Carleen D. Sanchez1


Songs of the Ancestors: Ancient Maya Musicians


University of Nebraska, Lincoln, EE.UU.


Notas * Bibliografía

Pulse aquí para la versión en español


Walking through the sacred precinct of Copan in the early morning, the air is filled with the ambient sounds of howler monkeys, innumerable birds, and the low soft drone of insects. Soon enough, natural sounds are drowned with the arrival of tour buses. As the business of the past opens for a new day, the cacophony of international tourists mixes with the calls of vendors hawking cheap tourist souvenirs. A radio is likely to be blasting Colombian Cumbia or Mexican Norteño music.2 The gates to the archaeological park open and throngs of people hurriedly enter in order to walk amongst the ruins3 of a people long gone. Archaeological sites are in many ways nothing more than theme parks that provide tourists manufactured adventures based on western notions of exoticism, mystery, and romantic notions of travel (C. Sanchez, 2003). While much time, effort, and money have been invested to recreate an “authentic version” of the past, this is an illusion. The original inhabitants are long gone and the activities that bound these once thriving cities together are lost in the fog of time. Likewise, the soundscapes of today reflect nothing of the past – neither the early morning silences nor the modern noises of cars, buses, and radios. Even the “typical” marimba music heard in upscale restaurants has no connection to Ancestral Central America.4 The bygone era of great Maya civilization is inaccessible to us today in the sense that we can never really know the past as it was lived in the flesh. Sensual experiences can only be perceived in the moment and those moments are always fleeting, lasting only the duration of human memory if they are not recorded. Music, as a sensory experience is likewise transient when performed live. Once the sound waves emanating from the instruments dissipate, only the emotional resonance remains.

For the Maya, music was of divine origin as is recounted in the Popol Vuh (Marti, 1961: 109). Two supernatural figures, One Monkey and One Artisan (half brothers to the Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué) “were great musicians and singers . . . They were flautists, singers, painters, and carvers; all of this they knew how to do” (Tedlock, 1996: 104; Goetz and Morley, 1954: 26). The Popol Vuh provided a celestial charter for the various elite Maya occupations – including what would be considered today fine artists. Deciphered text bands from ceramic vessels demonstrate that some artists were drawn from royal lineages (Coe, 2005: 223), often second sons (Landa, 1978). Other nobles occupied the roles of scribes, sculptures, and musicians. Training in the arts likely began at an early age as children would apprentice for their future roles in Maya society (Coe, 2005: 221-223). While there is no direct textual evidence for this assertion, the analogy is drawn from contact period information (see Landa, 1978: 13). Returning to the Popol Vuh, the Hero Twins ultimately follow their in their father’s footsteps and become ballplayers (Tedlock, 1996). While the Popol Vuh provides the researcher with the mythological origins of music, there remains the issue of hard evidence.


Performative Arts

Archaeologists often lament the fact that no one can excavate an idea, belief system, or any number of human interactions that took place in the past. While it is possible to excavate a house, it is not possible to excavate a household that is, the dynamic relationships between cohabiting individuals. Similarly, it is not possible to excavate artistic performances that were meant to be transitory, contextual, and embedded in social relations. Performances transmit messages, and rely on stylized movements, sounds, or facial features to convey information (Houston, et al., 2006: 253). Interpretation of performance requires an intimate understanding of the cultural milieu of the actors and audience. In the case of the ancient Maya, elucidating performance is hindered by the limited evidence as well as our etic (outsider) status due not merely to cultural difference, but also as a result of the passage of time. In examining musical performances of ancient societies, it seems nearly impossible to comprehend the intricacies of Maya aesthetics, worldview, and lived experiences.

