Touching Text in Ancient Mexican Writing

by Stephen Houston (Brown University) and Marc Zender (Tulane University)

“Pictography…complicates discussions of both writing and artistic practice in a global sense” (Boone 2016:32)

In a perceptive comment, James Elkins once remarked on “the recurring fantasy that there might be such a thing as a purely visual picture, a page of writing uncontaminated by nonverbal meaning, or a chart or graph dedicated utterly to the propagation of data” (Elkins 1999:91). Posing extremes, if only to make a point about the challenges behind these categories, Elkins zeroed in on the zone of collisions between writing as a linear notation of language, meaningful notations or graphs that scholars call “semasiographs” (think of mason’s marks), and pictures that play havoc with linearity. Some images tell or allude to stories, but mostly they avoid any demand that depictions be accessed in a fixed order.

Of course, how a graph occupies space is less clear than one might think. As something to be seen, a picture does not have to be two-dimensional (reflect on Rodin’s Les Bourgeois de Calais [1884–89], whose miseries, to be fully absorbed, must be viewed from several vantages). And what script other than Morse code, when registered visibly as dots and dashes, fails to splay out laterally? To map out these frontiers, Elkins used Venn diagrams that interlock like love rings, one of “writing,” with two others of “notation” and “picture” respectively (Elkins 1999:85–86). “Hieroglyphs,” a kind of writing bridging picture and text, occupies two overlapping circles. These systems are both pictorial and linear, referencing things in the world but also, because they express language, insisting on a particular order of reading.

There must have been some evolutionary foundation to all of this. The making of images and the cognitive networks that facilitate the recognition of objects rest on primate origins. There was, according to Stanislas Dehaene, “the partial or total invasion of a cortical territory initially devoted to a different function,” as “coded by single neurons in the primate’s visual cortex” (Dehaene 2009:72–74, 183, and fig. 2.6, for the suggestive proximity in the human brain for areas responding to rooted things [e.g., houses], faces, written words, and separable objects; n.b: Dehaene [2009:184] comments on Maya writing but only with respect to “faces…[that] denote syllables”). An unmet need in scholarship is to have laboratory imaging, by computed tomography, of responses to hieroglyphic systems, rather than the “stroke-based” scripts, the majority in the world, that attract the preponderant attention of research on the reading brain (e.g., Changizi and Shimojo 2005; Changizi et al. 2006). For them, the alphabet remains “A Great Leap Forward” (Dehaene 2009:190), with implied negative comment about hieroglyphic writing that endured, in the Egyptian case, for almost 3,600 years or, among the Maya, for 1,800 or more.

The pleasure, perhaps even the neuronal frisson of hieroglyphs, is their resolute “thingness.” They have edges, interiors, exteriors. They represent things in the world; they have perceptible mass, weight, texture, color; they toggle, in their cognitive processing, when apprehended by the brain, between image, sound, and meaning. Rather than defects, these attributes surely delighted users and readers of hieroglyphic script. The features bore social import as well, in that the solidity of things, plainly evident to the eye, lent factual assertiveness to the messages conveyed by writing. By offering playful ground for virtuosity, hieroglyphs did something else—they abetted a drive towards prestigious and assertive display in unequal societies (see Baines 2007, for ample comparison from Egypt).

Nonetheless, picture and writing operate in their own domains, as made clear by one of the principal functions of script, to label or caption images. By their nature, hieroglyphs and images are pictorial, but the writing is strongly codified as to size, spacing, regularity, albeit with scope for fun flourishes. The relation between the two is more “dialogic…each relates to the other without absorbing or being subsumed by it” (Bedos-Rezak and Hamburger 2016:2). Two examples illustrate this point. The first, from Egypt, in the Middle Kingdom tomb of Khnumhotep II at Beni Hassan (BH 3), shows captioning that may be categorized by function and content: as added by the Egyptologist Claus Jurman, light grey rectangles indicate titles, dark grey personal names, ovoids “labels of action” (Fig. 1, Jurman 2018:111, fig. 2). Such tagging tends to occur when the tomb owner appears in the scene and may be enlivened by quotations of speech. The hieroglyphs occupy the same figural field as the pictures of diligent laborers, duty bound for eternity, earnest, energetic too, but they are clearly separable. Their contiguity is what establishes the relationship between text and image. The placement of texts above the figures may also signal some of their priority in parsing the scene. The figures function almost like unread determinatives. Their final positioning (where determinatives occur in hieroglyphic phrasing) and facial orientations (the same as their labeling signs) accord with that view.


