Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Southern Yucatan Peninsula: Bacalar's pre-hispanic heritage


Maya village as it might have appeared when the Spanish arrived in 1543. The individual homes stood on raised platforms, with walls made of upright sticks and roofs of thatched palm fronds. Household work was largely an outside activity, performed on the small terraces surrounding the houses or in other public areas. This included some of the tasks seen above, such as grinding corn or using a back-strap loom to weave cotton or other fibers. 

The original name of Bacalar was B'ak Halal, meaning "Surrounded by Reeds". It was founded in 435 AD by the Itzaes, one of several Maya groups within the Putun culture. The Putun tribes migrated from the Gulf Coast of the modern state of Tabasco into the Yucatan Peninsula and northern Guatemala. They brought the cultural influences of Central Mexican civilizations like Teotihuacán and passed these influences on to the people they encountered along the way. Around 900 AD, when the Classic-Era Maya civilization collapsed, some of the Itzaes moved further north and founded a great city called Chichén Itzá ("Well of the Itzaes"). The Putunes were seafarers who established trading posts all along the Gulf and Caribbean coasts of the Peninsula. B'ak Halal prospered as a center of trade within this network until the Spanish arrival.


The "daily grind" of pre-hispanic Maya life. A woman grinds maiz (corn) on a flat, stone tray called a metate, using a stone roller called a mano. She kneels on a woven reed mat called a petate. Surrounding her metate are various clay pots and woven baskets used for storing and preparing food. 

Behind the woman, a hammock can be seen through the doorway of her house. The first known hammocks were made by the people of Central and South America more than 1000 years ago. However, they didn't arrive in the Yucatan Peninsula until about 1300 AD. The earliest of these sleeping nets were woven from the bark of the Hammack tree, hence the name. When slung between poles or trees, hammocks were ideal for hot weather and enabled the sleeper to avoid dangerous snakes and insects on the ground. Hammocks were first encountered by Europeans when Columbus visited the Caribbean islands in 1492. In 1590, European navies began to use them as sailors' beds because they could easily be stored when not in use, clearing the sleeping area for other purposes.

Village economy

Canoe typical of those used in Lago de Bacalar for trading. Notice the turtle shells arranged in the stern of the trader's boat. These were used as drums or were sometimes carved into jewelry. Other items of trade included jade, shells, feathers, gold, cotton, wax, honey, and salt. Such goods were favored over agricultural products because small, relatively light luxury products were easier to transport and yielded higher profits. 

B'ak Halal's lakeshore site was ideal for trade. Moving goods north or south by canoe was much easier and cheaper than hauling them through the jungle on the backs of porters. Since the southern tip of the lake was only a few kilometers from the Rio Hondo, goods could easily be portaged and then paddled up the river into the interior or downstream into Bahia de Chetumal and the Caribbean. To guide themselves, the traders used maps painted on cotton cloth. The most important medium of exchange was the cacao bean, although other items were sometimes used. In addition to its importance as a trading center, B'ak Halal also produced many of the canoes used by traders and fishermen. 



Everyday life required a variety of tools. On the top row are (from the left) three axes, two manos and a metate. Among those on the bottom are a variety of cutting tools of various sizes. Also present are two round stones. One of these may be for pounding and the other (on the far right with a hole through its center) may be for straightening the shafts of arrows. All the tools show excellent craftsmanship and the stones for several seem to have been chosen for their intrinsic beauty. 



Maya woman using a back-strap loom. Weaving materials included cotton and other local fibers. Wool, however, did not arrive until the Spanish brought European sheep. The weavers produced their cloth for trade as well as for local use. The backstrap loom is a very ancient technology and the Maya were not the only ones who developed it. I recently saw a statue from an ancient Egyptian tomb showing a woman using an almost identical rig. However, there is no evidence of cultural interaction between the New and Old Worlds after the hunter-gatherers passed across the Bering Strait to populate the Americas. Many millennia after those early migrations, looms like this came into use. Like metates and various other ancient technologies, back-strap looms are still used in Mexico. Just last week, in the Mexican village where I live, I photographed an indigenous woman using a back-strap loom to create beautiful textiles for the tourist trade.

Maya homes

A Maya nah. I have seen relief sculptures on temples at the ancient Maya city of Uxmal that look just like this. Similar to back-strap looms, the ancient nah design has persisted into modern times. A visitor to any pueblo in the Yucatan Peninsula will almost certainly encounter currently occupied homes of the same type. The typical nah is built by the owner him/herself from locally obtained materials. While it looks rustic, even primitive, the structure is a model of rationality, economy, and functional design. If the walls are constructed from upright sticks, the style is called chuychée. If the sticks are woven horizontally, it is called kolkolchée. The thatched roof is made from palm fronds and both the sticks and the fronds are readily available in the local forest. The space between the sticks in the walls allows for a free flow of air in the warm, humid climate. The high ceiling allows warm air to rise and escape through the thatched roof.