As the Americas came under assault in the 16th century with the invasion of Europeans, traditional practices would be targeted for elimination. The European conquest was waged over the land, bodies, souls, and minds of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. Across Mesoamerica, Native priests and intellectuals were persecuted, killed, and forced underground. Christianization accompanied colonization in the deliberate attempt to eradicate “idolatry” and “pagan” beliefs. Great bonfires incinerated thousands of Maya books (known as codices); we will never know the extent of information lost. Only four ancient texts have survived the ravages of time – the Madrid, Dresden, Paris and Grolier codices. These texts provide immensely valuable yet limited insight into Maya knowledge systems. As the authors of the Popol Vuh prophesized, the Maya would be forced to abandon their ways and soon no one would remain to read the ancient hieroglyphic writings (Tedlock, 1996: 63). It would not be until the 1950s that Yuri Knorosov would “break the Maya code” and two decades more before his method would be generally adopted (Coe, 1999). Since the mid 20th century, innumerable scholars from a range of disciplines have labored to reveal the specificities of ancestral Maya culture and society. But, knowing about the past can never be the same as experiencing the past.



Attempting to reconstruct the ancient societies, we must rely on indirect evidence to decipher what happened in former times. Consequently, past human behavior is researched from a variety of approaches, each with advantages and limitations. These approaches include:• Archaeological – inferring from excavated material residues of human behavior.

As suggested above, each approach has its strengths and weaknesses. Archaeologists concern themselves primarily with material culture – artifacts, structures, and landscapes that were fashioned through human activity. Archaeology has proven to be a powerful interpretive discipline for learning about our human ancestors. For example, is possible to extrapolate from a collection of pottery and stone implements the nature of local and far-flung economic transactions, however, the archaeological record itself is static. Archaeologists must interpret the past from limited collection of human detritus. Fortunately, archaeological research has been significantly supplemented by the work of art historians, epigraphers, cultural anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and ethnohistorians. Through collaborative efforts, a great deal is known of ancient Maya society. Unfortunately, some cultures have been prioritized over others in the pursuit of past. The great cities of the Maya have received an inordinately greater amount of attention when compared to the ancestral peoples of the rest of Central America. Those societies were organized in smaller, more egalitarian modes and were not compelled to institutionalize power, privilege and prestige through monumental architecture, texts, or sculpture. Consequently, it is much more difficult to discern archaeological sites in many areas of Central America and the artifacts reveal a more limited range of information. Much less, then, is known about the cultural dynamics of this large region that spans central El Salvador and central Honduras, through Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. This paper will, therefore, focus on the more robust body of evidence pertaining to the Maya of the Classic Period (AD 250 – 900).


Classic Period Maya

Ancestral Maya peoples inhabited a vast region that includes what is today southern Mexico, the Yucatan peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras and western El Salvador.5 Over the centuries, the Maya would develop a highly advanced civilization6 reaching its zenith from AD 250-900. Maya civilization was organized into competing city states, each with a K’ul Ahau (high holy lord) that reigned over a populous divided into elites and commoners. Little is known of the daily lives of the common farmer, but Maya royalty documented their lives in stone and other media. The only ancestral culture of the Americas to elaborate a complete writing system for precise communication, Maya hieroglyphic texts focused largely on the ritual lives, political deeds, and genealogies of the elite. The Maya also depicted their rich cultural performances and religious beliefs in sculpture, pottery, jade, and bone items.

We can only imagine the magnificent pageantry of ancient Maya society. The artistic and textual records provide us with a glimpse of the elaborate costumes, pomp and spectacle of Royal Maya ceremonial events. Fortunately, even though significant aspects of Indigenous life during the Classic Period are lost to us, we can draw upon a rich corpus of material to reconstruct what music was like in that time.