Figure 1.png

Figure 1. Tomb of Khnumhotep II, Beni Hassan (BH 3, Jurman 2018:fig. 2, adapted from Kanawati and Evans 2014:pl. 121, bottom). 


A more recent example, in The Uncourtly Lovers from c. 1484 (and now held by the Gotha Museum in Germany), shows a couple (Fig. 2). Thought at one time to be a bridal pair, the painting highlights a medieval count and his concubine, the looping scrolls above describing both the “unlawful” nature of their love and its obvious ardor—he was about to depart for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, perhaps never to return (Camille 1998:157–159). Sound is made visible here, but in elegant hand, accompanied by no open lips: here is interior, impassioned sentiment broadcast to viewers, possibly modeled on the prophetic or celestial utterances emblazoned on earlier scrolls in Western imagery (Schapiro 1996:157). In the tomb of Khnumhotep II, the texts are close by if spatially separate from the people and actions they caption; in The Uncourtly Lovers, the text is set apart on writing material. Yet both float impossibly, as though in thin air, a trait of such labeling in general. That physical impossibility tells the viewers that they are looking at a distinct kind of messaging. Labeling takes a generic image—workers laboring with energy and care, a profession of mutual devotion—and doubles down on the specifics of that scene, giving it weight, reality, grounding in a time and place, establishing who is whom, what is what, and by principles of labeling that were non-random in placement, content, and selection.


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Figure 2. The Uncourtly Lovers, Master of the Housebook, c. 1484, Stiftung Schloss Friedenstein Gotha (SG 703). 


Captioning in Maya writing has only just begun to be studied in formal and comparative perspective (e.g., Houston 2018:140–152; Zender 2014:63–67). Captives may bear labels on their bodies, as though these were inscribed into unwilling flesh; connecting text to people’s lips, voluptuous lines appear to indicate a record of actual speech (Houston et al. 2006:153–163). Yet these lines are relatively rare. It is in the writing of Mexico, including the Basin of Mexico, Oaxaca, and intermediate areas, that lines exist, and with telling implications for text-picture relations in the Postclassic and early Colonial periods.

As Elizabeth Boone (1994:53) notes in her useful discussion of the scene of departure from Aztlan on page 1 of the Codex Boturini, of the three individuals depicted on this page only one, the priestess Chimalman, is named by “a round shield (chimalli) attached by a line to her head.” She further mentions that, “[e]xcept for the glyphs composing personal and place names, the graphic components on this page convey meaning without a detour through speech” (Boone 1994:54). Boone (2000:48) also highlights regional variation in the use of this convention, observing that “[i]ndividuals in the Mixtec codices are always identified by their calendrical names, which appear as a date either attached to the individual by a line or unattached nearby” (Boone 2000:48). In the Aztec case,  the principle admitted more flexibility. The lines were more optional, linking portraits with both calendar names and personal name glyphs (Boone 2000:48). This important distinction between phonetic hieroglyphs and pictorial art received relatively little attention before Boone’s work. Charles Dibble (1955:301) mentions the convention only in passing, noting that Aztec name glyphs were “attached to the nape of the neck” and that, “when the individual’s name was of secondary importance and his tribal affinity was of paramount concern, the tribal hieroglyph was attached to the neck,” as in the ethnonyms associated with the captive deities of the Stone of Tizoc (see also Zender 2008:27, Note 4). Similarly, Nicholson’s (1973:23) state-of-the-field discussion of phoneticism in Aztec writing takes the principle largely for granted, largely following Dibble’s analysis.

First, a point of evidence. Maya glyphs always had context, in that they might occur on this or that building or object. However, they also possessed a strong graphic autonomy, appearing in long columns without any image nearby. The overwhelming sense from Mexico is that hieroglyphic writing did not have the same degree of separability, in part because of the intrinsic brevity of such records: i.e., if signs were painted or carved, they had to accompany a person, place, scene or three-dimensional figure. Images found explanation and specification by hieroglyphs, yet texts were, in essence, secondary to pictorial display. The few “free-floating” signs probably related to things in close proximity. Glyphs on stone boxes (tepētlacalli) may have glossed the contents, presumed in some examples to be mortuary (see McEwan and López Luján 2009:cat. 15, 16). Other signs embellished stone plaques affixed to buildings, a palpable, massive reference if there ever was one (e.g., Matos Moctzeuma and Solís Olguín 2002:cat. 172–174), or, when combined with other day signs, arranged into four-part patterns, they represented a compact, almost emblematic totality of time and space (Matos Moctzeuma and Solís Olguín 2002:cat. 226–227; for examples from other non-Maya writing, see Chinchilla Mazariegos 2017:43, 45, with similar emphasis on direct contact).

