Sacred Giants: Depiction of Bombacoideae on Maya Ceramics in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize
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- Zidar, C. & Elisens, W. Econ Bot (2009) 63: 119. doi:10.1007/s12231-009-9079-2
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Sacred Giants: Depiction of the Malvaceae Subfamily Bombacoideae on Maya Ceramics in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize This study categorized and identified plants depicted on Maya ceramics from the Classic Period (250 a.d.–900 a.d.). We chose art objects with a predominance of iconographic images of Malvaceae subfamily Bombacoideae, which are easily identified morphologically and have culinary, medicinal, ceremonial, economic, and cosmological significance to the Maya. Among ten species of Bombacoideae native to the Southern Lowlands region of Central America (Belize, parts of Guatemala, and Mexico), the Maya utilized at least six, which also have Maya names. We observed four or five bombacoid species depicted on Maya ceramics; most images were identifiable to genus. Burial urns and incensarios (incense burners) commonly had images of trunk spines of Ceiba pentandra, the Maya “World Tree.” Flowers of Pseudobombax ellipticum, a plant used to make ceremonial beverages, were most similar to floral images portrayed on vessels, bowls, and plates, although the morphologically similar flowers of Pachira aquatica may also be depicted. Plants representing Quararibea funebris or Q. guatemalteca, which were used during preparation of cacao beverages, were discernable on drinking vessels.
Key WordsMalvaceaeBombacoideaeBombacaceaebombacbombacsceibaancient MayaMaya
The interpretation of ceramics, including glyphs and figural depictions, has been at the forefront of Maya scholarship for decades (Reents-Budet 1994). Little from the Maya culture remains to enlighten modern Maya scholars to the life of this pre–Columbian culture because Spanish religious zealots burned most Maya codices (texts) as anti–Christian doctrine in the 1500s. Archaeologists and epigraphers have used stone stelae, architectural carvings, and ceramics to learn more of their political structure, religion, language, and use of natural resources.
Plants were significant to the Maya culturally, ritualistically, economically, and ecologically (FLAAR 2008; Marcus 1982; Schlesinger 2001). Painted and sculpted images of whole plants, leaves, fruits, and flowers were represented on many Maya artifacts (Schele and Freidel 1990). For example, in Classic Maya art and writing, there is strong support for the identification of the breath soul with flowers; the Ahau glyph (= lord, flower, sun) appears commonly with depictions of flowers (Houston and Taube 2000). Plants depicted commonly on Maya ceramics include cacao, corn, calabashes, and water lilies; vessels also were made in the likeness of squash and gourds (Schele and Freidel 1990). We documented images of Malvaceae subfamily Bombacoideae (Angiosperm Phylogeny Group 2003) because of their relative ease of identification, inferred importance to the Maya, and known importance to the Maya in modern times (Schele and Freidel 1990). Botanical motifs on ancient Maya monochrome (black and white) and polychrome (multi–colored) ceramics, censors, and burial urns have been observed (e.g., FLAAR 2008) but discussed minimally, despite common depictions of flowers and trunk spines of the ceiba tree (Ceiba pentandra) and other bombacoids (Bassie-Sweet 1991; Grube 2001; Sharer 1996).
Ethnobotanical use, geographic range, and names of native species of Bombacoideae occurring in the lowlands region of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.1
Plant Part Used
Bernoullia flammea Oliv.
Locust tree, pojote, amapola, mapola
Mexico to Costa Rica
Wood, for canoes
Ceiba aesculifolia (H.B. K.) Britton & Baker f.
Mexico to Costa Rica
Ceiba pentandra (L.) Gaertn.
Ceiba tree, silk cotton tree, kapok, inup
Ya’axche’ - “green tree” or yáaxche’ - “first tree”
Mexico to Peru
Manufactures: cloth, stuffing Food
Also: ritual, fuel, medicine, oil and construction
Ochroma pyrimidale (Cav. ex Lam.) Urb.
Mexico to Bolivia
Also: medicine and construction
Pachira aquatica Aubl.
