Ethno-zoology is the study of animals, insects, etc of a particular culture, usually an indigenous culture in a non-Western society. Ethno-zoology (which can also be correctly spelled as ethnozoology) is part of ethnography, which is the study of any particular culture somewhere in the world (usually non-Western). Occasionally this specialization is called “zooarchaeology” but FLAAR is more interested in iconography, epigraphy, and ethno-zoology. The archaeological aspects are to us the route to seeing which birds, bees and other creatures were important to the Classic Maya.

stingless bees Photo by Nicholas Hellmuth FLAAR photo archive. baby green iguanas Photo by Nicholas Hellmuth FLAAR photo archive.
Mayan bees. Domesticated nest of the Scaptotrigona Genera, from San Marcos Guatemala. The people of the village used the honey as medicine to treat different affection or for flavoring uses. Photo by Nicholas Hellmuth FLAAR photo archive.
Several green iguanas (Iguana iguana) from the Natural Reserve of Monterrico (CECON), Santa Rosa, Guatemala. Photo by Nicholas Hellmuth FLAAR photo archive.
Copan crocodile sculpture, IHAH, Honduras.
Copan toad sculpture Museo de Sculptura, Copan.

Ethnozology and ethnobotany, as key aspects of ethnography, hence are crucial parts of anthropology. FLAAR is interested in the anthropology of pre-hispanic cultures of Latin America. In order to be realistic in how much we can cover, we tend to concentrate on the anthroplogy of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

Mesoamerica is the part of Latin America that was occupied or significantly influenced by either the Olmec or their successors or neighbors: the Maya, Teotihuacan empire, Toltecs, or Aztecs (Nahua and Nahuatl speakers). In terms of modern locations we are speaking of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. Parts of Nicaragua were also influenced but most “Mesoamericansts” tend to concentrate on the first six countries.

This is primarily Central America and Central Mexico (75% of Mexico is technically still part of North America; Central America begins at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which is in Oaxaca. So Mexico is part of Latin America, but is definitely not “South American” and only about a third is “Central American” (Chiapas, probably most of Tabasco, Yucatan, Quintana Roo; I am writing this without access to a map).

While on definitions, archaeology is the study of the anthropology of past cultures. Iconography is the study of the representational artistic symbols of a culture. Epigraphy is the study of any writing system (though usually of a so-called hieroglyphic writing system).

Cockroach painting on Maya bowl Photo by Nicholas Hellmuth FLAAR photo archive.
Cockroach-like beetles painted on a Maya bowl. This is actually not a cockroach but is a beetle (order, Coleoptera) of intense interest to the Maya for ritual purposes. Digital rollout photo by Nicholas Hellmuth, from The Museo Popol Vuh, Francisco Marroquin University, Guatemala. This specific species of beetle is frequently depicted on bowls of Tepeu 1 date of Central Peten, Guatemala, especially the Tikal-Uaxactun area. I first figured out which kind of insect it was (Elateroidea) when I researched in two insect collections in Guatemala. FLAAR has been building up an extensive photographic reference archive of both ethnozoology and ethnobotany during the last five years. Our new web site on Mayan ethnobotany will be launched by the end of June 2011, and our new web site on Mayan ethnozoology by the first week of July 2011.

Minerals used by the Classic Maya

There is not a recognized concept of “ethno-geology” but this would be the study of minerals, clays, etc that are of interest or utility to a particular culture. For the Maya these would be primarily obsidian, jadeite, cinnabar, flint (chert actually), hematite, and iron pyrite (not used as a metal but as a mirror-like utilitarian and ritual accessory).

FLAAR tends to work in ethnobotany and ethnozoology, and thus has several experienced botanists and zoologists on our staff for years. But we are also intersted in all the minerals utilized by the Maya. My interest in minerals is because at age 19, while a student at Harvard, I spent one year excavating at Tikal for the University of Pennsylvania. One of the finds I made during this year was theTomb of the Jade Jaguar (Burial 196) under Structure 5D-73, which faces Temple II on the Great Plaza. Inside this royal burial was lots of icon pyrite, jadeit, cinnabar, hematite, and other materials prized as colorants.