A second observation concerns the use of lines to link text and image. In Mexican systems of writing, lines occur exclusively on flat, painted surfaces. To our knowledge, not one of these tethers exists in carved form on stone or other hard material. Such links served as a purely painterly device, and of books at that—Aztec paintings do not yield such lines either (e.g., Contreras 1994; Sisson and Lilly 1994:fig. 4). In many cases lines seem also to be optional or non-existent, so that the entire “Borgia group” of Aztec codices fails to show a single instance of such tethers. Indeed, the first demonstrably Pre-Columbian usage is from the Mixtec region of Oaxaca where, as among the Aztec, there were three ways to link text and its referent: (1) the absence of referential line; (2) a partial tethering of person to non-calendrical name sign or some part of a numbered calendrical name sign; and (3) direct contact between text and its referent. All of these options may be found in the Codex Vienna: as highlighted in Figures 3 and 4, a green circle shows a tether, a yellow circle employs direct contact to link text and pictorial referent or to enchain internal components of a text (subitized numbers and day sign; for “subitization,” see Chrisomalis 2010:376–379).



Figure 3. Referential lines contrasted with direct contact in the Mixtec Codex Vienna (c. AD 1350). 



Figure 4. Referential lines between bodies and nominal day signs, Codex Nuttall (c. AD 1400). 


Direct contact as a means of linking a text and its pictorial referent is not limited to Mixtec sources, for it appears commonly in early Colonial documents. Figure 5 juxtaposes a Pre-Columbian example, from the Codex Vienna, each day sign brushing against its specifying number, and a Colonial example from the Codex Azoyú from Guerrero, Mexico, that employs both tethers and, in three mummy bundles below, direct, almost frictional contact between name signs and bundles.




Figure 5.  Direct contact (yellow circle) as alternative to referential line (green circle), Codex Azoyú (c. 1565), Codex Vienna (c. AD 1350).


What may be Colonial in date, and an expression of cross-cultural explanation, are lines that link two different textual systems, one indigenous, the other European (Fig. 6).  A page from the Primeros Memoriales prepared by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún and his native collaborators portrays the Aztec Emperor Huitzilihuitl (1391–c. 1417), his name bolded in red by the painter (as <Vitziliui>), a red line leading to his name sign, but with a black tether shooting down to his head. In the Codex Mendoza, the amount of food apportioned to a youth is displayed as two tortillas and then, rather redundantly, explained further by making two lines leading to dos tortillas, “two tortillas.” Such lines permit a ready consultation between two contrastive systems of graphs. One is European (i.e., Latin in origin), the other indigenous, although, in the Primeros Memoriales, both record the same language. (This may reflect Sahagún’s encyclopedic motive, to clarify through over-specification.) A celebrated image from the Codex Vaticanus A/Ríos, p. 54r, uses such lines to connect day signs with afflicted body parts, in a supposed aid to healing (Boone 2007:109–108, fig. 61). Yet, in addition to its Mexican component, this image has clear precursors in Medieval Europe and into the ancient Near East, where astrological signs map onto the human body. In many such diagrams, lines extend from zodiacal figures to a limb or organ (Zodiac Man; see also Clark 1979, esp. fig. 45, which mentions the Aztec example; for European input into the Codex Vaticanus A, Nielsen and Reunert 2009).



Figure 6. Concurrent, cross-cultural coding after the Spanish Conquest, Primeros Memoriales (c. 1558–1585), Codex Mendoza (c. 1542).


What may be another Colonial innovation is the use of lines as effective, rapidly accessed notations of constituents in taxable households. The Codex de Santa María Asunción lays out the name of the owner (glyphic TESKAkaPOK, for Martin Tezcapoc), hitched by a black line to a household conceived of (and depicted) as a “house” (Fig. 7).  But the rest of the diagram shows martial pairs (opposed male and female heads linked by red lines), their offspring (descending by lines at approximate midpoint of their parent’s tether), gender by use of an upper-body garment, age by relative size and whether, as with little “Joseph,” he lies in a cozy crib (Williams and Harvey 1997:72). The Christian names demonstrate a sweeping conversion of the family, which comprises, over two generations, a head of household, two brothers, a sister, and their respective families. Yet the proximity to the conquest—it took place only 23 years before—hints that this use of lines may be Pre-Columbian in origin.



