There are two species of deer in the Maya area of Guatemala:
- White tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus
- Brocket deer, Mazama americana
Since Mexico is much larger, and with many eco-systems outside the Maya areas, there are more species or at least different regional varieties in Mexico.
This discussion covers the white-tailed deer, primarily of Guatemala. We focus on this deer since there is considerably more information, more articles, more monographs, more web pages. Plus it is easy to find and photograph white-tailed deer, especially at AutoSafari Chapin, southeast of Escuintla, Guatemala.
We study deer in the Maya culture though deer images are also found in the non-Maya art of Cotzumalhuapa. This remarkable Bilbao sculpture style is in Guatemala and does include some local Maya influence, but most of the style and content came from either far north (Teotihuacan heritage, Classic Veracruz, Xochicalco, etc) or south of Guatemala (adjacent Central America).
Deer published in theses on zooarchaeology
There are dozens of theses and dissertations on zooarchaeology of Maya sites, especially of Belize, which document how often deer bones and/or antlers are found in excavations at Maya sites. So there is abundant archaeological documentation of the use of deer by the Maya for over a thousand years.
Deer provided many products to the Maya people for thousands of years:
- Deer hides, for clothing, drum covers, leather in general
- Deer meat, a major source of meat came from deer
- Antlers, for utilitarian use
- Antlers, for religious use
- Live animals, trained, for rituals
Above are the common sense uses that I estimate. If you want to learn all the other uses of different parts of a deer, just Google deer, uses and you will get more applications than expected.
Deer, Jaguars, Monkeys, and Snakes
are the creatures pictured most commonly
It would be a useful thesis for a student to tabulate which animals are most frequently shown in Maya art. If you look at vases, bowls, and plates of the Late Classic (Tepeu 1 and Tepeu 2), I estimate that the top four most commonly pictured creatures are
- Jaguars and other felines
- Spider monkeys
This list is not based on a count, but is based on decades of studying Maya vases, bowls, plates, and figurines. If you did an actual count, one by one, vase by vase, mural by mural, stelae by stelae, you might get a slightly different order. But I am not sure that iconographers, or zooarchaeologists, or epigraphers have yet pointed out, or recognized, that deer are one of the top four most common animals in Maya vases, plates, and bowls. I did not even realize this until I worked on the white-tailed deer in more depth.
The brocket deer are probably shown as well, but are not as easy to distinguish or recognize.
Parrots or macaws, humming birds, water birds, rabbits, armadillos, and especially peccary are also pictured. We have a separate FLAAR list of all the insects, arachnids, fish, reptiles, toads, iguanas, other animals, birds, bats, conch (shells) and other creatures which are shown in paintings, carvings, and as figurines.
Most animals are shown during the Late Classic, but you get macaws, water-birds, peccary heads, felines and other animals in the ceramic art of Tzakol 2 and 3, El Peten, Belize, and Campeche areas.
There are many resources for studying deer in Maya art and hieroglyphic inscriptions
Eduard Seler produced an excellent study of animals in pre-Columbian art of Mesoamerica:
- The Animal Pictures of the Mexican and the Maya Manuscripts. In J. E. S. Thompson and F. B. Richardson, eds., Gesammelte Abhandlungen sur Americanischen Sprach- und Alterthumskunde, Vol. 4, pp. 1-97.
- The Animal Pictures of the Mexican and Maya Manuscripts. Reprinted edition in Collected Works in Mesoamerican Linguistics and Archaeology. vol. 5, pp.167-340, Labyrinthos, Lancaster, California.
Tozzer and Allen produced a monograph showing every animal in the three Maya codices. Lots of deer are pictured, using hunted by traps.
- Animal Figures in the Maya Codices. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, vol. 4, no. 3.
The rollout photographs of Justin Kerr are also a good source, plus many photographs by Hellmuth of museum collections around the world.
Most major monographs on Mayan hieroglyphic writing show drawings of which hieroglyphs show the head of a deer or sometimes deer antlers (T291).
There are scores of dictionaries of Mayan languages of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. One institute in Guatemala has published a helpful concordance, so you can see all the words in each different Mayan language for a word in English or Spanish. Downside is that not every word is available; only major concepts, so for animals, only the most important ones.
