Bone Collectors and Sacred Trash

To the Maya, throwing away the bones of hunted animals is as wasteful as throwing away the entire animal itself.

The following story is contributed by the Florida Museum of Natural History, one of Natural History magazine’s Museum Partners. Members of any of our partner organizations receive Natural History as a benefit of their museum membership. 

At the Florida Museum of Natural History, visitors may enjoy hundreds of exotic butterflies in a rainforest setting, witness a South Florida Calusa Indian welcoming ceremony, experience a life-sized limestone cave, and see a mammoth and mastodon from the last Ice Age. Permanent exhibits include Northwest Florida: Waterways & Wildlife; South Florida People & Environments; Florida Fossils: Evolution of Life & Land; and the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, which features the screened, outdoor Butterfly Rainforest exhibit with hundreds of live butterflies.

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Bone collector slideshow
Co-director Linda Brown climbs a rock-face using Maya-carved hand and foot holds to trek to the Pa' Ziguan hunting cache. Photo by Erin Thorton
Bone collector slideshow
UF graduate student Michelle LeFebvre completes an initial sort of mammal long bones from the Pa' Sak Man Feature 1 cache. Photo by Kitty Emery
Bone collector slideshow
UF graduate student Elyse Anderson records a well-hidden bone cache in the depths of the Pa' Sak Man shrine rockshelter. Photo by Kitty Emery
Bone collector slideshow
A Santiago hunter and his family are participants in the ethnographic study of beliefs and activities at the neighboring hunting shrines. Photo by Linda Brown

When you finish your chicken dinner, your next step is most likely to toss the leftover bones in the garbage. And if you hunt, you probably discard the bones after skinning and gutting your hard- earned carcass. What else would you do with old bones, right?

But if you’re a modern Maya in Guatemala, this would be sacrilege. To the Maya, throwing away the bones of hunted wild animals is as wasteful as throwing away the entire animal itself. In fact, it’s pretty much one and the same, said Kitty Emery, assistant curator of environmental archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

In the summer of 2007, Emery and her colleague Linda Brown, an ethnoarchaeologist from George Washington University, traveled to Guatemala’s highlands along with several of Emery’s graduate students to investigate remote ritual shrines where modern hunters ceremonially deposit, or cache, the carefully cleaned bones of hunted wild animals. The hunting shrines had not been documented until Brown’s ethnographic work a few years earlier, and the researchers decided to collaborate to learn more about the modern beliefs surrounding them and the types of animal bones modern villagers deposited. On a separate project, Emery had come across some similar deposits she believed to be thousands of years old, which raises questions about the continuity of the practice from the past to the present.

“Many of these sites contained literally enormous quantities of animal remains, including artifacts and ritually important species,” Emery said. “One site, the Cave of the Quetzal Bird, is amazing. The bone deposits are more than a meter deep in places, and it is obvious that this was a very intentional process of someone depositing these bones.”

According to Emery and Brown, modern Maya locate their hunting shrines on steeply sloped hills and beneath rocky outcrops far from villages, in areas they conceive of as wilderness. Certain rock shelters are believed by the Maya to be doorways to a spirit realm where the Guardian of the Animals resides. They locate their sacred caches on his threshold because they believe that at night, the Guardian collects newly offered bones and brings them back to his world to be refleshed and made new. By offering the bones of their hunt, the Maya believe they are facilitating the replenishment of wild animals and game populations.

“There is a concept that if you throw the bones away, you won’t have more animals to hunt later,” Brown said. “They believe that the special handling of these bones is related to the future abundance of the wild animals, that animals are essentially reborn from the ritual of giving the bones back to the spirit.” Emery said archaeological evidence has led her to conclude that this is likely a “pan-Maya” practice that can be traced not only across their cultural footprint on the Central American landscape but possibly as far back as 3,000 years.

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