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.


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