mesoamerica and the maya world

Month: April 2008

Photo Wednesday

downtown guatemala city at night

This image of the National Palace and downtown Guatemala City at night is from Oscar Mota’s photostream.


Precolumbian treasures confiscated in Germany

example of art object seized by bavarian police

Police in Bavaria have confiscated an estimated $100 million worth of Mayan, Aztec and Incan treasures. A resident of Costa Rica purports to own the objects, which were transported to Germany without proper permits. It’s unclear how they came to be in his possession. The Local: Germany’s News in English reports

According to the Munich-based daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, the man, identified as Leonardo Augustus P., claims to be a former diplomat who properly obtained the artifacts. The man, now a resident primarily of Geneva, is reportedly well-known to police dealing with smuggled art and exotic animals on several continents. He has even picked up the unflattering nickname “The Thief of the Treasures” in his native Costa Rica.

On the subject of looting and theft of antiquities, although it is not about the Latin American region, I recommend an excellent recently published book, The Medici Conspiracy.


shown: Bavarian police photo


The war on plants

sunflower detail

Dale Pendell, author of Pharmako/Poeia, has argued that the “war on drugs” is like a religious war, intended to keep officially sanctioned drugs like alcohol and chocolate dominant. A new study, reported by Scott Norris in an article in National Geographic News, suggests that sunflowers may have been similarly suppressed by the Spanish in Mesoamerica.

It has long been believed that sunflowers originated in the east-central U.S. and only spread to Mexico in recent centuries. But the new study, led by David Lentz of the University of Cincinnati, argues that sunflowers have been domesticated in Mexico for at least 2000 years, which suggests an independent origin of domestication in Mexico.

This conclusion is based on plant remains discovered in Cueva del Gallo in the Mexican state of Morelos. The sunflower achenes (fruits containing seeds) from this site are larger than wild varieties, indicating domestication. They have been dated to 300 BCE.

“We have filled in the gaps with lots of additional data that now make the Mexican sunflower [domestication] hypothesis irrefutable,” Lentz said. “Given all available data, the best explanation is that the sunflower was domesticated twice.”

But Bruce Smith of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., insists that “genetic research shows that all present-day domesticated sunflowers originated from a single domestication event, from wild progenitor populations in the central United States.” Smith says that if sunflowers were domesticated in Mexico there should be more remains than have been observed.

Lentz responds that sunflowers were used differently in the two locations. In the U.S. they were primarily a foodstuff, but in Mexico they were mainly used for ceremonial purposes.

Lentz’s team interviewed indigenous people in different parts of Mexico where sunflowers are grown today.

Eleven of 14 indigenous groups had unique words for “sunflower” bearing no resemblance to the Spanish word for the same species, according to the new study. Spaniards did not arrive in Mexico until the 1500s.

This linguistic evidence—along with distinctive traditions associated with the plant—suggest a long history of indigenous Mexican use and not a more recent cultural borrowing, the researchers argue.

They also suggest that the Spanish may have suppressed indigenous use of the sunflower because of the plant’s symbolic associations with the sun god and warfare—hence the lack of modern Mexican remains with lineages that can be traced back to ancient times.

If Lentz is correct, one wonder what other ancient ceremonial plants might have been suppressed during the Conquest.


image from charlie_cva’s photostream


Photo Wednesday

chac mool, chichen itza

This fiery chac-mool image comes from shapeshift’s photostream.


Orchids of Mexico and Guatemala

The New York Public Library has digitized and put online The Orchidaceæ of Mexico & Guatemala by Jas Bateman. This rare book was published 1837-1843 by James Ridgway and Sons. The prints are quite beautiful, as these examples suggest:

Oncidium leucochilum. [White-lipped oncidium]:

Oncidium leucochilum. [White-l... Digital ID: 1112173. New York Public Library

Stanhopea tigrina. [Tiger-like stanhopea]

Stanhopea tigrina. [Tiger-like... Digital ID: 1112179. New York Public Library

Cattleya skinneri:

Cattleya skinneri. Digital ID: 1112185. New York Public Library

See the full book here.