Bonampak, a rather small Maya city, is best known for exquisite murals that were amazingly preserved for more than 1000 years by a thin coat of calcite. The murals, which came to modern attention in 1946, are now seriously eroded due to exposure, destructive application of cleaners, and poorly informed conservation efforts (Hammond 1988: 394). These paintings have been significant in providing information about elite rituals during the Classic period. The murals are fresco paintings commemorating events that occurred in AD 791 (Miller, 2001: 210). A textual reference in Room 1 indicates ownership/commission by King Chan Muwan (Miller, 2001: 208). The murals covering the walls of Structure 1 form a narrative relating to rituals for the “seating” (accession) of a ruler, possibly a child related to the Yaxchilán royal family (Miller, 2001: 204, 210). An important aspect of structure 1 is that the murals are painted on the walls of three distinct, unconnected, chambers. Miller argued that the intended viewers of the murals were meant to reenact the depicted procession as they walked in and out of rooms in a chronological order (Miller, 1986: 58). The lower register of room 1 presents a line of musicians playing their instruments (click here to see the Bonampak Mural). M. Miller (1988) found that Maya musicians follow a regular order: rattlers, flutes, drums, turtle carapace beaters followed by trumpets (Miller, 2001: 214). This formation is followed in other depictions and indicates that the Maya orchestrated music to take advantage of each instrument’s particular voice (Houston et al., 2006: 259) (Click here to see Linda Schele’s drawing of the Bonampak musicians).


Other Media and lines of evidence

Maya ceramics provide additional glimpses into ancient Maya culture, politics, and beliefs. Potters painted detailed scenes of human and divine activities, including feasting, warfare, tribute payments, ballgames, execution of prisoners, mythological enactments, and much more. Justin Kerr created the Maya Vase database of rollout photographs of ceramic vessels from various sites, museums, and collections. These unparalleled rollout photographs and images of other artifacts are accessible to the public by the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc (FAMSI). Throughout this paper, examples from the Kerr collection have been linked to the text to illustrate the points raised herein (click on the number to see the image). It is hoped that this method allows the reader easily move from text to image for greater appreciation.



From the Bonampak murals and pottery depictions, ancient Maya musicians were members of the privileged ranks. In classic period Maya society, social status was signified by a number of socially salient markers. Indications of elite status included cranial modification, dental modification (stone inlays or decorative filing), fine embroidered clothing made from cotton, jaguar pelt accessories, quetzal feather headdresses, jade earspools, beads, and pendants. In ancient Maya society, elite status was institutionalized and sumptuary laws were likely enforced to prohibit commoners from elite display. Additionally, the Maya had very specific artistic devices for denoting gender based on costume. Indeed, the secondary sex characteristics (e.g. breasts, facial hair, etc.) were downplayed so that one must rely on costume and text to determine an individual’s gender in artistic portrayals. As an example, differences between male and female protagonists can be observed on Yaxchilán’s Lintel 24 on the basis of costume. While both individuals are finely dressed in jewelry, costumes, and headdresses that required many hours of human labor to produce, the markers of gender are apparent by virtue of costume only. Determination of the social status of ancient Maya musicians, then, requires a reading of the social actor’s body (Joyce, 2000:60-68). Using this method, it is clear from an examination of the artistic record that during the Classic Period the occupation of musician was reserved for elite men (See Kerr No. 5233, Kerr No. 3046, y el Bonampak mural). This does not mean that other members of Maya society did not play music – but rather that “professional” musicians were drawn from the elite male strata. In this manner, elites were able to codify their status and power by their ability to finance, perform in, and record performative events (J. Sanchez, 2007: 42; Reents-Budet, 2001: 217).


Performance Events

From the collected works of the Maya, a range of subjects can be seen that show various actors, human and supernatural, engaging in many different kinds of activities. Although musicians and their instruments appear frequently on painted surfaces, they are not seen on sculpted panels or stelae. This may be due to the labor intensive act of sculpting monuments or the fact that this medium was reserved for royalty.