Provision tree, provision bark, santo domingo, sapote bobo, uacut, zapote bobo, zapoton
Mexico to Brazil
Also: medicine, dye, construction
Pseudobombax ellipticoideum A. Robyns
Construction, medicine, fuel, other products
Pseudobombax ellipticum (H.B.K.) Dugand
Amapolla tree , shaving brush tree
Mexico to Nicaragua, West Indies
Beverage (intoxicating drink)
Zaccuyche, Chaccuyche, Cuyche, K’ux che’
Quararibea funebris (La Llave) Vischer
Flor de cacao, madre de cacao
Used as Q. gualtemalteca?
Mexico to Costa Rica
Similar to Q. guatemalteca?
Similar to Q. gualtemalteca?
Quararibea guatemalteca (Donn. Sm.) Standl. & Steyerm.
Bass, bastidos, batidos, cincho, coco mama, swivel stick tree, swizzle stick tree
Mexico to Honduras
Also: construction, rituals, other products
used as a spice with cacao and for cacao frothers
Quararibea yunckeri Standl.
Belize to Honduras
The primary goals of this study were to examine ceramic iconography to identify depictions of plants in the subfamily Bombacoideae and to elucidate their cultural significance to the Maya people of the Classic Period (250 a.d.–900 a.d.). Ceramics were an integral part of Maya daily and ceremonial life and had various forms and uses. Ornamentation of ceramics was provided by sculpting, appliquéing (the application of decorative items), or painting. Incensarios and burial urns took the form of large cylinders. Cylinders, bowls, and plates were the three main forms for smaller ceramics. A cylinder was used to hold cacao drinks, bowls often held corn (atole/pozole), and plates usually held tamales (Reents-Budet 1994). Monochrome ceramics were found typically on everyday wares, whereas polychrome ceramics were used primarily for ceremonial and ritualistic purposes (Reents-Budet 1994). Handles, tripods, or additional types of ornamentation were provided by appliqué and sculpting.
Materials and Methods
We identified plant images on Maya ceramics as bombacoids based on their distinctive morphological features such as palmately compound leaves, trunk spines, five–parted flowers with recurved petals, and numerous stamens. When the depictions were naturalistic, we identified the genus of the plants by comparing the depictions to published plant descriptions (e.g., Kubitzki and Bayer 2003; Standley 1930), illustrations, and/or images (e.g., USDA/NRCS 2008 and the University of Hawaii Botany Department Plant Families Image Gallery [University of Hawaii at Manoa 2008]). We examined preserved plant specimens at the herbaria of the University of Michigan, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the University of Oklahoma. Living plants native to the Maya southern lowland region were examined at Fairchild Tropical Gardens in Miami (Florida), the Fruit and Spice Park in Homestead (Florida), and the National Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.
We based the determination of species native to the southern lowland region of the Maya on floristic and taxonomic treatments (Arvigo and Balick 1998; Balick et al. 2000; Lentz et al. 1996; Schlesinger 2001; Standley 1923; Standley and Steyermark 1949). Scientific names followed the International Plants Names Index (IPNI 2008); determination of synonymy was aided by TROPICOS (Tropicos.org 2008). Determination of Bombacoideae and other plants used historically by the Maya were obtained from various sources. Archaeo–palynological studies have been conducted in Belize (Fedick 1996). Modern Maya plant usage has been inferred with the assistance of Maya healers in the region by Arvigo and Balick (1998).
The primary source for locating plant images of Maya ceramics was the Justin and Barbara Kerr image collection that is available on the Web site of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI 2008) and the Web site of the Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research (FLAAR 2008). The Kerr collection contains the largest collection of ceramic images accessible to scholars and contains Mr. Kerr’s rollout photos, which captured continuous and complete Maya scenes painted on cylindrical vessels. We also consulted additional sources in the search for bombacoid images (e.g., Schele and Miller 1986; Schmidt et al. 1998). Approximately 2,638 images were examined for depictions of Bombacoideae on Maya ceramics.
