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.

Meeting the Guardian of the Animals

In 2007, Emery and Brown traveled to the steeply pitched slopes of San Pedro, a volcano in the Guatemalan highlands on the southwestern shore of Lake Atitlan, where they studied three hunting shrine sites: Pa’ Ruchi Abaj, Pa Sak Man and Pa’ Ziguan. Before they could begin their work, they participated in local rituals performed by a Maya practitioner, due to the sacred nature of the sites. Emery said the rituals involved many incantations, lighted candles, and small sacrifices to the gods in the form of burnt offerings of tree resin.

“We were told that when hunters perform a ceremony before a hunt, they will ask the Guardian of the Animals to bless the hunt and that if he wanted to, to give them an animal,” Emery said. “And in this ceremony, they ask for the spirit’s blessing that everything will go smoothly in the hunt. And they will ask for protection for their hunting dogs and rifles too; so every element used in the hunt is blessed.”

Brown, the researcher from George Washington University, added that during the hunt, the hunter will wait for an animal to present itself to him. When it does, the Maya believe that the animal is offering itself for sacrifice and they can take it, regardless of its age or sex. The Maya told the researchers that after a hunt, the animal carcass is taken home and butchered, and the bones carefully cleaned and stored. On an “auspicious” day, the bones would be taken to a shrine along with a small sacrifice to be burned—some resin, candles, flowers or even a chicken.

The team found that the shrines were similar: they all had a bone cache area, a small sacrificial altar and a small clearing for activities. Some mornings the researchers would arrive at the shrines to find new items, like a row of vertebrae sitting on a ledge, a squirrel cranium, or a row of animal finger bones. Sometimes new items were left bound and bundled and sometimes the hunters would have rearranged previously deposited bones. Emery said she was fascinated to work on a sacred site.

“I have done a lot of fieldwork in Maya sites, and worked with the modern Maya in many situations, but this was a new experience for me,” Emery said. “Because of the sacred aspects of these sites, there were a lot of restrictions placed on us that made the site work complicated and difficult. No remains could be removed from the site, so all identifications were done with few research tools while perched on uncomfortable rock outcroppings.”

Each night they had to leave the shrines exactly as they’d found them, which meant packing up their tools and removing any grid marks or artifact markers used during the day. But Emery said the extra steps were well worth the trouble.

“This work gives us such a new perspective on understanding what we’ve been looking at in the ground,” she said. “We have found evidence at older sites, that I’ve excavated more extensively, which suggest the ancient Maya were engaged in similar rituals long ago. But on this project, we were working with their modern descendants, who are today still carrying out these rituals.”

Sustainability implications

Emery and Brown documented the rituals associated with the shrine, but when it came to the beliefs, they found that even short distances of five miles between villages could result in differences about what animals were to be treated with sacred care, and what part of the animal should be cached and what parts shouldn’t.

Cofradia ritual practitioner

A ritual practitioner (ceremonial co-head or xo of the Cofradia) skins and prepares a squirrel for curation at the Cofradia San Juan, Santiago. The village site houses the paraphernalia associated with the Guardian of the Animals including curated animal remains, usually skins. It is there that hunters, their guns and their dogs are blessed prior to their hunting expeditions. To ensure permission from the Guardian of the Animals, researchers were also blessed there prior to beginning work at the hunting shrines. 

Photo by Kitty Emery

In order to identify which bones belonged to what types of animals, UF graduate student Elyse Anderson spent hours supplementing and organizing a photographic record of comparative zooarchaeology specimens Emery previously developed. Anderson, who works in Emery’s environmental archaeology lab at the Florida Museum, said that they would typically make these identifications in the laboratory using a physical comparative collection, but because they couldn’t remove specimens from the sites, they had to use comparative images in the field.

“Making the identifications in the field and under time constraints was a huge challenge,” Anderson said. “At one site, the bones were shoved way back into this crevice in the rock shelter, and at another there had been a recent rock fall which made our work difficult.”

They found coati, raccoon, and probable coyote. Emery said the presence of coyote raises the question of which animals were likely eaten. She thinks that the coyote was not a food item but that it may have been killed in the process of the Maya protecting their domestic livestock. Larger mammals included deer, armadillos, and peccary, with a few jaguars, tapirs and monkeys.

Emery is most interested in whether or not the Maya hold a concept of sustainable hunting within the rituals associated with the shrines. She said the caching gives the hunter “permission” to go hunting again, and in essence it creates a built-in protective mechanism for the wild game because if the hunters don’t abide by the rules, the Guardian of the Animals will not hold up his end of the bargain and ensure future game.

“It’s a very reciprocal relationship with the Guardian of the Animals, it’s a very social relationship between the Guardian, the hunter, and the animals’ bones that hold the potential for new life,” Emery said. She plans to return to the area in an upcoming field season to investigate whether there is a thread of sustainability woven into this complex relationship.

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