Deities and Mythological

Figures Even the gods enjoyed music, particularly during ecstatic rituals. It is known that the ancient Maya used psychotropic substances to achieve altered states of consciousness (Coe, 2005: 219). On one vase, elderly deities are shown preparing to ingest hallucinogenics to the sounds of musicians (Kerr No. 530). It might be presumed that rhythmic music aided in the achievement of the intended spiritual state. Deities and supernatural animals were performers and dancers as well, in Kerr No. 6508, they are seen blowing conch shells as they dance. Depictions of deities and supernaturals are common, but not all directly address music or musicians. Dance, however, was frequently portrayed, but not always with musical accompaniment.

Human Activities

Music was an important aspect of the pageantry of the state. Many painted scenes show musicians performing during major events, including ballgames, feasts, executions, and processions.

Court Scenes

Maya royalty and nobles must have retained musicians on a regular basis for service in court. Courtly activities would have included entertainment of visitors, negotiations for trade, alliances, and marriage exchanges (Schele and Mathews, 1991). In Kerr No. 1210, an Ahau (Lord) converses with a lower ranking noble, while trumpets sound in the background. In another vase painting, a feast is in progress (Kerr No 1563). As the revelers eat and drink, a musician plays a small drum, and another sings while shaking rattles. In yet another scene, trumpets blare as a lord oversees what appears to be a drunken party (Kerr 1453).


The Popol Vuh indicates that the ballgame was not played by mere farmers. The ball game was not merely sport, but rather part of a primary metaphor for the Maya worldview – Sowing and Dawning. This is a cyclical process that includes human life and death, the cycle of maize, and the movement of the cosmos (Tedlock, 1996: 31). Maya ballgames were staged affairs held in well crafted stone ball courts. Players wore ornate costumes and padding to protect themselves from the solid rubber ball. From certain vase paintings, the spectacle of ballgames can be imagined (Kerr No. 5937, 1871, y 3814). In these three examples, trumpets and conch shells are blown – probably contributing to a great cacophony of the game and outbursts from spectators.


Warfare was endemic by the close of the Classic period as cities vied for control over larger and larger territory. Warfare was commemorated on stone monuments that portray great Kings preparing for battle, performing rituals before and after, and documenting successful conquests. The painted record bears out the ritualistic aspects of Maya warfare. In Kerr No. 3092, a Maya lord is seen dressed in battle regalia with a musician playing a trumpet – might this be a scene announcing the Ahau is ready for the fight? During the Classic period, Maya rulers risked their lives as well as their kingdoms. In the 8th century AD, the King of Copan, Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil (better known as 18 Rabbit), was captured and executed by Cauac Sky, the ruler of a subject city (Fash, 1993). Execution and torture scenes are found on painted ceramic vessels and the Bonampak murals. Music was performed at such times, likely to emphasize the unfolding drama and to strike further terror in the mind of the captives (Kerr No. 8738). The scene from Kerr No. 206 depicts the torture of a captive strapped to a platform while five musicians provide the musical score to the spectacle.


In her study of ancient Maya procession, Julia Sanchez (2007: 36) defined four distinct modes: calendrical, military, supernatural, and political. In all four categories, musicians form an important contingent.Processions are distinctive musical performances in that audience and performers move about together (J. Sanchez, 2007: 36). As she notes, processions are “chaotic, meandering ceremonies” (J. Sanchez, 2007: 42). Sanchez reminds us of the need to keep the whole in focus and not be lost on the minutia of narrow data sets. This is, of course, a challenging but imperative task. Nevertheless, the difficulty for comprehending ancient Maya processions is that they have been rendered static via illustrations on walls or pottery. Yet it is clear that musical accompaniment was a vital part of public ceremony, whether in religious, military, or mythological contexts (an example of musicians in a procession can be seen on Kerr No. 6317). As noted by Houston, et al. (2006: 260), musicians in traveling processions are not shown playing their instruments. Music may not have been played during actual journeys, but rather used to announce the arrival of the visiting party (Houston, et al., 2006: 260).