Results and Discussion
The Maya used seven of the ten species of Bombacoideae native to the southern lowland region (Table 1). We list Maya names for six of the seven species; it is uncertain whether the Maya distinguished between Q. funebris and Q. guatemalteca. We observed species from four genera represented on Maya ceramics: Ceiba pentandra, Pachira aquatica, Pseudobombax ellipticum, and Quararibea guatemalteca or Q. funebris. Representations of Bernoullia flammea, Ceiba aesculifolia, and Ochroma pyrimidale were not observed on our sampling of Maya ceramics. It is not known whether Pseubobombax ellipticoideum or Quararibea yunckeri were used or distinguished by the Maya.
Depictions of tree forms, trunk spines, and flowers were represented most often (Figs. 2, 3 and 4a–d), with images of silky fruit hairs depicted infrequently (Fig. 4e–f). While we did not observe representations of bombacoid leaves and fruits, we noted some fruit depictions (e.g., FAMSI 2008, Kerr Collection K–1226, K–4546) that appeared to be similar to those of Bombacoideae, but most likely represented the indehiscent fruits of the Calabash tree (Crescentia cujete L., Bignoniaceae). Trunk spines were depicted by appliqué and were observed on incensarios and burial urns (Fig. 2b–d). Depictions of flowers were painted on cylindrical vessels, bowls, and plates (Figs. 3c–e and 4a,b). Sculpted representations of Bombacoideae were not observed. Portrayal of the ceiba tree (Ceiba pentandra) was the most common followed by images of the shaving brush tree (Pseudobombax ellipticum) or the provision tree (Pachira aquatica); depictions of the swizzle stick tree (Quararibea guatemalteca or Q. funebris) were infrequent.
Species of Bombacoideae Depicted on Maya Ceramics
Ceiba pentandra (Silk Cotton or Kapok Tree)
Ceiba trees can attain 50 meters (m) in height and are characterized by large buttress, swollen trunks, spreading crowns, stout spines on trunks and branches, and palmately compound leaves with five to sever leaflets. The flowers of C. pentandra are abundant on mature trees, but are inconspicuous with comparatively small petals (≤3.5 centimeters long) and only five stamens. No depictions of flowers were observed of C. pentandra nor of C. aesculilfolia, which also has flowers with few stamens but with larger petals that are up to 16 centimeters (cm) long. Fruits of C. pentandra are elliptic in shape and up to 12 cm in length; they contain large brown seeds enveloped in silky hairs (Fig. 4e,f) that were used by the Maya for stuffing pillows and cushions (Schlesinger 2001).
To the Maya, the ceiba (yaxche) was a sacred tree that mapped out the upper, middle, and underworlds, represented the five directions, and stood in the exact center of the Earth (Thompson 1970). The ceiba tree was the “World Tree” (Ya’axche’, “green tree,” or “first tree”) (Schele and Mathews 1998). Representations of the ceiba tree as a “cross–like” image (e.g., Temple of the Cross of Palenque) were common on sculpted elements such as palace walls, stelae, and sarcophagus lids (Grube 2001; Schele and Mathews 1998). The stylized cross–like form of the ceiba tree appeared infrequently on ceramics.
In contrast to the paucity of representations of the ceiba growth form, trunk spines were depicted commonly on ceramic incensarios and burial urns (Schele and Mathews 1998). The ceiba was associated with creation myths as well as with rituals and beliefs concerning death: Its roots connected the underworld (home of the nine gods of sorrow and pain) to the middle (human) world and the upper world (home of 13 benevolent gods) where the dead could climb its trunk and branches to the highest sky (Thompson 1970; Schlesinger 2001). The ceiba tree is still held in high regard in the southern lowland region by indigenous people who often leave ceiba trees unharmed when forest wood is harvested and areas are otherwise clearcut (Schele and Freidel 1990). The ceiba is used in present–day festivals and ceremonies throughout Central America (Freidel et al. 1993; Schlesinger 2001; Williams 1981).
Pachira aquatica (Provision Tree)
The provision tree or Guiana chestnut also has trunk spines and is common in wetland habitats in the southern lowland region. A tea can be made from the bark (Arvigo and Balick 1998) and its large seeds, which often exceed 2 cm in diameter, are edible after roasting (Standley 1923). Even though P. aquatica shares palmately compound leaves with five to eight leaflets with regional species in Ceiba and Pseudobombax, the fruits and flowers of P. aquatica are distinctive in the southern lowlands, because of their large size (fruits and petals to 30 cm long), numerous stamens (to several hundred; Fig. 3a), and recurved greenish to yellowish petals at anthesis. In Belize, Arvigo and Balick (1998) reported that the provision tree was used as a food source during times of drought or crop failure as well as for its medicinal uses for blood disorders, kidney pain, anemia, and low blood pressure. We observed several images of bombacoid flowers on Maya ceramics that had recurved petals and numerous stamens resembling those of P. aquatica (e.g., Fig. 3c–e).
