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Importance of Jute among the Ancient Maya
Pachychilus is a freshwater gastropod which flourishes in Central American streams and rivers, the modern Maya refer to it as Jute. While it is known that the ancient Maya relied heavily upon their agriculture of squash, beans, and most famously maize, for food to fuel their civilization, it is equally well known that the ancient Maya could not and did not solely rely upon those crops as their only source of food. The ancient Maya also relied on hunting and gathering for subsistence, making use of any plants or animals they could. Not surprisingly, the ancient Maya made good use of freshwater streams and rivers not only for drinking water but as a source of food, the rich biodiversity of the land can also be found in its waters. There are many different species living in the freshwater streams and rivers of Central America and among them is Pachychilus, jute. The remains of jute shells have been found in numerous caves around Mesoamerica and also in and around Maya population centers. Jute have been found at ballcourts and several buildings in densely settled Maya areas, Many jute have also been found in what seem to be refuse pits around homes. Jute remains have also been found among burials which contain human remains. Further, in one instance a seeming road or pathway of jute shells was found near one cave site. With all of these different locations and different contexts many speculations have been made as to the meaning, use, ceremonial importance, dietary importance, and even cultural importance of the jute among the ancient Maya. This paper will look the importance of jutes in the ancient Mayan subsistence activities, role of jute within the culture, and ceremonial significance to the ancient Maya.
Before we can move further into significance of jutes among the ancient Maya, it is important to know the different forms of jute which have been found and how each form is believed to have been used in terms of sustenance. First there are whole jute shells, these whole shells have been interpreted with two meanings, in has been asserted by (Halperin et al. 2003:208) that because the shells were found whole they were offerings used for ceremonial purposes and had not been used for sustenance. However, through an interview with a Maya man which will be discussed later, it has been found that among the Maya, jutes are often cooked whole in water and the water is then drank like a tea. From the incites gained through the interviewed Mayan, it is now believed that the whole jute shells found were not offerings with both shell and meat, but instead used for sustenance. Afterwards the shells may have been either discarded, put up as an offering for some ritual purpose, or possibly used as body adornment.
The other form of jute remains found at numerous locations are broken at the tip in order to gain access to the meat; this technique is called spire-lopping. Spire-lopped jute shell remains are “important archeologically as a marker of human agency” (Halperin et al. 2003:208). Interviews with modern Maya such as the Maya in Belize have revealed that spire-lopped whole snails can be cooked in a stew with various spices and then sucked from the shell and eaten (Healy et al. 1990:179). Spire-lopped jute shells are the most commonly found form of jute shell because eating the meat yielded more nutrients than drinking jute tea.
A recent experiment was conducted around the ancient Maya site of Pacbitun aimed at finding whether jutes, because of there small size, would be plentiful enough to fill a substantial part of the ancient Maya hunting gathering lifestyle, the research was done on a area of roughly 4 to 5 square kilometers. Emery found that in the 4 to 5 square kilometer region, upwards of three million jute lived in the local water systems during the dry season and that during the rainy season upwards of fourteen million (Healy et al. 1990:174). Being found in these vast numbers, jute could undoubtedly represent a good portion of subsistence activities among any local civilizations. In addition to these findings, in order to further solidify the claim that jute was a significant part of the ancient Maya diet Healy et al. had a nutritional analysis performed on jute which were acquired near the Pacbitun site. Healy et al. (1990:177) found that the nutritional values of jute were comparable to that of raw oyster and clam and that the caloric yield of jute was analogous to that found in rabbit or turtle. “When contrasted with other mollusks, Pachychilus tends to have somewhat less protein, but more calories, fat and carbohydrates” (Healy et al. 1990:177). The incite gained from interviews with the modern Maya and studies conducted on population size and nutritional value of jute have shed significant light into the use of jutes as a major player in Maya diet.
