Domesticated animals (for the Mayan people) are not just to eat! and domesticated animals are not just birds and mammals!

Although the stingless bees of Guatemala obviously produced edible honey, the other two domesticated insects were not edible: they were utilitarian.

  • The cochineal scale insect is used to provide the color red to dye materials.
  • The niij scale insect is used as a lacquer for decorating bowls of jicara and morro.


Sadly, most of the excellent scholarly books on “The Classic Maya Civilization” do not include insects other than bees. I estimate that 95% do not mention the niij insect either. And several publications confuse the niij and cochineal (since both look, act, and live in very similar eco-systems; even I got them confused in the beginning).

So we have made the long drive to the native home of these cute Guatemalan scale insects several times. We are doing close-up macro photography, as well as photographing the trees where they are “planted” by the local Achi Mayan people.

You can also experience these same lacquer-producing insects in Michoacan, and Chiapa de Corzo, Mexico. But we focus on the Guatemalan area of Rabinal, Alta Verapaz.

 

A thousand years ago, there would have been thousands of house-side gardens where the local Mayan people bred, raised and harvested niij insects.

Today we know of only TWO houses, on the same street, who raise and harvest these lacquer-producing insects in Guatemala.

Hopefully there are more that we don’t yet know about! But the point is clear, the ancient traditions are dying out and disappearing (in favor of modern factory-made chemical products).

Niij are natural, a renewable resource (albeit a tad rough to be squished into a mass of varnish-like goo).

 

Easy to confuse cochineal insects and niij insects

Because niij is same size, shape, and has white fluffy covering as Cochinilla, it is normal to assume it is just another Cochinilla insect. Even we made this mistake during our first visit.

But Cochinilla is Dactylopius cocus and is primarily for providing dye colorants.

Niij is Llaveia axin, and although it can also give s stain color effect, its main use is as a varnish or lacquer.

Plenty of information from FLAAR on this forgotten domesticated insect.

We have a nice new extensive annotated bibliography on the niij insect.

And we are preparing a full FLAAR Report on the niij scale insect, with lots of great photos taken by Erick Flores and also by other FLAAR team photographers.

We thank the Garniga family for their knowledge and hospitality.

You can visit the Garniga family in Rabinal. Just ask a Tuk-tuk driver to lead you to where they live. From where you can park, just walk about 60 meters to the house. One of the family is Jose Luis Garniga. Maestro de Primaria-Rabinal, cel. 5570-5219 "Colocho" is his nickname in Rabinal, when you ask a Tuk-tuk driver to take you there.

 

Better remove Muscovy duck from pre-Columbian list of Maya domesticated animals

I always assumed that the Muscovy duck was domesticated by the Maya. Thousands of Maya homes have Muscovy ducks wandering peacefully around their yards.

But…. most historical documents suggest the Muscovy duck was brought to Guatemala by the Spaniards, from Peru. So it would be great if the capable archaeologists and zooarchaeologists working in Guatemala could find thousand-year old bones of this duck at a Classic or Postclassic Maya site, and do DNA analysis and comparable studies to see whether it was a wild duck (which is indeed native) or a domesticated variant.

First posted June 7, 2016, after our third visit to Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, Guatemala.

 

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