Figure 7. Referential lines to the name of a pater familias and, in contrastive color, to highlight genealogical relations within a residential unit of taxation, Codex Santa María Asunción (c. AD 1544). 


A more exalted version of this genealogy comes from the Codex Cozcatzin (Fig. 8). It  employs the same red line—does this signal blood relations?—to link Moteuczoma Xocoyotzin and his two offspring by different wives (no love lost here: the children loathed each other and squabbled for decades over inheritances [Boone et al. 2017:122–123, in a section written by David Tavárez]).



Figure 8. Red-lined genealogy in the imperial Mexica family, and with red lines to individual name signs, Codex Cozcatzin (c. 1572). 

Referential lines had other uses in Mexican writing. Time and agency might be denoted by dotted or dashed lines, as in several images from the Codex Osuna  (Fig. 9). Skilled workers were linked by dark lines to their craft (e.g., albañiles, “masons,” carpinteros,  “carpenters,” etc.), and their number carefully tabulated by individual heads or, if mere brute-force labor (peones, “laborers,” by a banner for “20” in direct contact with the body of the worker—in contrast to the skilled craftsman, all brawn, little brain?). This seems to have been done on a particular day, lunes, “Monday,” as connected by dashed line to the 20 peones in the first image. Staff in hand, the Oidor Doctor Vasco Puga points with his right hand and, presto!, three natives go off to the stocks.



Figure 9. Dotted or dashed lines for ties to time and agency, Codex Osuna (c. AD 1565). 

Color performed admirably in tying a royal death and a succession in the Tira de Tepechpan (Fig. 10). The green line corresponds to one lord’s reigning years, limned in the same color, to be replaced by those in yellow for his successor (Diel 2008:47, 67).



Figure 10. Color as tether to time and event, contrasted with black line for nominal referents, Tira de Tepechpan (c. AD 1596). 

The links to time can have an almost pedantic precision, as in the Codex Mendoza, where a New Fire ceremony in the reign of Huitzilihuitl does not just reach to the square cartouche of a year sign but to the day sign itself (Fig. 11).



Figure 11. Hyper-specification of events tied to a year sign by lines, Codex Mendoza (c. AD 1542). 


The Codex Telleriano-Remensis elects for greater looseness. Year signs have an efficient, single tether leading to the mummy bundle of Huitzilihuitl and the accession of his imperial successor, Chimalpopoca (Fig. 12, left). Both events took place in the same year, so why not load one line with that shared function? The death of Bishop Juan de Zumárraga in 1548 seems to have led to slight confusion, with lines passing to the subsequent year as well (Fig. 12, right, note the error in the text, which refers to this death in “1549”). A skull dangling by line from the head of the supine bishop provides a portion of his name: TZOM/TZON “head” for the first syllable of Zumárraga (there being no u in Nahuatl, and tz often being substituted for /ṣ/ in Spanish loanwords and foreign names).


Figure 12. Joint reference with single line to tie people, events, and time, Codex Telleriano-Remensis (c. AD 1550).

Indeed, tethers may be used to provide marginalia or some clarifying afterthought. Having written na-MOL for the name Namol, the scribe (or later individual?) reconsidered the possibility of ambiguity with the “bowl” sign, which has several different readings (e.g., XIKALKAXMOLKAX, etc.), and annotated the glyphs with a second tether to the “rubber” sign, OL (Fig. 13). The pronunciation was now clear. There are numerous other examples, one being the name of Lady Ilancueitl in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis 29v. Her name glyphs, ILlakwe, are attached to her portrait by a tether, and then, perhaps as afterthought, an additional tether links the name glyphs to KOLPLACE, yielding an abbreviated reference to her city of origin, Colhuacan (see Nicholson 1978:23; Whittaker 2009:66–67; Zender 2013). Similarly, on f.46r of the Telleriano-Remensis, Don Antonio de Mendoza initially receives an abbreviated glyphic label of TOSA, attached to his portrait by a tether, only for this to be later annotated with an additional tether to the syllable me (Zender 2008:28-40). Finally, an elaborately pictorial glyphic toso on f.147v of the Calendario Tovar is directly attached to the Roman gloss Toçoztōntli to clarify its glyphic (rather than iconographic) identity (Zender 2013).


