The Ancient Mayan Art of Body Piercing

Two weeks ago we gave you our first installation of an archaeology series with the Director of the Institute of Archaeology, Dr. Jaime Awe who told us about an ancient Mayan paddle found in the lagoons of the Bladden Reserve in Southern Belize. It is the oldest wooden artifact ever found in the territories that used to be the land of the Mayas. Well tonight, in his second installation, Dr. Awe takes a turn from the unparalleled to the almost unthinkable as he tells us how the Mayans were piercing and scarring themselves long before we were.

Alfonso Noble Reporting,
We've all seen navel rings like this, and maybe even this exotic sort of ear piercing and this is a stretch, but hey, this woman thought it looked good. All these are very modern accessories, but are they really?

Dr. Jaime Awe,
"None of this is new. This has been going on for thousands of years and the best evidence is found in archaeology:"

Archaeologist Dr. Jaime Awe says the Mayas have been doing this and even more extreme style and structure modifications well before the birth of Christ.

Dr. Jaime Awe,
"A lot of Maya skulls that we find show evidence of what we call cranial modification that the Maya would tie a piece of board on the individual's forehead and then bind it and after a while it would deform the skull. But this is something that would have to be done very earlier, shortly after birth, because when a child is born the cranium hasn't closed so that the skull is pliable. The Maya somehow realized this and to them a form of beauty would be for you to be a forehead that is slanted backwards and the way they did this, like I said, was to tie a piece of board there and then bind it. When you look at the examples of these skulls it shows you the results of that. A good example is like this painting of vase from a small cave in Blue Creek Village in Toledo Village. But we can see this tradition across the world of the Maya because other paintings from sites in Guatemala and Mexico show the same practice. Here you can see an elite woman and an elite male both of whom have had cranial modifications. Other types of body multiplications included scarifications. In scarifications, you would have probably taken a blade or knife and cut themselves making design on the face. What they would is they would let it heal in such a way that it would leave these major designs on the face and we know that the Maya did them. The examples that we have come right from some of the figurines. In this case here you can see a woman who has this decoration all around the mouth. Here we have a wire, here again in the form of a figurine, and the interesting design decoration not just around the mouth but here he has them down the sides of the face, across the forehead, and also at the bridge of the nose. They also did dental modifications. One of the most common forms of dental modifications was to drill the teeth, particularly the incisors but sometimes all the front teeth, and they would inlay with iron pirate or jade. Here you can see this skull has nearly all the teeth of the top and the bottom on the front, from incisor to incisor, all of them drilled and then inlayed with jade and pirate. In addition to that they would sometime drill the teeth in different shapes, sometimes in the shape of a W or other types of design. Here you can see examples of different decorations and inlays or sometimes combinations of inlays and designs. How did they do this? We know there is a little plant that grows, and I remember the name of the plant, but it gives a little yellow flower and if you chew it, it has like Novocain properties, it numbens your tongue, your lip etc. so its likely that the Mayas would have known about this and chew some of this before they use this very simple hand draft. Here you can see the drill and the way it works. You have this individual with the drill on the chip tooth and moving that other contraption back and forth would make the drill spin. Other forms of body mutilation included this practice by males whenever they would offer blood as part of a ceremony or sacrifice, they would take a stingray spine and pierce the foreskin of the penis and offer that blood to the Gods. Another example here we have this from this site in Mexico and it shows this woman running a rope with thorns through her tongue."

And with all this evidence, Awe says the Mayas wrote the book on mutilation as a demarcation of status and beauty.

Dr. Jaime Awe,
"In effect then what we have is a long and very complex Maya tradition of militating and transforming the body from the time of the birth of Christ onward into the Classic period."

And they did so at great personal peril:

Dr. Jaime Awe,
"Quite often when we see these things we don't take into consideration the incidents of these people being infected by some means or the other, and it was a reality, we have found teeth where the person that was doing the drilling, drilled a little bit too far hitting a bit of the nerve ends and I am certain that that person may have been so sorry that they drilled the teeth, because of the desire to look beautiful, and then suffered some excruciating toothaches for a long long period of time. Or if you're cutting or piercing the penis with a stingray spine and you get an infection, the complications are not only hard to imagine, I don't want to imagine what some of those complications would have been."

So when you see these extreme modification, don't judge harshly, rather than generational weirdnesses, these are really expressive of human values - the value of being different. And it proves that that humankind's obsessions with status and beauty are pathological, not whimsical.

Dr. Jaime Awe,
"There are certain traditions in human cultures, in human society, that are as old as human culture and one of them is questions of status. You know often people of status want to use exotics, we try to appropriate exotic things or we try to appropriate certain differences, things that set us aside from the other. "

And so what's the less on in all this? Awe says, it's as old as the bible's wisdom: "what's old is new and what's new is old:"

Dr. Jaime Awe,
"In Belize we often hear our parents say, 'deh yah young people nowadays, they just want to do this and do that.' What's interesting in this, the lesson here, is that the young people from today aren't doing anything new. This has been going on for thousands of years."

And if it's any gauge of the progress of human-kind, thousands of years will take you from jade filled teeth to platinum caps - a most perplexing progress, but a story nonetheless