What differentiates music from other sounds? Did the ancient Maya distinguish between the melodic sounds of the human voice and those made by instruments? According to Houston, et al. (2006: 255), in Colonial Yukatek, the linguistic distinction between music and song are not clear. Similarly, the term for “singer” and “musician” were the same in Colonial and Classic Period times. To further confound the issue, dancers also used instruments in performance (Houston, et al., 2006: 255). Evidently, ancient Maya performers were multifaceted artists of varying talents. Observers apparently did pass judgment on performers as tzublal u cal “fine his/her voice” or perhaps cici kay “well done”. Poor performers were compared to blaring trumpets (Houston, et al., 2006: 255).

The 16th century Fray Diego de Landa reported on many different Maya customs in his Relacion de las cosas de Yucatan (Landa, 1978). Although Landa did participate in the destruction of Maya codices, he later turned his efforts to recording as much information about the Maya as possible. He observed that the Maya had “delightful ways of entertainment” and utilized a number of instruments, including drums, wooden trumpets, turtle shells, bone whistles, conchs, and reed flutes (Landa, 1978: 36). This variety can be subsumed under three major categories: drums, other percussion instruments, and wind instruments.


A variety of drums were played during the Classic period including the pax (large drum), ceramic hand-drum, large circular drum (Hammond, 1972: 2), and the friction drum (Donahue, n.d.). All of these are depicted on painted vessels, the Bonampak murals, and clay figurines.


Pax, tall, free standing drums, are seen in the Bonampak Murals and Kerr 3009. None have survived, indicating they were made of organic materials (wood bodies). Hammond (1972: 3) suggests the body was likely a hollowed out tree trunk and stood about 4 feet tall. The drum head was animal skin, stretched over and glued to the wood frame. In mythological scenes, drums were covered with jaguar pelts (Kerr No. 3040). It is not known if this would have been the case for real drums. Musicians were multi-talented, as is noted by a ceramic Jaina figurine depicting a drummer singing along as he plays (Kerr No. 7549). Pax were played with the hands, as contemporary conga drums are. Tonal differences are determined by striking methods; slaps, cupped hands, finger tapping, and location of the strikes.

Small hand drums

Small hand drums were frequently used in dance7 to keep rhythm, as seen on painted vessels (Ker No. 1549 and Kerr No. 3463); the smallest versions were held in front of the drummer’s body by one hand and tapped with the other. Larger ceramic drums were cradled under the arm and tapped with the other hand (Kerr No 3051). Ceramic drums used in elite contexts were painted with the same elaborate techniques used on ritual vessels (Kerr No. 5624). Other small drums rested on pedestals or were free-standing (Kerr No. 3247); musicians provided rhythmic accompaniment for dancers. Small drums, probably due to their quieter sound, seem to have been utilized for intimate palace events.

Friction Drums

An unusual “stringed instrument” seen in Kerr No. 5233 was examined by Donahue (n.d) in detail. As he indicates, no prior evidence of stringed instruments (chordophones) had been found in Indigenous America. Rather, Donahue argues the instrument depicted is a friction drum (proving their existence before contact with the Old World). Prior researchers had attributed the friction drums in the Americas to contact with West Africans and Spaniards (Donahue, n.d). In an attempt to replicate the drum depicted on the vase, Donahue constructed an indirect friction drum using a wooden drum, a sinew cord, and notched stick drawn across the cord. Donahue’s experiments rendered an instrument that sounded like a growling jaguar (Donahue, n.d.). (Listen to the sound of the friction drum at the Princeton University Art Museum site). Hammond (1972: 6) noted that friction drums (called tigrero) were still in use in the Peten to lure jaguars within shooting range.

