Comparative Guts

600 BCE – 1500 CE


Liv Green, Louise Bjerre & Christophe Helmke

Institute of Cross-cultural and Regional Studies
University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
by Liv Green

Mesoamerica is a cultural and linguistic area that geographically spans from northern Mexico all the way down to Costa Rica. The region is characterized by shared cultural and linguistic traits such as a series of ritual calendars, the cultivation of maize, chili, and squash, different writing systems, and the construction of monumental architecture, to name but a few. The most renowned ancient civilizations of the area are the Maya and the Aztec, but other important cultures such as the Olmec, Zapotec, and Mixtec also thrived in this area.

The Aztec are especially known owing to of their interaction and eventual defeat by the Spaniards. From the conquest (1519-1521) and the decades leading up to this pivotal period, we have a range of texts written by both Europeans and indigenous people, that extensively describes the Aztec, their customs, and traditions. In the centuries before the conquest, the Aztec empire was one of the largest empires in the Americas. Thus, large parts of Central Mexico and beyond was either directly or indirectly under control and drawn into tributary relations with the Aztec state (c. AD 1200-1521).

According to early ethnohistorical accounts, the Aztec traced their cultural inheritance to the Toltec, an earlier culture that had its capital at a place called Tollan. Most scholars today recognize the archaeological site of Tula in Hidalgo, to be the same as the Tollan mentioned in the ethnohistorical accounts. The Toltec state was at its height during the transition from the Epiclassic period (c. AD 600-900) into the early Postclassic period (c. AD 900-1200). Furthermore, the Aztec had a strong cultural connection to the people who inhabited the site of Teotihuacan, just north of the later Aztec capital. Much of Aztec architecture and religious practices can be directly linked to the cultural inheritance from Teotihuacan via the Epiclassic states that flourished after the collapse of Teotihuacan in the sixth century. The metropolis of Teotihuacan had its heyday during the Classic period (ca. AD 150-600) and was known by the Aztec as the place where the gods convened to sacrifice themselves to bring about a new sun of the current creation.

by Louise Bjerre
Maya civilization is one of the most renowned of the high cultures of Mesoamerica. The Maya area encompasses the southern parts of Mexico, the entirety of both Belize and Guatemala, and the westernmost parts of Honduras and El Salvador.

The Maya people are best known for their lengthy hieroglyphic inscriptions relating the history and deeds of the elite. This is often accompanied by calendar records that pinpoint these events to specific dates in their ritual calendar. They built spectacular temples and other monumental structures including monuments with elaborate imagery depicting different rituals, inauguration ceremonies, ballgames, and other significant events.

Furthermore, the Maya civilization is also well-known for its great and sudden collapse at the close of the Classic period (AD 250-950). The cause of this collapse is still debated, but it is likely due to a combination of different factors possibly including environmental stresses such as drought, leading to competition over resources and the intensification of warfare. Yet the Maya survive and have passed on their culture and traditions to this day. Today the modern Maya continue to incorporate many of the traditions and cultural traits of their ancestors especially concerning food preparation and traditional dishes, conceptions of the body, and of course more ritual and ceremonial events have survived to present, at times merging these with European culture and religion.
by Liv Green & Christophe Helmke
Unlike other parts of the world, for Precolumbian Mesoamerica we do not have anatomical depictions of the inner landscape of the human body. There is one salient exception in this regard: the human heart. The heart occupied a privileged position in Mesoamerican cultures, which explains its numerous depictions. As seen in the examples from Tenochtitlan (Fig. 5), and the glyphic representations in Maya writing (Fig. 10), the heart was specifically connected to human emotion, giving rise to many words and expressions, in both Nahuatl and Mayan languages. This metaphorical connection to the organ is key to our understanding of the many depictions and its glyphic references. The heart is also related to themes of warfare and figures prominently in warrior titles of Central Mexico as seen, for instance, at Tula (Fig. 4). Death and warfare are the main themes related to Precolumbian depictions of the guts. The innards are usually found depicted as stylized and indistinctive scrolls or swirls emerging from the open or severed abdomen. The depictions from both western Mesoamerica, as well as the Maya area, occur in scenes of warfare, aggression and emphasize imminent death, as is the case with the eviscerated individual at San José Mogote (Fig. 1), and the skeletal figure seen at Xunantunich (Fig. 8). In scenes of battle, as illustrated on the murals of both Bonampak (Fig. 7), and Cacaxtla (Fig. 3), defeated warriors are depicted as wounded, with blood and viscera issuing from their mutilated bodies. Aside from these themes, we also see related depictions of human entities, attacked by large animals, such as that wherein a man is mauled by a jaguar and eviscerated (Fig. 9), but the great mythic battle with dismembered figures really stands out in this regard (Fig. 6). In sum, the representational conventions of Precolumbian Mesoamerican cultures do include distinctive depictions of the inner organs but yield to the heart’s central place, leaving all other entrails to be represented in a highly stylized and indistinct manner. Whether these reveal something as to cultural knowledge or solely reflects cultural representational conventions remains unknown.