Tikal Lord presents offering in vessel to
Itzam'ná and Ixch'el The Medicine gods
Medicine among the ancient Mayas was a blend of
religion and science. It was practiced by priests who inherited their
position and received extensive education. The Mayas sutured wounds with
human hair, reduced fractures, and used casts. They were skillful dental
surgeons and made prostheses from jade and turquoise and filled teeth
with iron pyrite. Three clinical diseases, pinta, leishmaniasis, and
yellow fever, and several psychiatric syndromes were described. Weiss
argues for the presence of "supra-inial lesions" in Guatemala
(Weiss 1967, 1981). The ancient Maya perceived health as
“balance,” whereas illness and disease were “imbalance.” Balance,
however, was influenced by season and varied by age, gender,
personality and exposure to environmental temperature extremes. A
central medical-related theme held that balance was effected
favorably or adversely by diet.
Dwarf figurine from
According to the skeletal evidence, the first technique to
be employed in skull opening was abrasion, which was combined later with
drilling and cutting,
lesion” in the occiput
of an artificially shaped skull from Zaculeu
Traditional trepanation’s consequences vary from the
immediate death of the patient to his short or long-term survival, and
the signatures it leaves range from orifices of different shapes and
sizes to healed traces of the procedure. These marks are what
anthropologists study to interpret or infer bio-cultural patterns and
practices. Evidence of cut and perforated skull vaults are known from
many parts of Mesoamerica.
The Maya use their medicine in different ways. They
used instruments made of bone, obsidian, leather (for enemas). Plants
provide one way for gaining this understanding of the medicine. We also
have several names in Maya for what might be called specialties in
medicine. Each name works directly with a specific part of our body,
and sometimes refers to the mind as well. The Maya had a primary
understanding that the medicine had a connection with calendars,
astronomy and with astrology. ‘In Maya the name,
is the name of the plants.
" X Xiu"
, means that the woman knows how to use the plants.
Ha Xiu" , refers to the man
knowing how to use the medicine of
In Maya the name,
refers to the process of
the mind. This would be linked to today's practices of psychology or
psychiatry. The ancient people understood that the mind was very
important, and they placed great emphasis in their approach to medicine
on the connection of the mind and the body. By definition, a reference
to the mind indicated our connection to the spirit. Body and spirit were
not separated in any medical considerations. Again,
" X Men"
is defined as
the process of the mind that the woman knows how to work, and
" Ha Men"
refers to the process of the mind that the man knows how to work.
Another word in Maya that is very important is
the word, "
. By definition "
means to take, and "
pain. The " Pul Yah"
might be linked to the healer removing physical
ailments at the point at which they manifest.
The Maya practiced the
. It addresses
illness at its most primary stage. "UAY"
tells us that some forms of
illness can be detected as a disturbance in the inner person. For the
woman this practice is called "X Uay"
, and for the man it is called
It will be the equivalent to Hypochondriacs, and one should intervene in
Holistic by its very nature, Mayan medicine is
classified as a medico-religious healing tradition. It takes into
account not only the physical ills of the body but the effects of the
spirit attitudes toward life and living, emotions such as grief,
depression, anger, fright, etc. and recognizes how intertwined they are.
Fundamental to the medicine of the Maya is the concept of "life force"
or ch'ulel and is the first of the six principles of Mayan medicine.
This life force is everywhere and permeates everything, mountains,
rivers, houses, plants, people and is said to be from a divine,
spiritual source. Ch'ulel binds everyone and everything together.
It is a main goal for the Mayan healer to balance the flow of ch'ulel in
the body. Mayan healers also maintain that praying directs ch'ulel to
where it is needed.
The second principle of Mayan medicine is that there
is no separation between the body and the soul, between the physical and
spiritual realms. Ch'ulel means everything is interwoven and
interconnected, that the physical and spiritual are only different ends
of a continuum. It also means that medicine is actually all around us!
Within this continuum are also spirits who can help in healing.
The third principle is the recognition of natural cycles and the
veneration of plants. Mayan healers talk with (as opposed to just
talking to) plants, as do many herbalists in other traditions. The
healer is chosen by certain plants and they develop a very special
relationship. These particular plants then especially aid the healer in
treating the sick, particularly in difficult cases.
The fourth principle recognizes that healing is an integrative,
comprehensive approach, with everybody, including the healer, the
patient, spirits, plants, etc. working together to bring about the
healing. There is no single component more important than the other, and
especially important is prayer.
Middle Preclassic Figurine representing Blindness from
The fifth principle is the status of the blood. It
also helps distinguish between illnesses that are of physical versus
spiritual (emotional) origin and determines the consequent direction of
The sixth principle is that of hot and cold. The concept of hot and cold
applies equally to illnesses, foods, and plants. Fevers, diarrhea, and
vomiting are example of "hot" diseases while cramps, constipation, and
paralysis are examples of "cold" ones. Hot foods can be garlic, onions,
pepper, and ginger while cold foods would include cheese, for example.
