Crocodiles and Caimans are present in Mesoamerican Rivers, Swamps, and in Art

On a field trip up the Rio San Pedro (Peten) we saw crocodiles almost every 200 meters. On the Arroyo Petaxbatun there is a young crocodile waiting for food wastes from the Posada Caribe hotel. On a recent field trip to Bocas del Polochic (Izabal, Guatemala) we saw two crocodiles. So at least the government agencies have indeed been able to limit the relentless hunting that was painfully evident in the 1970’s and 1980’s (I have been in Mesoamerica since 1961; yes, well over half a century).

And at most zoos in Guatemala you can find at least two species (altogether there are three species of crocodilians in Guatemala).

Crocodiles are common in the art of the Maya and in codices of Mexican cultures. What is important is to realize that these reptiles in Mesoamerica are not Nile Crocodiles, they are Rio Usumacinta, Rio Polochic, Rio San Pedro, and Tikal aguada crocodiles.

Most are not alligators: two of the species are crocodiles.

And to make it more confusing, the non-crocodile is named Caiman crocodilus. But it is closer to an alligator than to a crocodile. In English it would be Cayman. But calling any of the Mesoamerican reptiles an alligator is incorrect. And calling them all a caiman is not correct either zoologically nor iconography. Most are crocodiles. That said, the sculptors of proto-Maya “Crocodile Trees” at Izapa (Chiapas, Mexico) probably knew of caiman from nearby mangrove swamps or other inland waterways with brackish water.

Most distribution maps are not fully accurate.

 

FLAAR and FLAAR Mesoamerica have been studying crocodiles for decades

We have studied Caiman in the mangrove swamps of the Pacific Ocean. We have studied crocodiles throughout Peten and Izabal.

 


Lecture abstracts on full-color PowerPoint presentations on jaguars in Maya art, monkeys and other rain forest animals in Maya art; Corbel Vault Architecture of Maya temples and palaces, and dozens of other topics on iconography of deities, monsters of Xibalba, and other topics of Maya archaeology, art, and monumental architecture.

 

 

BOOKS ON CROCODILES (especially of Mesoamerica)

Many entries are annotated, to assist authors, book layout designers, and publishers to realize what can be improved in a second edition or a new book on another topic.

  • ALDERTON, David
  • 2004
  • Crocodiles & Alligators of the World. Facts on File. 190 pages.

    I have not bought this since I have learned "..of the world" means the Nile crocodile and Africa, Asia, and Brazil and for alligators mainly Florida and nearby states. These "… of the world" books do not have much on the caiman and crocodiles of the Maya and Olmec areas of Mesoamerica.
  • ALVAREZ Del Toro, Miguel
  • 1974
  • Los Crocodylia de Mexico Estudio comparativo de los crocodylia de Mexico. Ed. Inst. Instituto Mexicano de Recursos Naturales Renovables, A.C. Mexico. 70 Pages.

    Miguel Alvarez del Toro was the leading zoologist of the Chiapas area of Mexico in the 1970s. This 1974 monograph, Los Crocodylia de Mexico covers primarily the Mexican aspect of this reptile.

    Unfortunately, the photographs vary from bad to awful.
  • ALVAREZ Del Toro, Miguel and Luis SIGLER
  • 2001
  • Los crocodylia de Mexico. IMERNAR, PROFEPA, Mexico, D.F. 134 pages.

    An update of the earlier edition with additional photographs, now all in color (though quality still varies from so-so to awful). However most of the text is the same as the original edition. The new material is at the back, by Sigler.

    However despite the lack of quality in the photographs, the text has helpful information. No one else has accomplished anything better on crocodilians of Mexico, or even comparable, in the last fifteen years. Same with Guatemala: no monograph that I know of on all three species in Guatemala. Same issue with Honduras and El Salvador: no monograph on crocodilians.
  • BEHLER, John.
  • 1998
  • Alligators & Crocodiles. Voyager Press, Montreal.
  • CAMPBELL, Jonathan A.
  • 1998
  • Amphibians and Reptiles of Northern Guatemala, the Yucatan, and Belize. University of Oklahoma Press. 380 pages.
  • GRENARD, Steve
  • 1991
  • Handbook of Alligators and Crocodiles. Krieger Publishing Company, Miami.
  • KÖHLER, Gunther, VESELY, Milan and Eli GREENBAUM
  • 2006
  • The Amphiabians and Reptiles of El Salvador. Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar, Florida. 238 pages.

