Guatemalan colonial-period documents have proven valuable for revealing Maya thinking about bone, especially how Mayas imbued bones with personal identity. At key moments in the narratives of three Guatemalan manuscripts, the Rabinal Achi, Xpantzay Cartulary, and Pop Wuj, Mayas materialized the self of important individuals through their bones, treating the bones at times like captives. By doing this, colonial-era Mayas were revealing their ideational linkages with Mayas from the Classic and Postclassic periods who practiced ancestor veneration using bones. In this network of practices, Classic-, Postclassic-, and colonial-era Mayas linked human bones to enduring personal forces and used bones to support claims of ancestry to specific people. This study explores this feature of Maya life, and then analyzes how Mayas of the last hundred years now value bone more for other, non-ancestral ritual utilities. They have shifted from treating certain bones as a materialization of self to viewing bones in terms of the practical potentialities the bones encase, employing a mode of engagement exemplified by Tz’utujiil Maya bonesetters who treat broken bones with sacralized bones and bone surrogates. This work examines how bone use has oscillated between these two modes, contrasting how Mayas of the Classic, Postclassic, and colonial periods treated certain bones as a materialization of self against how Mayas of more recent decades have come to emphasize the sacred instrumentality of bone and put it to active use.

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