Economic Botany

, Volume 63, Issue 2, pp 119–129 | Cite as

Sacred Giants: Depiction of Bombacoideae on Maya Ceramics in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize

  • Charles ZidarEmail author
  • Wayne Elisens


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 Words

Malvaceae Bombacoideae Bombacaceae bombac bombacs ceiba ancient Maya Maya 



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.

Literature Cited

  1. Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG). 2003. An Update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group Classification for the Orders and Families of Flowering Plants: APG II. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 141:399–436.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Arvigo, R. and M. Balick. 1998. Rainforest Remedies: One Hundred Healing Herbs of Belize. Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin.Google Scholar
  3. Balick, M., M. Nee, and D. Atha. 2000. Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Belize. The New York Botanical Garden Press, New York.Google Scholar
  4. Bassie-Sweet, K. 1991. From the Mouth of the Dark Cave. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma.Google Scholar
  5. Breedlove, D. 1986. Listados floristicos de México IV: Flora de Chiapas. Instituto de Biologia, UNAM, Ciudad de México, México.Google Scholar
  6. Crane, C. 1996. Archaeobotanical and Palynological Research at a Late Preclassic Maya Community, Cerros, Belize. Pages 262–277 in S. L. Fedick ed., The Managed Mosaic: Ancient Maya Agriculture and Resource Use. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, Utah.Google Scholar
  7. Fedick, S., ed. 1996. The Managed Mosaic: Ancient Maya Agriculture and Resource Use. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, Utah.Google Scholar
  8. Flannery, K., ed. 1982. Maya Subsistence: Studies in Memory of Dennis E. Puleston. Academic Press, New York.Google Scholar
  9. FAMSI (The Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.). 2008. Maya Vase Database and a Pre–Columbian Portfolio. (18 November 2008).
  10. FLAAR (The Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research). 2008. http://www.maya– (18 November 2008).
  11. Freidel, D., L. Schele, and J. Parker. 1993. Maya Cosmos. William Marrow, New York.Google Scholar
  12. Gentry, A. 1993. Woody Plants of Northwest South America. Conservation International, Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  13. Grube, N., ed. 2001. Maya: Divine Kings of the Rain Forest. Könemann, Cologne, Germany.Google Scholar
  14. Hammond, N. and C. Miksicek. 1981. Ecology and Economy of a Formative Maya Site at Cuello, Belize. Journal of Field Archaeology 8:259–269.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Hernández, F. and F. Ximénez. 1615. Quatro Libros; De la naturaleza, y virtudes de las plantas, y animales que estan receuidos en el uso de medicina en la Nueva España, y la methodo, y correcion, y preparacion, que para administrallas se requiere con lo que el Doctor Francisco Hernandez escriuio en lengua Lantina. Mexico: en casa de la viuda de Diego Lopez Davalos. Sabin Microfiche Collection no. 31514.Google Scholar
  16. Houston, S. and K. Taube. 2000. An Archaeology of the Senses: Perception and Cultural Expression in Ancient Mesoamerica. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10:261–294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. IPNI (International Plant Names Index). 2008. (1 November 2008).
  18. Kubitzki, K. and C. Bayer. 2003. Flowering Plants. Dicotyledons: Malvales, Capparales, and Non–betalain Caryophyllales. The Families and Genera of Vascular Plants, vol. 5. Springer–Verlag, Berlin.Google Scholar
  19. Lentz, D., M. Beaudry-Corbett, M. Reyna de Aguilar, and L. Kaplan. 1996. Foodstuffs, Forests, Fields, and Shelter: A Paleoethnobotanical Analysis of Vessel Contents from the Ceren Site, El Salvador. Latin American Antiquity 7:247–262.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Lobo, J., M. Quesada, K. Stoner, E. Fuchs, Y. Herrerias-Diego, J. Rojas, and G. Saborio. 2003. Factors Affecting Phenological Patterns of Bombacaceous Trees in Seasonal Forests in Costa Rica and Mexico. American Journal of Botany 90:1054–1063.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Marcus, J. 1982. The Plant World of the Sixteenth– and Seventeenth–Century Lowland Maya. Pages 239–273 in K. V. Flannery ed., Maya Subsistence: Studies in Memory of Dennis E. Puleston. Academic Press, New York.Google Scholar
  22. Reents-Budet, D. 1994. Painting the Maya Universe. Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina.Google Scholar
  23. Schele, L. and D. Freidel. 1990. A Forest of Kings. William Marrow, New York.Google Scholar
  24. Schele, L. and P. Mathews. 1998. The Code of Kings. Touchstone, New York.Google Scholar
  25. Schele, L. and M. Miller. 1986. The Blood of Kings. Braziller, New York.Google Scholar
  26. Schlesinger, V. 2001. Animals and Plants of the Ancient Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.Google Scholar
  27. Schmidt, P., M. de la Garza, and E. Nalda, eds. 1998. Maya Civilization. Thames and Hudson, New York.Google Scholar
  28. Sharer, R. 1996. Daily Life in Maya Civilization. Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut.Google Scholar
  29. Smith, N., S. Mori, A. Henderson, D. Stevenson, and S. Heald, eds. 2004. Flowering Plants of the Neotropics. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.Google Scholar
  30. Standley, P. 1923. Trees and Shrubs of Mexico. Contributions from the United States National Herbarium 23(1–5):1–1721.Google Scholar
  31. Standley, P. 1930. Flora of Yucatan. Field Museum of Natural History Publication 279, Botanical Series Vol. 3, no. 3.Google Scholar
  32. Standley, P. and J. Steyermark. 1949. Flora of Guatemala. Fieldiana Botany 24: part VI.Google Scholar
  33. Thompson, J. 1970. Maya History and Religion. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma.Google Scholar
  34., Missouri Botanical Garden. (19 November 2008).
  35. University of Hawaii at Manoa. 2008. Department of Botany, Vascular Plant Family Access Page. (19 November 2008).
  36. USDA/NRCS (United States Department of Agriculture/Natural Resources Conservation Service). 2008. The PLANTS Database. (19 November 2008). National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874–4490 USA.
  37. Williams, L. O. 1981. The Useful Plants of Central America. Ceiba 24:1–342.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The New York Botanical Garden 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Missouri Botanical GardenSt. LouisUSA
  2. 2.Department of Botany & Microbiology and Oklahoma Biological SurveyUniversity of OklahomaNormanUSA

Personalised recommendations