Sophisticated photography as an asset in ethnozoological studies

FLAAR is engaged in aspects of all of this. Our contributions are primarily in field research (because our office is in Guatemala) and in imaging (because FLAAR is considered a world leader in digital photography, scanning, and printing technologies). It is difficult for scholars in Europe and the US to maintain a full-time research center physically in Latin America. It is unrealistic for even museums and universities nowadays to keep up with advances in digital imaging to record artifacts, architectural history, botanical and zoological specimens. So FLAAR makes its knowledge available in full-color PDFs so that students, scholars, and interested lay people can learn from our projects and experiences.

We are especially devoted to providing definitions, glossary, and helping students understand the meaning of the jargon in prehispanic Mesoamerican ethnography, ethnology, and anthropology.

This particular page is an introduction to the aspects of ethnozoology that FLAAR has a long-time history and long range future interest in.


  • shelfish maya ceramic
    fish maya ceramic

    Ceramic plate that shows shellfish and fish, Late Classic, Peten; from La Ruta Maya Conservation Foundation, a registered collection in Guatemala.

    Cochinal insects as source of red coloring material
  • Beetles that are pictured clearly in Maya art on Tepeu 2 bowls from Peten
  • Bees
  • Ants
  • Lightning bugs
  • Butterflies
  • Centipedes

Scorpions, Spiders

  • (Spiders of interest to the Maya)
  • (Unusual, photogenic, or spiders otherwise worth of interest today)
  • scorpions



Shellfish, Land snails, Shells as origin of dye, Shells as jewelry,


  • Sharks (shark teeth)
  • Marine fish
  • Fresh water fish

Frogs, toads,

  • Bufo marinus and related toads
  • Uo toad


  • Turtles as food
  • Turtle carapaces as musical instruments
  • Turtle as birth location of Maize God with Hero Twins attending

Crocodiles, Felines, Peccaries: in diet, art, astronomy (iconography and epigraphy), Deer, Bats

  • Vampire bats
  • Other bats


  • Raptors (hawks, eagles)
  • owls
  • vultures
  • Hummingbirds
  • Birds related to water
  • Doves
  • miscellaneous birds of the forests (mostly edible)

Moving forward in studies of Mayan ethnozoology

turtle sculpture Photo by Nicholas Hellmuth FLAAR photo archive.
armadillo painting on a bowl armadillo painting
Here are two zoological representations in Mayan bowls in different artistic manifestations: one bowl has the form of a turtle and at the right it is an armadillo painting.

First step: itemize all creatures listed in Popol Vuh, Chilam Balam, and other scared Maya texts. List all the creatures which Spanish conqurerors mentiond as being sacred. So make lists from Bishop Diego de Landa, etc. Look through other logical ethnohistorical resources.

Second step: list all creatures included in discussions of astronomy, mythology or other ethnographic sources.

Third step: tabulate all other creatures pictured in any way in Maya art (murals, stelae, ceramics, flints, obsidians, shell carvings).

Fourth step: all creatures whose remains (skeletons or otherwise) are found in caches, burials, or even garbage deposits from ancient times.

Fifth: list all creatures that are of spectacular appearance or zoological importance today, and question why these were not singled out by pre-Columbian inhabitants. For exampe, I rarely see passion flowers or orchids featured in Maya representations of sacred flowers.

It is equally crucial to prepare bibliographies, especially of the published work of capable scholars in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, as well as scholars past and present in the rest of the world. One I would mention as an example would be the prior work on animals in the Maya world by Sofia Paredes of La Ruta Maya Foundation.


Most recently updated May 25, 2010.
First posted Sept. 25, 2008
. Updated Aug. 24, 2009.


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Q’eqchi’-Spanish-English Dictionary Segments

2012 Prophecies of the end Mayan calendar

3D Scanning Equipment Reviews For Field Work

GigaPan Epic Pro System

Bibliography Mayan dye colorants

TECHNOLOGY, BOOK REVIEWS on Digital Imaging, especially 3D

Private Museums of Mayan Archaeology



Agriculture, diet, food

Maya Vase Rollouts

Minerals & Stones Pre-columbian Mesoamerica

Maya ethnohistory

Mayan languages of Guatemala

Museums of Mayan Archaeology

Carlos Pellicer, Tabasco

Lectures on Maya topics Now available

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