Pedro Namol_CSMA.jpg

Figure 13. Second tether in the Codex Santa María Asunción, pp. 53r and 77b (c. AD 1544). 


Referential lines were not always thought necessary—again, the important Borgia group of codices eschews them altogether. But they fulfilled a practical function by showing which parts of a visual field were textual, i.e., those that did not exist solely as pictures. There is probably deeper meaning. Lines, dashes, dots, black or colored, reveal an abiding attention to disciplining the pictorial field, showing which names, actions, times, people pertain to each other. Text can hover nearby, but it was thought better by far, in some examples, to affirm that tie to pictures. Pictures had autonomy, texts did not. Images were authoritative, texts explained and undergirded that authority.

Aside from the Codex Xolotl (c. AD 1542), a document from Texcoco, Mexico, with stray marks for war, peremptory royal commands sensory action (speech cued by volutes, sight by eyeballs), the comprehensive absence of verbs in Mexican writing made this relation necessary (Boone 2016:43–44, fig. 2.9). Action is pictorial, names, places, and time glyphic, hinting that distinct systems operate here, not, perhaps, blurred or blending ones (Boone 2000:33): they afford mutual strength, a joint undertaking that works well, if one that imposes strong exegetical burdens on the reader.

Although still insufficiently theorized (see, e.g., Zender 2014:69–72), Plains Indian pictography has long been known to employ remarkably similar conventions. Thus, Garrick Mallery (1894:168) reproduces a drawing of the Hidatsa/Minitari Chief Lean Wolf (Fig. 14), observing that “[h]is name is…added with the usual line drawn from the head.” Mallery cites Lean Wolf’s own explanation of his name glyph as indicating “the outline character of the wolf, having a white body with the mouth unfinished … to show that it was hollow … i.e., lean” (Mallery 1894:168; see also Zender 2014:69–70). Similarly, the famous Hunkpapa-Lakota Chief Sitting Bull (Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake) is depicted in the ledger book of the Cheyenne artist Howling Wolf (Fig. 15), a long tether attaching his portrait to the strongly-stylized sign of a seated buffalo. Here, as in the texts of Postclassic Oaxaca and Central Mexico, the lack of verbal hieroglyphs puts the burden of narrative squarely on the pictures, thereby making a necessary distinction between them and the highly pictorial glyphs. Texts do not levitate in thin air like Middle Kingdom labels in Egypt or a curling scroll about forbidden love in late Medieval Germany. Intensely physical, unambiguous, they gather text and picture into the same space by direct, nominal, and indexical reference.



Figure 14. The Hidatsa/Minitari Chief Lean Wolf (Mallery 1894:168, fig. 74).


Fig Ledger

Figure 15. Sitting Bull Shooting Another Warrior, 1874-1875, ledger book, Howling Wolf, Southern Cheyenne (1849-1927), Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, AMAM 1904.1180.4.



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Mosquitoes and Maddening Noise

by Stephen Houston (Brown University)

The sound comes before the sighting: that high-pitched, oscillating whine mosquitoes make as they hover nearby. The naturalist E. O. Wilson (1984) claims that humans are predisposed to “biophilia,” a pleasing sense of affiliation with the lush, evolutionary miracle that surrounds us. With these creatures, biophilia surely gives way to different reactions—rage, a desire to destroy, yes, E. O. Wilson, even “bioanimus”: “where is that pest, when will it bite, can I kill it before it does?”

Few would dispute that the mosquito makes a most maddening noise, foretelling pain, itching, vexation, disease. Captain Haddock, beloved curmudgeon of the Tintin books, could not agree more—note the artist, Hergé (Georges Remi), and his idea of what these critters sound like, later proved to be the clamor of a descending helicopter (Fig. 1).


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Figure 1. What mosquitoes sound like (Hergé 1960:29).


Sounds of animals are, in most languages, understood in terms of echoic mimicry, a perception, influenced by varying motivations, of what noise is seemingly heard from this or that animal: bow-wow for speakers of English, vov-vov in Swedish, the language of my youth. Perhaps, according to some researchers, the size of an animal makes a difference too, high tones associating with smaller creatures, such as birds (tweet-tweet), low tones and back vowels with bigger, lumbering beasts like cows (moo; Bredin 1996:567; see also an early formulation by Jespersen 1922:402).

