Archaeologists in the ancient city of Nakum in northeastern Guatemala recently made a big discovery. Beneath a vast ritual platform dating from around 100 BCE to 300 CE they discovered a foot-long, barrel-shaped ceramic tube with covers at each end.
It is nearly identical to wooden beehives still made from hollow logs by Maya living in the region today. Their discovery is the only known Maya beehive. Since most beehives would probably have been wooden, they probably would not have survived.
Maya rituals may have literally been weighty affairs for high-ranking rulers. During these festivities, elite officials adorned themselves with an assortment of jade pendants, mostly worn on the ears or around the neck. Heavier ones (such as a 5-pound carved head from Ucanal in Guatemala) were likely attached to a belt and would have made customary ritual dancing quite cumbersome.
It is theorized that the weight of the assembled stones, which may have totaled as much as 25 pounds, symbolized a leader’s prestige and responsibilities.
DNA analyses from a mass grave, dating to the end of the Aztec Empire, shows they died of an epidemic of salmonella. Salmonella enterica Paratyphi C, a pathogen that causes enteric fever, is the likely culprit. This is the first time science has been used to identify the epidemic which the Spanish at the time called “full bloodiness.” Its indigenous name was the cocoliztli epidemic.
The epidemic hit regions of Mexico and Guatemala from 1545-1550, and symptoms included intense fever, pain, vomiting and bleeding from eyes and nose. The death toll is estimated to be between 5 and 15 million Native Americans – that’s up to 80% of a population which had no resistance to this, or a host of other diseases, which had suddenly arrived on their continent.
The Classic Maya political landscape was divided into more than two dozen polities, similar to city-states, with a major city and nearby allied villages and towns. Feasts sponsored by the ruling elite was a crucial avenue for securing relations among allies and negotiating new alliances. Feasts marked major state occasions, from rulers’ accession rites to royal weddings to war victory celebrations to special religious observances. Eating large amounts of high-status foods, including drinks made from highly valued cacao (chocolate), was the main point of the feasts. The richness of the food, the quantity of the food – and the beautiful vessels the food was served with – showed off how wealthy the host was.
The banquets caused the production of elaborate, finely-made vessels. Sometimes the vessels’ shapes were the attraction, sometimes the decorative images etched onto it. This vase is decorated with cacao pods, and the lid’s knob is a cacao tree with a bird (sadly now broken). There are also pictorial panels with images of, among other things, the maize god as an embodied cacao tree. Is anyone else sensing a theme here? The vase’s hieroglyphic text confirms that it was intended as a drinking cup for chocolate: -kakaw yuk’ib, or “the cacao drinking cup of … ” The text goes on to name the cup’s patron/owner, and his father Chakjal Mukuuy, “Reddening Dove.” The artistic quality of the vessel and its detailed naming of its owner indicate the two men were members of the nobility if not a royal dynasty of the 300s to 400s CE.
American jade is made up of a group of semiprecious hard stones. Chief among them is a dense rock composed almost entirely of the mineral jadeite, a sodium aluminum silicate of the pyroxene family noted for its beautiful color when worked. All American works of art in jade are basically green, but they are vary widely in tone, ranging from a pale apple hue, like below, to a distinctive blue green, to almost black.
As in China, where semiprecious hard stones — also known collectively as jade — were worked from very early times, the initial use of jade in the Americas is thought to have developed from the production of tools, weapons, and ornaments of more common stone. Jade is particularly hard and therefore useful for tools and weapons. But jade’s beautiful color, and shine when polished, would have made it stand out. Over time, jade became more and more favored for works of special status, like jewelry and ceremonial items. By the Olmecs in 1000 BCE, jade was high enough of a status symbol that the stone was being carved into non-useful sculptures and being placed in royal burials, never to be seen or used again.