Other Percussion Instruments

Rattles (pairs of gourds glued to sticks) are seen on a number of ceramic vases (Kerr No. 8947, Kerr No. 3046, y Kerr No. 4824), as well as the Bonampak murals. They were embellished with feathers, some were perforated, and others slit to allow sound to escape. Turtle carapaces (Kerr No. 8947)were another percussive instrument, but sound was created by striking the shell with deer antlers (Kerr No 1181 and Bonampak – to the left of the pax) or the hand (Hammond, 1972: 2). Notably, the Maya envisioned the land as the back of a turtle swimming in a primordial sea (Schele drawing 5505). Lastly, the Maya created raspers by notching along the length of a long bone (and probably wood also) (Hammond, 1972: 9). An example of rasping can be seen on Kerr 4824 (far right figure).

Wind Instruments

The Maya created a number of wind instruments out of organic materials and clay. Chief among these were trumpets, conch shells, ocarinas, and flutes.


Trumpets are seen in the Bonampak mural, on ceramic vessels, and even on one Jaina figurine (Kerr No. 4801). Spanish chroniclers provided data useful for interpreting Classic Period instruments. Landa wrote that trumpets were fashioned from wood and gourds (Hammond, 1972: 10). Trumpets of this type, then, would have been composite instruments (Kerr No. 1453). As a result, the tonal quality of each trumpet would have been unique as each gourd would have its own individual shape. Not all trumpets were made with gourds; many depictions show evenly tapered trumpets that may have been made of wood (Kerr No. 6984). In terms of size, again, there is variation with some examples larger than the musicians (Kerr No. 4120). Other trumpets are shown nicely embellished; some with jaguar fur and feathers (Kerr No. 4412). Hammond (1972: 10) makes note of an 8 inch pottery trumpet, which most likely was part of a figurine. It seems unlikely that the much larger trumpets used by musicians would have been made of clay given the material’s great weight.

Conch Shells

An often depicted Maya instrument was made of the marine gastropod genus Strombus, more commonly called conch (Kerr No. 519). Perhaps due to its rarity at inland Maya cities, the conch (which would have been imported from the Caribbean coast) was an elite associated item. Indeed, on a painted vase, the Maize God is depicted with an offering of cloth, feathers, and a conch shell (Kerr No. 8201). It is well known that cloth and feathers were important luxury goods. By analogy, it can be surmised that conch shells were elite status goods. Scribes used conch shells to hold ink and one vase depicts warriors “boxing” with conch shells (Kerr No. 500). The use of conch shell instruments is documented on pottery vessels (Kerr No. 556) and molded figurines (Kerr No. 5888). A conch shell inscribed and outlined with cinnabar (Kerr No. 3481) portrays the profile of a Maya Lord. The mode of playing was holding the shell in one hand, blowing through the shell while the other hand could be inserted into the shell opening to modulate the sound (see Kerr No. 1453, left hand side of image).


Pottery flutes have been preserved including ornately modeled examples that seem pieces of art as much as instruments (Kerr No. 6095a, Kerr No. 7170, Kerr No. 7286). These ceramic flutes may or may not have had finger holes, and others had beads inside to change the tone. Flautists, like drummers, multitasked, as shown in Kerr No. 206. Hammond’s reading of ethnohistoric documents found that Colonial period Maya manufactured flutes from reed, bone, and pottery (1972:11). If the Maya of earlier periods had utilized organic materials such as reed and bone, they have not endured.


Ocarinas are “multi-note instruments in which the resonating chamber has an open oval form and several ventages” (Hammond, 1987: 12). In Mesoamerica, ocarinas were fashioned from clay, some from molds (Bourg, 2005: 46). Although infrequently depicted in the artistic record, they are relatively abundant in excavations. The ritual significance is difficult to ascertain, given their association with non-elites. A cache of flutes and ocarinas found in an elite burial at Pacbitun, Belize, may have been played in the funeral procession (Broad, 1988). But the ubiquity of these low-cost instruments may have lessened their ritual value to prestige minded elites (Bourg, 2005: 46). Indeed, in one study, ocarina distribution was limited to areas outside of elite sectors (Borhegy, 1956, cited in Bourg, 2005). In these non-elite contexts, ocarinas were associated with other items known to be used in commoner household rituals (Bourg, 2005: 49).

