. “But the most telling parts were when the highland hunters told me that they never threw away the bones of hunted animals — that those had to be saved, cleaned and ritually given back to the Guardian of the Animals.”

For an archaeologist like Emery, this simple revelation had deep implications not only about how the Maya process their food items, but possibly even how they conceived of sustainability. Brown had also come across “interesting hints” from myths, recorded by ethnographers, indicating that the Maya have used ritual hunting shrines for quite some time. One of her favorite myths is about a pair of twin brothers who withheld food from their younger brother and threw at him the bones of the wild animals they ate. Being magical, the younger brother placed the bones in the ground and new animals sprang forth. He then built a stone wall around the animals and returned to visit them whenever it pleased him.

Linda Brwon climbing a rock

Co-director Linda Brown climbs a rock-face using Maya-carved hand and foot holds on the trek to the Pa’ Ziguan hunting cache. Photo by Erin Thornton

“So this, along with other myths, tells us that there is a belief that the special handling of bones is very much related to the future abundance of the species, that animals are essentially reborn from the ritual of giving the bones back to the spirit,” Brown said. She elaborated that there were accounts of similar beliefs about returning bones to a guardian animal spirit in Mexico and Honduras. “It is certainly a Maya practice, but I don’t think the Maya are the only indigenous people who do this,” Brown said.

Emery said archaeological evidence has led her to conclude that this is likely a “pan-Maya” practice that can be traced not only across their cultural footprint on the Central American landscape but possibly as far back as 3,000 years.

Meeting the Guardian of the Animals

Michelle LeFebvre

UF graduate student Michelle LeFebvre completes an initial sort of mammal long bones from the Pa’ Sak Man Feature 1 cache while graduate students Elyse Anderson and Erin Thornton begin the identification process. Photo by Kitty Emery

In 2007, Emery and Brown traveled to the steeply pitched slopes of San Pedro, a volcano in the Guatemalan highlands on the southwestern shore of Lake Atitlan, where they studied three hunting shrine sites: Pa’ Ruchi Abaj, Pa Sak Man and Pa’ Ziguan. Before they could begin their work, the local Maya said they must first ask for permission to meet the Guardian of the Animals. What ensued was a series of three ceremonies over two days where a ritual practitioner, called a Maya Day Keeper, introduced the researchers to the guardian spirit, asked permission for them to speak to the spirit, and then asked permission for them to study the shrines.

During their second ritual at the shrine on San Pedro’s slopes, Manuel, the Maya practitioner, chanted incantations while each researcher in the group held lit candles. Emery said the wind wiggled their flames and smoke from burning tree resin, a sacrifice to the gods, wafted around them in a small clearing. A few feet away, thousands of animal bones lay piled in a protected rock shelter. In places, the bones were several feet deep. At one point, the practitioner flicked a pungent-smelling viscous green liquid on graduate student Erin Thornton’s face.

“I was trying to be a respectful anthropologist and not move around too much,” she said. “When it happened, the Maya Day Keeper nodded at me, and it seemed he was seeking some sort of permission, so I nodded back. Then he flicked this perfumed liquid on my face. It startled me, and it dripped down my nose. So I made sure to wear a hat to all the other ceremonies.”

Before the trip, Thornton, who works in Emery’s environmental archaeology lab at the Florida Museum, had only worked with much older archaeological deposits.

Elyse Anderson in a cave

UF graduate student Elyse Anderson records a well-hidden bone cache in the depths of the Pa’ Sak Man hunting shrine rockshelter. Photo by Kitty Emery

 

“The most fascinating part of the project was participating in the modern hunting shrine rituals,” Thornton said. “They allowed me to see a depth of meaning and detail that is often impossible to get at through the archaeological record alone.”

Though Thornton’s research focuses on using strontium isotopes to track beginning and endpoints for the pathways of animal trade in ancient Maya culture, she assisted with identifying individual animal species from the ritual bone deposits and mapping the physical characteristics at all three ceremonial sites. Emery said that rituals play a large role in the hunting sequence too.

“We were told that when hunters perform a ceremony before a hunt, they will ask the Guardian of the Animals to bless the hunt and that if he wanted to, to give them an animal,” Emery said. “And in this ceremony, they ask for the spirit’s blessing that everything will go smoothly in the hunt. And they will ask for protection for their hunting dogs and rifles too; so every element used in the hunt is blessed.”

Brown, the researcher from George Washington University, added that later, during the hunt, the hunter will wait for an animal to present itself to him. When it does, the Maya believe that the animal is offering itself for sacrifice and they can take it, regardless of its age or sex. The Maya told the researchers that after a hunt, the animal carcass is taken home and butchered, and the bones carefully cleaned and stored. On an “auspicious” day, the bones would be taken to a shrine along with a small sacrifice to be burned — some resin, candles, flowers or even a chicken.