The most important and revealing quantity of information relating to the importance of the jute snail to the Maya peoples is found in the statements of an unnamed Maya villager. While conducting archeological fieldwork near Petén, anthropologist Sergio Garza asked an older villager about significance of the jute after discovering a cache of jute shells at Balam Na. “He was a well-respected member of his community, having served as auxiliary and alcalde of his village” (Halperin et al. 2003:214). When asked about the meaning and importance of the jute snail to Maya people he replied:
Jute live in water, and in springs there are always jute. This water comes out of the caves, and it is Mother Earth’s sacred water. Therefore, jute live in sacred water, water that will never go dry. Mother Earth gives us waters for our rivers, and all of the jute that live there are given to us by Mother Earth.
Our ancestors used to eat them and, as jute live in sacred water, our ancestors ate sacred food. When our ancestors ate jute, they would save the shells, and later they would take all of those shells to the caves to give them back to Mother Earth and to thank her for the sacred food. Jute are sacred food given by Mother Earth, and both men and women can eat them and still eat them. But only men can take shells to the caves.
Nowadays, when people eat jute, they cut off a little bit of the jute’s shell, the tail, to get the meat out and then they cook it in water. At times, people do not cut off the jute shells, and they just cook them whole in the water. People then drink the water, which is now sacred water. Our ancestors sometimes buried their dead with jute because they were sacred food that they could take with them on their journey. (Halperin et al. 2003:214-215)
It is evident from this interview that the jute snail was and is a very important and sacred resource to the ancient and modern Mayan peoples. This interview helps to explain why so many jute shells have been found at numerous surface sites and in many caves across Mesoamerica, particularly in the Maya lowlands. It also explains why jute shells have been discovered in connection with various burials at several sites and provides valuable incite into the correlation between ballcourts and jute shells which will be discussed later. Every sentence of the interview has helped shed a tremendous amount of light on a subject which is of great importance to anyone who studies either the ancient or contemporary Mayan peoples. Theories about the importance of the jute snail to the ancient Maya have been comprised largely of a patchwork of opinions and well educated guesses, but no matter how well educated, a guess is still a guess. However, with this interview which comes from a reliable source, many of the opinions and theories can be laid to rest and new truths about importance of the jute snail to the Mayan peoples can be made known.
As was mentioned previously, jute remains have also be found accompanying burials, from information gathered through the interview with the Mayan villager we can now assert that as they are considered to be sacred food that can transcend with the deceased into the afterlife. One instance of jute remains being accompanied with a burial was found at the Maya site of Cahal Pech, the find was dated to the Late Classic period. The find, discovered by Ferguson, was again affiliated with a ballcourt, located on the eastern ballcourt’s alley the cache contained deposits of marine shell artifacts, obsidian eccentrics, chert flakes, and jute; all of this was accompanied by the disarticulated remains of a young child and an infant (Halperin et al 2003:213).
Eastern Ballcourt at Cahal Pech
In another instance, at the ancient Maya site Xunantunich, Jamison and Wolff uncovered jute shells located in the center of the site’s ballcourt, it was later reported to have been directly associated with a burial (Halperin et al. 2003:213). Some of the most astonishing and imperative finds so far come from rockshelters located in the Maya mountains. Mayahak Cab Pek, Mohibal Kanchi, and Saki Tzul are located in southern Belize near the central portion of the Maya mountains, these rock shelters all contain burials associated jute shells. “The quantity of shells was so great that in some areas, jute comprised as mush as 50 percent of the matrix” (Halperin et al. 2003:211). The vast amount of jute shells found clearly points to some significance; the fact that they were found accompanying burials leaves little doubt of their ceremonial and cultural importance.
Last, we take a look into the findings of jute shell in and around caves. As was discussed earlier, caves are highly venerated and endowed with the utmost significance among the Mayan peoples. So it comes as little surprise that jute shells, the remnants of a sacred food, would be found in deposits throughout numerous caves, which represent such a staple in the Maya culture. One extraordinary discovery, which so far is incomparable to any others findings of jute shells in relation to a cave can be found at the Petroglyph Cave, located in central Belize. In Petroglyph Cave, a pathway of spire lopped jute shells leads from the mouth of the cave down to an underground river, the number of jute shells at the site has been estimated to be in the millions. Macleod and Puleston have asserted that this very site physically represents a pathway to the underworld described in Maya texts (Halperin et al. 2003:209). This jute pathway is a primary example of just how symbolic the jute snail was to the ancient Mayan peoples, jute were so important that they literally paved the road to the underworld with their shells.