But the concept of hot and cold is most important in choosing plants to
use in treatment in as much as "hot" plants treat "cold" illnesses and
vice versa. Mayan healers maintained that many illnesses are a result of
quick temperature changes, such as drinking "cold" drinks with "hot"
foods. This can cause a shock to the system and result in
The stingless bees Melipona beecheii and M. yucatanica were the only native bees cultured to any degree in the Americas. They were extensively cultured by the Maya for honey, and regarded as sacred. Mayan Priests harvested honey twice a year to create a meade for medicinal healing ceremonies. These bees are endangered due to massive deforestation, altered agricultural practices (especially insecticides), and changing beekeeping practices with the arrival of the Africanized honey bee, which produces much greater honey crops.
Native meliponines (Melipona beecheii being the favorite) have been kept by the lowland Maya for thousands of years. The traditional Mayan name for this bee is Xunan kab, literally meaning "royal lady". The bees were once the subject of religious ceremonies and were a symbol of the bee-god Ah-Muzen-Cab, who is known from the Madrid Codex.
The bees were, and still are, treated as pets. Families would have one or many log-hives hanging in and around their house. Although they are stingless, the bees do bite and can leave welts similar to a mosquito bite. The traditional way to gather bees, still favored amongst the locals, is find a wild hive; then the branch is cut around the hive to create a portable log, enclosing the colony. This log is then capped on both ends with another piece of wood or pottery and sealed with mud. This clever method keeps the melipine bees from mixing their brood, pollen, and honey in the same comb as the European bees. The brood is kept in the middle of the hive, and the honey is stored in vertical "pots" on the outer edges of the hive. A temporary, replaceable cap at the end of the log allows for easy access to the honey while doing minimal damage to the hive. However, inexperienced handlers can still do irreversible damage to a hive, causing the hive to swarm and abscond from the log. On the other hand, with proper maintenance, hives have been recorded as lasting over 80 years, being passed down through generations. In the archaeological record of Mesoamerica, stone discs have been found which are generally considered to be the caps of long-disintegrated logs which once housed the beehives.
medicinal use of cacao, or chocolate, both as a
primary remedy and as a vehicle to deliver other herbal medicines have
been documented since the Preclassic. Three consistent roles can be
identified: 1) to treat emaciated patients to gain weight; 2) to
stimulate nervous systems of apathetic, exhausted or feeble patients;
and 3) to improve digestion and elimination where cacao/chocolate
countered the effects of stagnant or weak stomachs, stimulated kidneys
and improved bowel function. Additional medical complaints treated with
chocolate/cacao have included anemia, poor appetite, mental fatigue,
poor breast milk production, consumption/tuberculosis, fever, gout,
kidney stones, reduced longevity and poor sexual appetite/low virility.
Chocolate paste was a medium used to administer drugs and to counter the
taste of bitter pharmacological additives. In addition to cacao beans,
preparations of cacao bark, oil (cacao butter), leaves and flowers have
been used to treat burns, bowel dysfunction, cuts and skin
The various illnesses were provided names and causal
origins presumed, sometimes attributed to the body/spirit of birds
(i.e., the red mo-macaw) associated with specific trees. At the
conclusion of chants to cure skin eruptions, fever and seizures, a bowl
of chacah (i.e., medicinal chocolate) that
contained two peppers, honey and tobacco juice, was drunk by the
patients. When the cacao was combined with liquid from the bark of the
silk cotton tree (Castilla elastica), it was said to cure infections, To
relieve fever and faintness the prescription called for 8–10 cacao beans
to be ground with dried maize kernels and blended with stalky cornsilk
flower (Calliandra anomala); then, the mixture was drunk. More than 100
plants have been documented, including the avocado, almond and zapote trees,
and herbs such as kalawala (Lycopodium), now in use for autoimmune
diseases, chamomile, aloe and lettuce.
The Mayan pharmacopoeia revealed that tissues of Chilli (Capsicum
sp. a Solanaceae), are included in a number of herbal remedies for a
variety of ailments of probable microbial origin. In a 1996 a
scientific study in Ohio demonstrated that: The plain and heated
extracts were found to exhibit varying degrees of inhibition against
Bacillus cereus, Bacillus subtilis, Clostridium sporogenes,
Clostridium tetani, and Streptococcus pyogenes. (Cichewicz RH,
Thorpe PA in J Ethnopharmacol. 1996 Jun;52(2):61-70).
A variety of drugs and
alcoholic beverages (Balché) were
used in medicine and
ceremonies. Drunkenness was connected with the wide-spread
practice of divination, a ritual act designed to allow direct
communication with certain supernatural forces such that an
individual could foretell the future or understand due causes
for events or illness not otherwise understood. A drunken state
was supposed to give one the insight to interpret the reasons
for illness, misfortune, adverse weather, and so forth. The
Balché was made with the bark of
the tree with the same name (Lonchocarpus
longistylus Pittier) and honey.
Wild tobacco (Nicotiana rustica),
that is stronger than the domestic and could be hallucinogen,
and other species of plants were smoked or administered in
enemas to induce a trance-like state, (ingesting psychoactive
drugs anally produces a more powerful and instantaneous reaction
than drugs taken orally).