    Helpful book but photographs are typical of professional biologists: not using adequate equipment and not using lighting (nor really anything to improve what are otherwise merely snapshots).

    Even if they only made the effort to have a simple reflector. Or a flash (with a light modifier to keep down the overexposure). Plus you need to understand a polarizing filter.

    Merely because a creature is important and you are taking a photo is no help to your reader that the photo will offer adequate visual documentation.
  • LEE, Julian C.
  • 1996
  • The Amphibians and Reptiles of the Yucatan Peninsula. Comstock Publishing Associates.
  • LEE, Julian C.
  • 2000
  • A Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of the Maya World: The Lowlands of Mexico, Northern Guatemala, and Belize. Cornell University Press, 416 pages.
  • PRINGLE, Laurence (author), Meryl HENDERSON (illustrator)
  • 2009
  • Alligators and Crocodiles!: Strange and Wonderful. Boyds Mills Press. 32 pages.
  • ROSS, Charles A., consulting editor
  • 1989
  • Crocodiles and Alligators. Facts on File. New York and Oxford. 240 pages.

    Although the publisher touts “including photographs from world-leading photographers” in fact the front cover is too low a resolution, as are too many other photos. Possible cause is scanning of ancient 35mm slides (with a low-end scanner), or simply old digital photographs when megabyte file size was in the Ice Age. However since the book was published in 1989, most of the photographs were from the 1970’s and 1980’s, and hence none were digital.

    We scan our photographs with a Scitex or Creo Scitex or Kodak Creo Scitex scanner. These are of the highest flatbed technology (but no longer made since after Kodak bought Creo which had bought Scitex; Kodak failed totally to know how to market such a high-end scanner.

    But the photograph on pages 12-13 is a wonderful example of taking an old color negative or old color slide, and scanning it on a crude scanner, and then enlarging it too much. It is amazing that publishers accept this low-end lack of quality. Too bad since the image itself was outstanding for showing the teeth in both jaws.

    However, if your interest is in crocodiles of Africa, this book has plenty of photographs. And if you don’t look too closely (to see the low-resolution on a few of them) you will find over a hundred nice photographs.

    Probably 90% of the book is on Nile crocodile, Africa and Asia in general. Hardly zip on crocodiles of Mesoamerica.

    Fortunately, some of the photos were really nice: pages 5, 7, 8, 11.
  • SIMON, Seymour
  • 2001
  • Crocodiles & Alligators. Harper Trophy, New York.

 

Books or Articles on Maya archaeology or iconography which discuss, show or include crocodilians

In Maya art some crocodiles are clearly renderings of crocodiles. But often the monsters are composite: crocodile+snake, or a bicephalic Cosmic Monster which is a composite of crocodile+Starry Eye Deer. If you want to see 90% of the known representations of crocodiles in the art of proto-Classic Izapa and the Classic Maya, Hellmuth 2023 has 192 pages of photos, drawings and documentation for you.

crocodile-Cosmic-Monster-Copan-CPN-82_PS-NH

Crocodile head at the front; Quadripartite Badge Headdress monster at the rear. Head of a deity sticks out the open mouth of the crocodile (it’s usually God N). Most Cosmic Monsters have deer ears, deer antlers and deer hooves. This Cosmic Monster has crocodile claws. Photo by Nicholas Hellmuth of Copan CPN 82, Copan, Honduras, many years ago. FLAAR Photo Archive.

Check also publications on figurines of Lamanai (Belize) and other sites not far from the coast.

Two items we have seen floating around the Internet, but have not yet found where they are housed or where they come from.

  • Eccentric flint of “diving” crocodile as cosmic canoe.
  • Incised shell of crocodile facing one direction with a different head at its tail end. Pinterest; no documentation.
  • BAUDEZ, Claude-Francois
  • 1994
  • Maya Sculpture of Copan: The Iconography. University of Oklahoma Press. 300 pages.

    There are more crocodiles and crocodile-composite monsters in the monumental stone sculpture of Copan than at any other site. This is curious since Yaxchilan, Piedras Negras, El Peru, and dozens of other Classic Mayan sites are also on major rivers which were full of crocodiles. Plus there are Crocodylus acutus in coastal swamps in Belize and elsewhere.
  • FINAMORE, Daniel and Stephen D. HOUSTON, editors
  • 2010
  • Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem and New Haven.