Miscellaneous Instruments

As indicated above, stringed instruments were not used in Ancient Maya times (Hammond, 1972: 12; Donahue, n.d.). Contemporary stringed instruments (e.g., guitar, harp, and violin) were introduced after the Spanish invasion. Nevertheless, an unusual instrument was reported from the late 19th century, the hool.


During field work (1890-91) at Loltun cave in Yucatan, M.H. Saville noted that the Maya workers would entertain themselves at night with an ad hoc instrument called hool. Saville (1897: 272) described the instrument as a two-foot long bow, made of a vine stretched between the ends of a pliable length of wood. Saville reported that “one end of this bow is placed near the face, about one-third of the distance from the end, so that the mouth covers but does not touch the string, forming a resonator” (1897: 272). Notably, the hool required skill to perform well, yet no great lengths were made to elaborate the instrument. Such an instrument is not, as far as could be determined, depicted in any ancient Maya media. It is not apparent if the hool observed by Saville was an instrument of great antiquity or recent innovation. Regardless, given that the materials used were entirely organic, no archaeological traces would be expected to be found in excavations.



Ancestral Mesoamerican peoples, like their creators,8 saw music as an expression of the divine. As Maya society became more and more complex, royal patronage sustained the arts and directed artists to record aspects of elite life in pottery, stone, and murals. As has been reviewed in this article, the ancient Maya greatly appreciated music and incorporated it into numerous activities. Whether music provided rhythmic backdrop for feasting, ritual ingestion of hallucinogens, and dance, or loud, thundering clamor in warfare – music was integral to Maya culture. Through the combined information gleaned from ethnohistory, archaeology, ethnomusicology, and other disciplines, we are only able to see through a glass darkly into the past. In this way, we are fortunate to have at least some indications of ancient Maya aesthetics. But, unfortunately, very little is known of the many other cultures of ancient Central America – their world is almost entirely silent to us. We can only imagine and infer what the past might have sounded like on the basis of limited evidence. It will be the task of future researchers to investigate the music of ancient Central America, and, hopefully, to bring to light what has lain dormant for many centuries now – that is, if the deities wish us to see it.


“They [the maize people] were good people . . . their vision came all at once. Perfectly they saw, perfectly they knew everything under the sky, whenever they looked.”

[And so the Makers and Modelers] . . . changed the nature of their works . . . [The maize people] were blinded as the face of a mirror is breathed upon. Their vision flickered. Now it was only from close up that they could see what was there with any clarity.

And such was the loss of the means of understanding, along with the means of knowing everything. . . . [author’s excerpt from the Popol Vuh (Tedlock, 1996: 147-148)]

© Carleen D. Sánchez


Special thanks to Tom Martin for his critical reading and editorial advice of this article.



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vuelve 1. Carleen D. Sanchez is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

vuelve 2. More than 100 years ago, Saville observed the prevalence of Mexican music.

vuelve 3. Westerners generally refer to ancestral Maya places as “ruins,” this term is seen by many Maya people as part of the continuing marginalization of Central American Native peoples. I am using this term in this context to refer to the Western experience of tourism to emphasize the fantastical nature of contemporary archaeological tourism.

vuelve 4. Marimbas were introduced into Latin America by African Slaves during the Colonial Period (Garfias, 1983).

vuelve 5. See Coe, Michael D, 2005: The Maya, 7th ed. London: Thames & Hudson, for a concise overview of ancient Maya society.

vuelve 6. In this paper, the term civilization is used only to refer to state level societies with specific features (monumental architecture, institutionalized political structures, symbolic communication systems, etc.).

vuelve 7. Maya dance is frequently artistically denoted in very subtle ways often no more than a raised heel is used to convey movement.

vuelve 8. See the Popol Vuh (Tedlock, 1996).


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