The Maya region does not lack for mosquitoes. Some are small, others equipped with white-tipped legs or they may shimmer with blue iridescence—their bites can be dainty, often unnoticed pricks, or, in larger ones, they may feel like painful drillings. Long ago, Karl Taube pointed out to me how striking, even beautiful, mosquitoes can be when depicted in Maya vase painting (Fig. 2; see also K1223, K2759). Rich in plumage, with dark wings (that marking was first studied in other creatures by Marc Zender), they excreted blood, and, in a curious feature, showed long proboscides perforating a single flower.

This last doubtless accorded with close observation of nature, but not too close, for it is based on gender confusion. The males nourish themselves with juices or nectars, while the females require blood to sustain their eggs. These respective attributes were not, it seems, minutely understood by the Maya. An overriding feature is the emphasis on the skeletal, even exoskeletal, nature of such insects, along with an extra eye on the forehead, and, at times, leaking or smoking protuberances at their bottoms. An example from the Princeton University Art Museum, pointed out by Bryan Just, combines a mosquito with the features of a bird (PUAM 2003-291, MS2089), probably a gloss on a shared capacity for flight. But, for the mosquitoes, the key component is a set of two volutes, identified some time ago by David Stuart as blood scrolls. Evidently, the mosquitoes were sloppy eaters, and the excess spilled messily from their jaws.


figure 2.png

Figure 2. Dazzling mosquito feeding repeatedly on a cormorant(?)—an image of sustained agony (K2668, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission).


Such noxious creatures are not unique in Maya imagery. There may also be depictions of ticks or lice with hook-like talons, bloody mouths, and a disturbing profusion of eyes, perhaps a comment on the complex visual apparatus of insects (Fig. 3). In Maya imagery, these afflict a bloated mammal, an association pointed out to me some years ago by Karl Taube, but comparison with another vase demonstrates a seemingly free alternation with mosquitoes, K1223; see also Chinchilla Mazariegos 2017:12–15, who suggests that the mammal combines jaguar and tapir). In both cases Chahk, the Storm God, poises to strike these bloodsuckers. With axe in hand, he takes ferocious aim at them.


Untitled 2.png

Figure 3. Possible ticks or lice (K555, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission).

This essay began with a reference to sound. Echoic mimicry—that deeply annoying sound of mosquitoes—may explain a variant form of the ya syllable in Maya writing (Fig. 4). It is clearly skeletal, has a long beak, and disgorges bloody volutes. What is different in this example is that the creature is supplied with wings (one thrusts horizontally to viewer’s right) and, on its proboscis, is  a probable flower or gout of blood. The ya variant is likely a mosquito.


Screen Shot 2018-05-19 at 8.06.02 PM.png

Figure 4. A mosquito in place of the syllable ya (Yaxchilan Throne 2, photograph provided by Ian Graham), compared with blood-drooling, blood dripping mosquito (K9225).


Captain Haddock may have heard BZZRRBZR, but it takes little imagination to see yayayaya (and so forth) as the perceived sound of Maya mosquitoes, segmented into a front vowel, i, gliding into a low front a and back again, along a long stream of torment foretold. Alternatively, the basis for the syllable ya was simply a term (a mimetic one too, from ya!, the sound of misery?)  for “pain” or “sickness,” as in Chontal yaj (Keller and Luciano 1997:292), perhaps linked in Maya minds with the vexing bite of mosquitoes.


Acknowledgements   Thanks go to Karl Taube for discussing many nasty creatures over the course of our long friendship. Oswaldo Chinchilla posed a useful question about the tick/louse-infested beast, as did Bryan Just about a piece under his care at the Princeton University Art Museum.



Bredin, Hugh. 1996. Onomatopoeia as a Figure and a Linguistic Principle. New Literary History 27(3):559–569.

Chinchilla Mazariegos, Oswaldo. 2017. Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hergé [Georges Remi]. 1960. The Adventures of Tintin: The Calculus Affair. London: Methuen.

Jespersen, Otto. 1922. Language: Its Nature, Development, and Origin. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Keller, Kathryn C., and Plácido Luciano G. 1997. Diccionario Chontal de Tabasco. Tucson: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.

Wilson, Edward O. 1984. Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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.


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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


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.