Maya temples

If figures somehow that Sun Ra would have done a tune called Mayan Temples. Far out?


Historical images of the Puuc region

codz poop by henry n. sweet

There is a great selection of early drawings and photos of the Puuc Maya region (of which the best-known and most extensively restored site is Uxmal) at a site called Architecture, Restoration, and Imaging of the Maya Cities of Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, and Labná. The site offers both recent images and historical ones. This shot, from 1888-1891, is by Henry N. Sweet, a member of the Edward Herbert Thompson/Peabody Museum expeditions. It shows the structure known at the Codz Poop at Kabah (one of my favorite sites). The image at the top of this page is a detail from this facade, a photo I took in 2007.


Adding up the bones

and arms, and hearts, and hands, and arrows . . .

Geographer Barbara Williams and mathematician Maria del Carmen Jorge y Jorge have, after three decades of labor, deciphered an Aztec code used to calculate the areas of land plots.

The Aztecs needed to calculate the area of irregular shaped parcels of land for tax purposes. Their calculations were recorded in two books, the Codex Vergara and the Codice de Santa Maria Asuncion, in which older documents written on tree bark or cotton cloth were presumably transcribed onto paper brought by Spanish conquistadors. According to an article by Alan Zarembo in the L. A. Times,

The pages of the books are filled with tiny property maps. For each plot, there are two drawings — one showing the lengths of the sides and another showing the area. The measurements are represented by seven symbols: lines, dots, arrows, hearts, hands, arms and bones. Each map also includes the name of the property owner and the soil type.

Researchers already knew what each map represented and the value of some of the measurements. A line, for example, was the standard unit of length, which was known as a tlalquahuitl, or rod, and in modern units would measure a little more than 8 feet.

When the researchers knew the values of the units in roughly rectangular plots, they could easily follow the logic of the Aztecs and reproduce their calculations by multiplying lengths and widths.

But they were stymied in calculating many plots because they didn’t know the value of the units. The breakthrough came when Jorge y Jorge, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, found that the values of some areas were prime numbers.

So now we know, a hand equaled 3/5 of a rod, an arrow was 1/2 , a heart was 2/5 , an arm was 1/3 , and a bone was 1/5.

But I would like to know more about how the Aztecs classified soil types.


Edweard Muybridge

eadweard muybridgeA reader named “Yes” correctly identified the photographer of this week’s photos as Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904).

Muybridge was born in England and emigrated to the U.S. in 1851. While he would become best known for his motions studies such as yesterday’s jumping horse, I think he first won fame for his monumental photographs of Yosemite Valley. But in San Francisco he became involved in a scandal surrounding the murder of his wife’s lover, and under the circumstances he thought it prudent to transpose himself for a time to Guatemala.

In Guatemala, his documentary photographs of work on coffee plantations — such as Wednesday’s photo, which shows coffee workers on a plantation in San Isidro — were important recordings of an economy in the throes of radical, and painful, transformation.

But Muybridge also did some more conventional travel photography during his time in Guatemala (1875). Tuesday’s photo shows a view of Lake Atitlan, while we began on Monday with a photograph of Volcan Quetzaltenango.


Photo quiz, part 4

Okay, here’s the fourth and final clue. This picture was not taken in Guatemala, but surely it will reveal the photographer featured in this week’s previous posts.


Photo quiz, part 3

Here’s another image by our mystery photographer (see also the past two days’ posts). What’s going on here? (Hint: the picture documents a subject for which the photographer is well known.) Who is he? What is the approximate date of the photo?

san isidro


Photo quiz, continued

Come, come, I know I have some readers. Surely someone can guess the famous photographer of yesterday’s image. Okay, maybe this will help. Here’s another photo by the same lensman. Who is it? What is it? When was it? Someone has to know the answer!

lago atitlan by mystery photographer

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