Through all of the studies and conclusions reached throughout this paper it is clearly evident that the jute snail was a highly significant staple in the ancient Maya subsistence activities. Studies around surface sites show evidence of ritual feasting which included jute snails; on top of this, evidence from the nutritional analysis of jute snails collected from rivers and streams in the Mesoamerican area confirmed that they do contain enough calories, fat, and carbohydrates to make them a worth while subsistence activity. Jute undoubtedly played an important role in terms of sustenance to the ancient Maya.
It can also be concluded that the jute snail played an equally important role in ceremonial and religious aspects of ancient Mayan life. The interview with the Mayan villager pointed out that Mayans would occasionally bury their dead with jute shells as a form of sacred food for them to take along in their journey into the afterlife. Jute shells are also found at numerous ballcourts, which represent to the Mayans a sort of boundary between earth and the underworld. Additionally, a pathway which was believed to have led into the underworld discovered in Belize was made almost entirely of millions of jute shells. In the past little was known about the importance of jute to the ancient Maya and jute were all too often overlooked and often deemed inconsequential to conclusions made about other aspects concerning Maya society. It has only been in the last couple of decades that the importance of the jute to the ancient Mayans has begun to become a more respected and serious issue, and with the evidence compiled, the vast importance of jute in subsistence and ceremonial activities to the ancient Mayans is becoming increasingly irrefutable.
Having knowledge of the incredible importance of the jute snail to Mayan society is priceless in the field of archeology, offering a new lens which can be used to go back
and reexamine previous notions and reassess prior explanations. For example, by conducting a study aimed to determine the availability of jute a different times through history a researcher may be able better understand the time line of agricultural methods and technologies that develop, possibly due to drought or other poor conditions. On the other hand, a researcher may be able look at the availability of jute as a resource and find that during times when jute have been plentiful that maybe their may have been a wealth of trade of the shells for their previously express value or period of economic prosperity because people were well fed and more productive. Studies such as these could also reveal reasons for conquest or abandonment of territories, it is possible that in a year with reduced or insufficient jute military conquests may have been used for attaining new land to use for hunting, or to steal resources for neighboring societies. Similarly, the knowledge of the importance of Jute to the Ancient Mayans would have been valuable knowledge if your society occupied a region nearby. That knowledge could have aided in befriending the Mayans with gifts of Jute shells or it may have given nearby societies a valuable resource for trade with the Mayans. Further, a society with this knowledge who found themselves in trouble with the Mayans could plot a conquest of regions with many rivers and tributaries in hope of restricting or cutting off a major resource of their enemy.
Healy, Paul F., Kitty Emery, Lori Wright E.
1990 Ancient and Modern Maya Exploitation of the Jute Snail.
Latin American Antiquity
Halperin, Christina T., Sergio Garza, Keith Prufer M., James Brady E.
2003 Caves and ancient Maya Ritual Use of Jute.
Latin American Antiquity
Archaeology Interest Paragraph:
Archaeology interests me primarily because it serves as a window into the past which can serve to show where we came from and how we got to this moment in time. I believe archaeology is particularly important in terms of providing a more objective view of history, instead of the normally very subjective viewpoints found in historical accounts. My particular interest within the realm of archeology is environment and how it relates to civilizations, events, etc.
My name is Chris, I am originally from West Palm Beach Florida and chose to come here to Orlando in order to attend UCF. I was originally going to complete a double major in Environmental Studies and Anthropology, but with bright futures cut backs I have decided to go with the anthropology major and an environmental minor. I work for UCF in the Transfer and Transition Services office as a peer mentor/advisor. If I had to choose a favorite field within anthropology I suppose it would be cultural anthropology because it involves travel and meeting new people and being exposed to many new and different things, to me there is nothing more stimulating than new or different things, places, people, and ideas. Additionally, in relation to this class, I have studied many aspects of Native American culture and Mesoamerican archaeology and remain very interested in those areas.