“You talk the entire time through the burning ceremony,” Emery said. “Your words are carried on the smoke, and the gods accepting the smoke, eating it, dissipating it from the air, is evidence that they have entered into a contractual negotiation with you.”

family in Belize

A San Pedro La Laguna ritual practitioner and his family are participants in the ethnographic study of beliefs and activities at the neighboring hunting shrines. Photo by Linda Brown

The team found that each shrine was similar with a bone cache area, a small sacrificial altar and a small clearing for activities. Some mornings the researchers would arrive at the shrines to find new items, like a row of vertebrae sitting on a ledge, a squirrel cranium, or a row of animal finger bones. Sometimes new items were left bound and bundled and sometimes the hunters would have rearranged previously deposited bones. Emery said she was fascinated to be working on a sacred site.

“I have done a lot of fieldwork in Maya sites, and worked with the modern Maya in many situations, but this was a new experience for me,” Emery said. “Because of the sacred aspects of these sites, there were a lot of restrictions placed on us that made the site work complicated and difficult. No remains could be removed from the site, so all identifications were done with few research tools while perched on uncomfortable rock outcroppings.”

Each night they had to leave the shrines exactly as they’d found them, which meant packing up their tools and removing any grid marks or artifact markers used during the day. But Emery said the extra steps were well worth the trouble.

“This work gives us such a new perspective on understanding what we’ve been looking at in the ground,” she said. “We have found evidence at older sites, that I’ve excavated more extensively, which suggest the ancient Maya were engaged in similar rituals long ago. But on this project, we were working with their modern descendants, who are today still carrying out these rituals.”

Sustainability implications

Emery and Brown documented the rituals associated with the shrine, but when it came to the beliefs, they found that even short distances of five miles between villages could result in differences about what animals were to be treated with sacred care, and what part of the animal should be cached and what parts shouldn’t. The Maya in one village said they only cached large mammals, but the researchers found turkey bones in their sacred cache.

“So this brings us to the idea of folk taxonomies, and the fact that for them, a turkey probably is a large mammal,” Emery said. “The distinction that we make, based on fur versus feathers and what not, they may not be making.”

woman skins squirrel

A ritual practitioner (ceremonial co-head or xul of the Cofradia) skins and prepares a squirrel for curation at the Cofradia San Juan, Santiago. The village site houses the paraphernalia associated with the Guardian of the Animals including curated animal remains, usually skins. It is there that hunters are blessed prior to their hunting expeditions. To ensure permission from the Guardian of the Animals, researchers were also blessed there prior to beginning work at the hunting shrines. Photo by Kitty Emery

In order to identify which bones belonged to what types of animals, UF graduate student Elyse Anderson spent hours supplementing and organizing a photographic record of comparative zooarchaeology specimens Emery previously developed. Anderson, who works in Emery’s environmental archaeology lab at the Florida Museum, said that they would typically make these identifications in the laboratory using a physical comparative collection, but because they couldn’t remove specimens from the sacred sites, they had to bring images to compare in the field.

“Making the identifications in the field, and under time constraints, was a huge challenge,” Anderson said. “At one site, the bones were shoved way back into this crevice in the rock shelter, and at another there had been a recent rock fall which made our work difficult. There were small differences between the sites, not only in terms of species but in terms of how the Maya cached the bones. I’m hoping to take what we learned from these modern and historical hunting antique caches and use it as a framework to look at ancient cave assemblages and disposal patterns.”

They found coati, raccoon, armadillos and probable coyote — species the Maya hunters consider to be small mammals. She said the presence of coyote raises the question of which animals were likely eaten. She thinks that the coyote was not a food item but that it may have been killed in the process of the Maya protecting their domestic livestock. Representative large mammals included deer and peccary, with a few jaguars, tapirs and monkeys also present.

Emery is most interested in whether or not the Maya hold a concept of sustainable hunting within the rituals associated with the shrines. She said the caching gives the hunter “permission” to go hunting again, and in essence it creates a built-in protective mechanism for the wild game because if the hunters don’t abide by the rules, the Guardian of the Animals will not hold up his end of the bargain and ensure future game.

“Now that we have an understanding of how these shrines work, I want to know how the belief in the Guardian of the Animals influences hunters in their decisions about which animals to take,” Emery said.

Emery plans to return to the area in an upcoming field season to investigate whether there is a thread of sustainability woven into the complex relationship between the Maya hunters, the shrines and their Guardian of the Animals spirit.

“It’s a very reciprocal relationship with the Guardian of the Animals, it’s a very social relationship between the Guardian, the hunter and the animals’ bones that hold the potential for new life,” she said.


Published on Science Stories: October 2008.