How to thatch a roof of a Mayan hut with palm fronds?

During a recent drive through Alta Verapaz, I noticed a group of local people constructing a thatch roof. So I stopped and ask if I could photograph the corozo palm they were using. They said yes, so we spent some time taking photographs.

Guano is slang for bat droppings. But in its context, guano is perfectly normal word for thatch from this common palm tree in El Peten. www.backyardnature.net, of botanist Jim Conrad, spells the name huano.


There are two main kinds of palm thatch: guano and corozo.

You can easily teach yourself to tell the difference between thatch of guana and thatch roofs of corozal palm:

Corozo, throughout Alta Verapaz and Izabal; and occasionally in El Peten.
Guano: almost never in Alta Verapaz, less seldom in Izabal; common in El Peten.

Corozo: horizontal, very long frond structure
Guano: vertical, a bit “woven” into the roof beam structure

The two palm trees are totally different in size and shape. Once you see the two trees, and once you see the results, especially while under construction, you will be able to identify which-is-which.

But… just realize that there are other plants, almost identical in size and shape to guano, but is totally different. We cover this in our other thatch page, on junco, (pseudo) guano palm thatch!

Plus we found a fourth thatch palm, in the salt mining area of Monterrico, Guatemala.

corozo palms Petexbatun Caribe 316
Corozo palms. Petextabún, Peten, Taken with Phase One P25+, June 2011


Guano is Sabal genus but potentially many different species are called guano

It is typical in local Spanish of Mesoamerica for the same word (in this case huano or guano) to refer to many separate trees. Here is but one example.

Sabal mauritiiformis, Bay Leaf Palm (of Belize)
Sabal yapa, xa’an palm. Xa’an is a word from a Mayan language.

I was not able to find any Sabal in the PhD dissertation of M. Wilson on the ethnobotany of the K’ekchi’. I could not find guano or huano either. This suggests that guano thatch roofs will not be typical of the area where he did his research. I hardly every see guano palm roof thatch elsewhere in Alta Verapaz either. But you see guano palm roof thatch throughout El Peten.

This web page is an introduction to the second major roofing material, cohune palm. This is also known as corozo, or corozal. In the area of Candelaria Campo Santo, Alta Verapaz, I estimate over 90% of the thatches houses are corozo palm. We found one house of Ak grass.

In the settlement of Paso Caballos, I estimate about 100% of the thatched houses are guano palm. Corozo palm does not grow nearby.


Cohune palm information

It is Corozo in local Spanish, corozal or cohune palm in English. The species name used by Lundell is Orbignya cohune, family Arecaceae. The species name used today is Attalea cohune.

In some eco-systems the corozo palm is widely dispersed and shares the forest with dozens of other trees. But there are flat areas, such as between Yaxha and Nakum ruins, which are almost solid corozo palms. I have seen the same near Sayaxche: areas of pure cohune palm trees.

The tree also produces lots of nuts, and potentially could produce oil. But unfortunately commercial agro-business comes in with a bulldozer, destroys all the original natural native plants, and brings in African oil palms instead.
Other commercial people bulldoze everything to plant teak trees.  Others destroy the original Maya forests just to plant Brazilian rubber trees. Not even 1% of the native trees are spared: 100% are destroyed, bulldozed, burned to oblivion.

At least when the Maya farmers practice slash-and-burn milpa agriculture, they spare the useful palm trees; they spare the useful fruit trees; and occasionally they spare other useful trees.

corozo palms tatch photography 1935
Corozo palms being dried. Taken with a Canon PowerShot G16 June 2014


Guano thatch can last 10 to 12 years

Thatch endurance depends on many factors, but 10 to 12 years is a good average. A corozo roof lasts fewer years. We need to check on junco and royal palm endurance.

 

Do not have your house under a large shade tree

If your Mayan house is in the shade the palm thatch roof will rot more quickly.

And, one day the branches of the tree (or the entire tree) will be blown over and come crashing down onto your house.


Palm thatch is cut only during certain phase of the moon

Most visitors to Maya sites assume that when the local people say it is best to harvest palm thatch during a certain phase of the moon, that this is utter superstition with no actual supporting facts.

Very easy: harvest the palm for your home at any time of the month that you select (ignoring the position of the moon).

Compare it with a Mayan thatch roof harvested at the optimum time of the moon for having the palm protected by the position and amount of the sap.

I bet that the “anytime, non-superstitious” thatched palm will rot a lot more quickly, than the house that the local experienced Maya villager can build.

corozo palms tatch photography 1938
Corozo palms being dried. Taken with a Canon PowerShot G16 June 2014


Wood for poles and beams, best if cut during certain phase of the moon

In 1970 I asked the Peten workers at our camp to do a building for multi-purpose: office and dormitory (we were starting a 5-year project at Yaxha).

They got the structure built in less than several weeks.

The next year, next season, there was nothing left of the structure except piles or rot and piles of termite droppings!

Yet all the houses they had built for themselves were still in perfect condition. So I asked why had their houses survived perfectly, and my house partially fell apart due to rot and the rest was devoured by termites?

Very simple they said, I had asked “please construct me a building of such-and-such a dimension. Period.”  “But you did not ask for a termite-proof structure; you did not ask for a rot-proof structure. And you seemed to indicate you needed the structure finished so you could bring in the students and assistants to start the project. If you had allowed us more time, we would have waited until the correct phase of the moon to cut everything; and, we would have used termite-proof and rot-proof tree species.”

I had to smile; here was a naïve gringo. I sure learned quickly.

All the other structures built the second year lasted for over 10 years. I bet that still today one or two of these later structures are still standing (over 30 years later, though they would now have tin roofs or at least fresh thatch).

One advantage of writing about flora and fauna of Mesoamerica is having been here since age 16, and having spent so much time learning from local farmers about their local environment. Guatemala has more eco-systems that I can count. I bet not many textbooks accurately describe all the eco-systems that I have experienced even in just the last several years. Our goal at FLAAR is to bring knowledge of the ecology of Guatemala to students, faculty, and to the interested lay public around the world. We hope that more of the inherent natural beauty of Guatemala can be preserved as reservas naturales instead of being bulldozed or decimated by chain saws.

 

Bibliography

  • ABRAMS, Elliot M.
  • 1994
  • How the Maya Built Their World: Energetics and Ancient Architecture. University of Texas Press.
  • Martínez-Ballesté, A., C. Martorell, M. Martínez-Ramos, and J. Caballero
  • 2005
  • Applying Retrospective Demographic Models to Assess Sustainable Use: the Maya Management of Xa’an Palms. Ecology and Society. 35 pages.

 

www.uv.mx/ethnobotany/caballero_files/Andrea%20etal%20Retrospective%20galeras.pdf

www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/huano.htm
Lots of nice large photographs of Sabal palm (guano; he spells it huano, but both spellings are used in many places).

 

Updated October 6, 2015.

First posted June 25, 2014

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