This website provides a view into dietary history of people living in Mexico and the Central American highlands.
This image shows 4 Zapotec axe heads all made from copper alloys. These axes offer insight into Zapotec culture, their relationship with their neighbors, and their technological development.
Courtesy of the Peabody Museum Website:
Based off of my experience, information on wikipedia is generally trustworthy when dealing with historical and scientific facts; however, wikipedia can be unreliable, in terms of truth, in disputed and not yet understood issues. I feel that wikipedia serves as a good stage for arguments and discussions on matters not yet understood, you just need to take it with a grain of salt.
I have always been interested in rituals and religious practices of other cultures, additionally I have more recently gained interest in the ways societies and cultures interact with and are shaped by their surrounding environments. For my portion of the research project I am interested in either combining those aspects, a ritual that may have been linked to the environment or only possible in that environment, or just providing a useful addition linking others papers together. One example I have come across thus far is the use of the Jute Snail by the Mayans in rituals, I have found a few sources which point out extensive findings of jute snails shells believed to be linked to ritual areas or buildings.
JSTOR research assignment
The floodplains along the Nile constitute an important but as yet little utilized series of laboratories for the comparative study of the origins and interaction of ancient civilizations.
Changing Perspectives on Maya Civilization
Author(s): William L. Fash
Source: Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 23, (1994), pp. 181-208
Abstract -- [English] Through analyses of data recovered at Itzán, Guatemala, this paper examines the architectural morphology and the probable functions of "invisible" building remains in the Maya Lowlands. Invisible building remains are buried, leave no surface ...
Module 10 & 11:
Pachychilus is a freshwater gastropod which flourishes in Central American streams and rivers, the modern Maya refer to it as Jute. While it is known that the ancient Maya relied heavily upon their agriculture of squash, beans, and most famously maize, for food to fuel their civilization, it is equally well known that the ancient Maya could not and did not solely rely upon those crops as their only source of food.
The remains of jute shells have been found in numerous caves around Mesoamerica and also in and around Maya population centers. Jute have been found at ballcourts and several buildings in densely settled Maya areas, Many jute have also been found in what seem to be refuse pits around homes. Jute remains have also been found among burials which contain human remains. Further, in one instance a seeming road or pathway of jute shells was found near one cave site. With all of these different locations and different contexts many speculations have been made as to the meaning, use, ceremonial importance, dietary importance, and even cultural importance of the jute among the ancient Maya.
Mayan Ruins at Tikal as seen on Google Earth
Additional Photographs of Tikal taken from Panoramio in Google Earth
Article Name: Microwear Analysis in the Southeast Maya Lowlands: Two case studies at Copan, Honduras
I found this article when searching through the JSTOR database, it can be found in volume six of the journal Latin American Antiquity. Being that this article is published in a trusted journal known for containing important anthropological and archeological information, I felt assured of the articles integrity. The article I found was a case study of microwear patterns on different artifacts at Copan, The study analyzed wear patterns on stone as well as obsidian artifacts using a variety of substances such as wood, bone, coconut, antler, and even jute snail. These studies are relevant to my study of the Maya and their possible ritual attachments to the Jute snail because now past and future discoveries of tools and artifacts can be now examined using guidelines from this study to trace where and when jute snails make appearances.
Article Name: Intensive Agriculture, Social Status, and Maya Diet at Pacbitun, Belize
This article was also obtained through JSTOR, it is located in the Journal of Anthropologic Research, given this, I believe it is relatively safe to say its reliability is not in question. This article reviewed many different food sources and how they were obtained by the Maya. Additionally, this article discussed who ate what in terms of social status and made assertions regarding these findings based on factors such as geography and time period. This information is useful for my research because jute snails were found at the site, as they are in many sites throughout Belize. It is thought that Jute snails may have been used a dietary supplement when other resources were scarce, however according to the article it is unlikely that the snail shells found at Pacbitun were transported there with the animal still inside. What role did the Jute snail play in Mayan civilization if it was not being utilized as a dietary supplement? Could it have been for ritual purposes or possibly body adornment?
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