Iconography of deer in Maya art, especially vases, bowls, and plates, especially Late Classic
The Starry Deer Crocodile has already been identified by David Stuart and written about by several scholars, so I focus more on additional iconographic themes:
- Deer-serpent composite monster (on Late Classic vases, especially Codex Style; different contexts than Starry Deer Crocodile, who tends to be on monumental stone sculpture)
- Deer hunters, as hunters (of deer and of birds)
- Deer hunters as ballplayers (or ballplayers as deer hunters)
- Deer with clearly sexual connotations with clearly topless Maya palace women associated with a really old king (or regal deity) dying on his throne
- Monkey Dancers with deer ears and deer antlers
- Deer Dancers with monkey tail (and once also black monkey-colored fur)
- Deer associated with human sacrifice, jaguar sacrificial assistants, or associated with skeletal death deity.
I have worked all these out in a separate manuscript but there is not space on a single web page to show the tons of documentation, so I show only the rough list of iconographic themes and a few images.
I first found a lot of this while working on Dance after Decapitation Sacrifice on the Castillo Vase (back in the 1970’s). Other scholars later identified many of these animals as naguals, way, but the basic dance was identified in our research long before this. However it is nice that epigraphers and iconographers took this classification to the next step. The original dance vase ironically has no deer and no monkeys, and no skeletal deity (but does show sacrifice and bone iconography). The deer, monkeys, skeletal creatures, and other actors in this ritual tend to be on Tepeu 1 vases with red backgrounds and a special version of the Primary Standard Sequence. I studied a large corpus of these (together with the Castillo Vase) for many years.
Sources on learning about Deer in Maya culture
- dictionaries of Mayan languages
- Ethnohistory: Landa, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, etc
- Excavations of deer remains: Belize, Peten, Campeche, etc.
- Images of deer in Maya pottery, murals, sculpture
- Personal observation of deer in Guatemala today
I have put into bold where deer are mentioned by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a solder who accompanied Cortes.
Boca de Términos, y ansí está en las cartas de marear. Y allí saltó el capitán Juan de Grijalva en tierra, con todos los demás capitanes por mí memorados y soldados. Y estuvimos tres días sondando la boca de aquella entrada y mirando bien arriba y abajo del ancón, adonde creíamos que venía o iba a parar, y no hallamos ser isla, sino ancón y muy buen puerto. Y había en tierra unas casas de adoratorios de ídolos, de cal y canto, y muchos ídolos de barro y de palo, que eran dellos figuras de sus dioses, y dellos de sus como mugeres, y otros como sierpes, y muchos cuernos de venado. Y creímos que por allí cerca habría alguna poblazón y, con el buen puerto, que sería bueno para poblar, lo cual no fue ansí, que estaba muy despoblado, porque aquellos adoratorios eran de mercaderes y cazadores que de pasada entraban en aquel puerto con canoas y allí sacrificaban. Y había mucha caza de venados y conejos: matamos diez venados con una lebrela y muchos conejos.
Como salimos del "pueblo cercado", que ansí le llamábamos desde allí adelante, entramos en un bueno y llano camino, y todo sabanas y sin árboles; y hacía un sol tan caluroso y recio, que otro mayor resestero no habíamos tenido en todo el camino. E yendo por aquellos campos rasos, había tantos de venados, y corrían tan poco, que luego los alcanzábamos a caballo, por poco que corríamos con los caballos tras ellos, y se mataron sobre veinte. Y preguntando a los guías que llevábamos cómo corrían tan poco aquellos venados, y no se espantaban de los caballos ni de otra cosa ninguna, dijeron que en aquellos pueblos, que ya he dicho que se decían los mazatecas, que los tienen por sus dioses, porque les ha parescido en su figura, y que les ha mandado su ídolo que no les maten ni espanten, y que ansí lo han hecho, y que a esta causa no huyen.
This last description of wild deer in El Peten area of Guatemala, where the deer were completely tame because local people revered them (so did not hunt, bother, or pester the deer). The Spanish of course slaughtered as many of these harmless deer as possible.