Pseudobombax ellipticum (Amapolla or Shaving Brush Tree)
This species lacks trunk spines but has palmately compound leaves with five to seven leaflets as do the regional species of Ceiba and Pachira. The large fruits (10 to 12 cm long) produce small seeds enveloped in silky hairs as in Ceiba. The flowers of Pseudobombax ellipticum have hundreds of stamens and five petals that are large (7 to 13 cm long) and recurved at anthesis (Figs. 3b and 4d). Although smaller, the flowers of P. ellipticum are similar in overall appearance but more colorful compared to those of Pachira aquatica. The showy white or pink–to–red flowers of P. ellipticum are used commonly for ornament in Mexico and Guatemala (Standley 1923; Standley and Steyermark 1949) where they are esteemed for their beauty (Fig. 4d) and where there is a long history of medicinal and ornamental usage. Standley (1923) noted that P. ellipticum (synonym Bombax ellipticum H.B. & K.) was most likely the tree described and illustrated by Francisco Hernandez as Tlacoxiloxochitl or Xiloxochitl (flor barbada) in his Thesaurus (Hernández and Ximénez 1615, F. 68).
For the Maya, the amapolla or shaving brush tree was used to make an intoxicating drink in religious ceremonies such as those for sacrifice and self–mutilation (Flannery 1982). Sap was drained from the tree and fermented to make the drink. Because of their large size and history of ceremonial and ornamental usage, the flowers depicted on plates and vessels in Figs. 3c–e and 4b most likely represented P. ellipticum.
Quararibea guatemalteca and Q. funebris (Flor de Cacao, Swizzle Stick Tree)
The three species of Quararibea occurring in the southern lowlands region are trees or shrubs without trunk spines and are characterized by simple leaves, which distinguish them easily from the palmately compound leaves found among species in Ceiba, Pachira, and Pseudobombax. Flowers of Quararibea spp. are differentiated readily from these latter genera by their smaller size (white recurved petals less than 5 cm long) and stamens numbering 10 or 15 and united into an elongated staminal tube (Fig. 4c). Species of Quararibea are often differentiated by ovary locule number and leaf pubescence type–characters that may not have been significant to the Maya. Consequently, there has been some confusion in the literature concerning what species occur in this region (e.g., Standley and Steyermark 1949; Balick et al. 2000) and what species were used by the Maya.
Flowers from both Q. funebris and Q. gualtemalteca are used to flavor beverages made from cacao (Standley 1923; Standley and Steyermark 1949). Species in this genus also were important to the Maya; flowers were used as a spice in preparation of the sacred cacao drink and branches were used as stirring/frothing sticks to prepare the libation (Flannery 1982). Figure 4a portrays images from a vessel used for cacao beverages that depict flowers with recurved petals and an elongate staminal column with comparatively few stamens similar to species of Quararibea. Because Quararibea spp. were used twice in preparation of the Maya cacao beverage, their representation on the vessel appears appropriate.
Plant Parts of Bombacoideae Depicted on Maya Ceramics
Trunk spines (Fig. 2a) are depicted on Maya incensarios or censors (incense burners), burial urns, and other ceramics (Fig. 2b–d). Spines are commonly present on smaller trunks and branches of three species found in the Maya lowland region: Ceiba pentandra, C. aesculifolia, and Pachira aquatica. Of these three species, C. pentandra has much cultural significance to the Maya and is associated with cosmological beliefs. Bombacoid trunk spines have a distinct cone shape, which distinguishes them from spines of other woody plants growing in the region. Ceiba trunk spines are the closest morphological match to the protuberances commonly found on Maya ceramics. Trunk spines are represented most often as appliquéd decoration on unpainted or simply painted ceramics such as burial urns and incensarios (Fig. 2b–d) that are associated with Maya rituals of death and sacrifice. Vessels with spikes or “spines” are associated commonly with animals (Fig. 2d); lords and gods also appear on these ceramics (Fig. 2c).