Some mushrooms names clearly indicate
their use, such as one type called "k'aizalah
okox," the "lost judgment mushroom"
(Psilocybe cubens). There is evidence the
Maya used the seeds of The Morning Glory
or "Quiebracajete" (Ipomoea
violacea) and another very similar plant (Rivera
corymbosa), along with
Balché, to achieve a
trance-like state connected with divination. The Morning glory
is 5 times stronger than the R. corymbosa, and they have 6
ergotamine alkaloids. Easily the most
entertaining device for altering the mind was due to the large
Wad tod, (Bufo
marinus). Used to deter would-be predators, the compound
was extracted by the Maya and taken in measured doses to
transport their minds to another level of thinking and
communicate with their "Way". The
Spaniards reported that Mayas added tobacco or toad skins to
their alcoholic beverages to give it an added kick.
The Peyote Cactus (Lophophora
wiliamsii), known in Central America as "Aguacolla" was also used.
The Spaniards priest describe it's use both, medicinally and
ceremonially, for many ills and that when intoxicated with the
cactus (Mescaline, related with LSD), the user saw "horrible visions".
The Angel's trumpet or "Florifundia"
(Brugmansia arborea) is a psychoactive
plant, was also used in ceremonies and as an sleep aid.
The Water Lilly (Nymphaea
ampla) found in Lakes and Lagoons in Guatemala,
also was smoked due to the hallucinogen characteristics' of its
bulbs and roots. The Devil's trumpet
or "Vuelveteloco" (Datura
Candida), was also used, this plants contain hiosciamine and
scopolamine. All these substances could be
involved in the Bloodletting rituals,
to kill the pain, and a better communication with the gods.
Maya abdominal massage for women was reported to help
alleviate common problems such as menstrual cramps, menopause,
premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and to correct infertility.8 This aspect of
traditional Maya medicine is still practiced in parts of Mesoamerica
today. It is evident from these few examples that massage has had a
significant place in traditional Maya health, practices from ancient
times to the present. It also was used in conjunction with sweatbaths,
or “pib' nah” and “zumpul-che´,” defined as a bath for
women after childbirth and for sick persons used to cast out disease in
their bodies as it was in many other cultures. Ailments treated by
sweatbaths included certain fevers, poisonous stings or bites and
rheumatism. Sweatbaths were used for purifying the body and ridding it
of unhealthy “humours.” Maya bonesetters in
Guatemala are called hueseros, compone huesos, componedores de hueso, or sometimes sobadores (i.e., a term also used for massage
specialist). It is interesting to note that archeologists have found
skeletons from the Pre- Columbian era with bones that apparently had
been broken, realigned and healed, all of which indicate skill in
treatment. Two different approaches to bone setting have been found in
the central Guatemalan highlands.
The Kaq'chik'el Maya
bonesetters believe that they have an innate ability, and that their
hands “act of their own accord in locating problem areas.” These
bonesetters rely on their hands to guide them in diagnosing and treating
injuries; a combination of experience and intuition were used. First the
bonesetter listens to the person’s story, then looks for deformity,
reddening, edema and bruising to determine the type and location of the
injury. They also may check range of motion in the area. A lubricant is
applied so that their hands can glide smoothly over the area, pressing
and looking for signs of tenderness. The person might have a golpe or
deep bruise, a zafadura or sprain, a dislocation or a fracture. In many
cases, massage and limb movement are the main treatment. In cases of
fracture, skillful bonesetters will use traction, pressure and
immobilization to reset the bone. Their approach is practical and
in San Pedro Atitlán represent a different approach. They believe that
they are divinely called to the vocation through dreams, and use sacred
objects called huesos or baq in their work. These sacred objects might
be small animal bones, potsherds, obsidian or Jade Pre- Columbian artifacts
they’ve found. The huesos are said to move over the body of their own
accord and indicate to the
bonesetter the location and type of injury. The bonesetter uses the
object in setting or realigning the bones, and then uses lubrication to
touch the area directly and finish the treatment. These bonesetters rely
heavily on a supernatural or divine element, in addition to manual
Dental Decoration and
Chronologically, the practice of dental decoration
arose in the Preclassic and remained a widespread custom until the
beginning of the Post classic, the present
Dental Incrustations and mutilations, Cancuén and
data suggest that the
mutilations were inflicted on frontal teeth of persons more than 15
years old. In the case of incrustation, it is supposed here that this
practice occurred at an age slightly above 15, while filing occurred
throughout adult life. Filing (particularly pattern A) was generally
preferred among the female population, while incrustation prevailed
among men, although no technique or pattern was exclusive of either sex.
Dental decoration is slightly more common in the female population.
Generally, jadeite, hematite, pyrite, turquoise and different organic
substances were used as obturation material. A distinctive feature have
been found in Cancuén, a site with jade
workshops, where non noble burials have been uncovered with Jade
incrustations, maybe because of the wealth by working the gem stone.