Detail of a thatched roof. The thatch, called guanoo or xaann, allows warm air and smoke from hearth fires to escape. Rain runs off rapidly, due to the waterproofing properties of the smoke from the wood cooking fires. If properly constructed and maintained, a roof like this will last for up to 30 years. One problem is insect infestations. A group of archeologists who stayed in a traditional village were consternated by the periodic appearance of army ant swarms and sought some way to deter them. However, they soon noticed that the local people welcomed the ants. Swarming over everything as it passed, the ant invasion caused the insects in the houses to flee to avoid being consumed. Once the army ants had marched on, the villagers could move back into their now insect-free homes. And, unlike exterminators in the First World, the ants charged nothing for their services.


Two doors face each other, on the front and back of the house. There are no windows. The typical nah is oval-shaped and measures 8m (26 ft) long and 4m (13 ft) wide. In ancient times, the house was built on a raised, limestone platform so as to avoid flooding during the rainy season. The platform was surfaced with a layer of lime plaster, creating a relatively smooth floor. 


Ceiling of the nah, at one end of the oval. A nah ceiling typically rises 5m (16 ft) from the floor to its peak. This height allows the warm air to rise so that the thatch can pass it through, helping to keep the lower part of the nah cooler during the hot season. The oval shape of the nah is ideal for resisting the hurricane winds that lash the coasts of Yucatan every year.


The structure is secured by four main posts, two on each side of the nah. Notice how the fork of a tree has been used to make the joint when the vertical post meets a horizontal cross-support and a rafter. All parts of the nah are held together by jungle vines and twine made of sisal.


Food and its preparation

Foods consumed by both the ancient and modern Maya. Calabasa (squash) and maiz (corn) are in two of the baskets. I have not been able to identify what appears to be fruit in the third basket. Many Maya still practice traditional slash-and-burn agriculture. This method rids the area of insects while fertilizing the soil with the ash. Next, using a pole with a pointed end, the farmer makes a row of holes in the ground. Into these, he drops kernels of maiz and frijol (bean) seeds. As they grow, the beans gather nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, nourishing the roots of the maiz plant. The maiz stalk, in turn, provides a stable surface on which the frijol plant can climb. Calabasa is planted in between the rows. Growing low to the ground and having broad leaves, the squash inhibits weeds. Thus, three crops can be harvested from one field every season. Each supports the growth of the others and the overall process requires much less effort than if they were grown separately. This method of farming has been used since ancient times and continues in use today. 


Wood bench displaying a variety of gourd containers. Gourds are possibly the oldest form of containers used by humans, pre-dating pottery and even baskets. Unlike the latter two, they grow in the wild and don't have to be woven or shaped from clay. Gourds, once dried and cleaned out, are light and sturdy. Their shapes naturally suggest a variety of uses, such as canteens, dippers, bowls, cooking pots, and storage containers for both liquid and dry foods. 


Slinging a basket from a tripod is a simple way to store things up off the ground. This helps keep insects and other critters out of the contents. The use of tripods was widespread in Mesoamerica. Pottery or furniture supported by tripods is much more stable and balanced than similar objects which have four legs. Anyone who has tried to even-up the legs on a four-legged table will know what I mean.


A comal, or cooking griddle, is supported by three chunks of limestone. When in use, the three stones form the boundary of the fire and a good tripod for the comal. This Mesoamerican cooking device dates back to 700 BC. Although the traditional clay comal has largely been supplanted by the metal version seen above, the function is identical. Maiz was central to the diet of the pre-hispanic Maya, as well as the rest of the settled peoples of Mesoamerica. It was first domesticated in southern Mexico around 6700 BC. The ancient method of preparation is still in use in many Mexican households. The kernels are first dried and then soaked in a limewater solution called nixtamal to break down the cellulose. The softened kernels are then ground into a powder on the metate and mixed with water to make a dough called masa. The dough is shaped into thin, circular cakes by slapping it between the palms of the hands. When cooked on a comal, these become tortillas, central to the diet of Mexicans since early pre-hispanic times. 

This completes my posting on Maya life in ancient times. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question, please leave your email address so that I can respond. 

Hasta luego, Jim










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