Bombacoid flowers are depicted commonly on ancient Maya monochrome and polychrome ceramics such as cacao pots and laks (= hawte’), which are plates used to hold tamales. Vessels depicting flowers of the Bombacoideae were used primarily for ritual meals or food offerings (Reents-Budet 1994). We observed depictions of flowers of either Pseudobombax ellipticum or Pachira aquatica on cacao pots (Figs. 3c,e and 4b) and on a plate for holding tamales (Fig. 3d). Flowers of both species are large and have long recurved petals that reveal a “brush–like” group of numerous exserted stamens. The combination of the large and colorful flowers of Pseudobombax ellipticum with hundreds of colorful stamens make it the most likely candidate for the bombacoid floral image associated with a Maya headdress of an elite individual painted on the cacao pot in Fig. 4b. Other bombacoids utilized by the Maya, such as the species of Bernoullia, Ceiba, and Quararibea, have flowers with fewer stamens and smaller petals. Flowers of Pachira aquatica, though larger than those of Pseudobombax ellipticum, are not nearly as colorful.
Gods and animals often are an integral part of bombacoid flower images and appear attached to the floral stalk (peduncle) in our examples. We observed three depictions of gods or animals. Figure 3c depicts Yum Ka’ax, a youthful god of maize/agriculture with maize foliage growing from his head. This image was from a polychrome pot excavated in the Petén region of Guatemala. Figure 3d depicts a crane–like bird associated with a flower on a black–and–white plate from an unknown site (FAMSI 2008, Kerr Collection K–4669). The plate was 35.5 cm in diameter and depicted two similar floral/bird images separated by vertical text. Figure 3e depicts a hummingbird with a flower on a polychrome vessel from an unknown site (FAMSI 2008, Kerr Collection K–7610). The vessel was 30.5 cm in diameter and depicted two similar floral/bird images with a border of horizontal text at the rim.
The smaller, white–flowered blossoms of Quararibea funebris or Q. guatemalteca appear to be represented on a cylindrical vessel used for cacao drinking (Fig. 4a,c). This species was used to flavor and froth cacao beverages so it is appropriate for representation on a cacao vessel.
Seeds and Endocarp Hairs
Silky nonwettable hairs envelop the seeds of several bombacoid genera in the southern lowlands: Ceiba, Ochroma, Pachira, and Pseudobombax. Among these genera, the endocarp hairs of Ceiba pentandra are particularly copious and impervious to water (Fig. 4e). Their use by the Maya as a stuffing material is depicted in Fig. 4f, where seeds and the hairs (kapok) are possibly used in kneeling pads.
Our observations indicate that bombacoids were culturally significant to the Maya and as such were represented frequently on ceramics. Images of the growth form, trunk spines, flowers, and fruit/seed hairs appeared on artifacts associated with everyday life and with important rituals and beliefs. Along with cacao, corn, cucurbits (squash), and water lilies, it is apparent that the Bombacoideae represent a plant group of great importance to the Maya. We encourage additional investigations of the ethnobiological iconography of Maya material culture and hope they contribute significantly to our understanding of this remarkable culture.
The authors thank Marjorie Duncan, Blanche Haning, Nikole Zidar, Daniel Moerman, and Mary Jo Watson for their critical reading of the manuscript. Charles Zidar gratefully acknowledges the encouragement of Joe Whitecotton and Dorie Reents-Budet as well as the assistance of the Duke Museum of Art, The University of Michigan Herbarium, Justin and Barbara Kerr, the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI), The New York Botanical Garden, The Missouri Botanical Garden, Fruit and Spice Park, Fairchild Tropical Gardens, and Lindy Allen. We thank Justin and Barbara Kerr, Gerry Carr, Kevin Nixon, and Dennis Stevenson for their permission to reproduce photographs. This paper represents a portion of a master’s thesis submitted to the College of Liberal Studies at the University of Oklahoma.