    There are a few of the crocodile artifacts in this book. Several illustrations in this book are from Hellmuth 1987b PhD dissertation; most are cited but many others are not.
  • HARRISON, Peter
  • 2006
  • Animals as Royal Family Names at Tikal, Guatemala & Some Considerations at Kalakmul. Prepared for Maya Hieroglyphs & History: An Archaeological Perspective at International Congress of Americanists - Seville, Spain.

    It is rare for a field archaeologist to recognize misidentifications in the work of other archaeologists and epigraphers. He correctly points out what is a deficiency in Maya studies: archaeologists, iconographers and epigraphers who are great at hieroglyphs or sculptures but don’t know the difference between an alligator and a crocodile (or what a caiman is).

    My personal feeling for the last decade is that archaeologists, epigraphers and iconographers could save themselves from repeatedly misidentifying flowers, insects, feline pelage spot patterns and all the other errors if they would co-author with a botanist or zoologist who knows the flora or fauna of the Maya areas or co-author with a Mayanist who knows plants and animals first-hand (a polite way to saying a Mayanist who has studied plants and animals in the Mayan areas (so more than just in books or zoos or herbariums).

    Peter Harrison’s helpful article is a free download on
    www.academia.edu/4510445/Animals_as_Royal_Family_Names_at_Tikal_Guatemala
    _and_Some_Considerations_at_Kalakmul_prepared_for_Maya_Hieroglyphs_and
    _History_An_Archaeological_Perspective_at_International_Congress_of_Americanists
    _-_Seville_Spain

  • HELLMUTH, Nicholas M.
  • 1987a
  • The Surface of the Underwaterworld. Iconography of the Gods of Early Classic Maya Art in Peten, Guatemala. FLAAR 306 pages of text (Volume 1) and hundreds of pages of illustrations (Volume 2).

    Revised English original of PhD dissertation (auf Deutsch) for Art History, Karl-Franzens-Universitaet, Graz, submitted and accepted 1986.

    The actual PhD in the German translation (by Susanna Reisinger) was also updated and published the same year, as a hard-cover coffee-table book, Monster und Menschen in der Maya Kunst, by ADEVA.
  • HELLMUTH, Nicholas M.
  • 1987b
  • Monsters und Menschen in der Maya-Kunst. ADEVA, Graz.

    This is the coffee-table book edition of my PhD dissertation at Karl-Franzens Universitaet, Graz, Austria, based on eight years research on iconography and cosmology.

    Many representations of stylized crocodiles among the 727 illustrations (lots of photographs, but mostly line drawings).

    We have original hardcover copies of this book, which are available to benefactors and corporations or foundations which are able to donate to continuing research. We would especially like to make the PhD both in English and auf Deutsch and en español available to the world.
  • LOOPER, Matthew
  • 2013
  • The Maya “Cosmic Monster” as a Political and Religious Symbol. In The Ashgate Research Companion to Monster and the Monstrous, Asa Simon Mittman and Peter J. Dendle, editors. Pp. 197ff.

    This article focuses on the Starry Deer Crocodile, which is highly stylized (meaning that the crocodile is not shown naturalistically). Plus the creature’s body are planetary band symbols.
  • ORREGO Corzo, Miguel and Christa SCHIEBE de Lavarreda
  • 2001
  • Compendio de monumentos expuestos en Tak'alik Ab'aj. (versión digital). XIV Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 2000 (edited by J.P. Laporte, A.C. Suasnávar y B. Arroyo) (Guatemala: Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología): 786-806. Retrieved 2009/02/01.
  • PARSONS, Lee Allen
  • 1969
  • Bilbao, Guatemala: An Archaeological Study of the Pacific Coast Cotzumalhuapan Region, Volume 2. Publications in Anthropology, No.12, Milwaukee Public Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
  • PARSONS, Lee Allen
  • 1986
  • Monumental Stone Sculpture of Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala, and the Southern Pacific Coast. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, Number 28, Dumbarton Oaks Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology Studies Series.
  • QUIRARTE, Jacinto
  • 1973
  • Izapan-Style Art, A Study of its Form and Meaning. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, No. 10. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.
  • VARGAS Pacheco, Ernesto and Teri ARIAS Ortiz
  • 2005
  • The Crocodile and The Cosmos: Itzamkanac, The Place of the Alligator's House. In XVIII Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 2004, edited by Laporte, Juan Pedro, Arroyo, Bárbara, and Mejía, Héctor, pp. 14–26. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City.

    Reprint on-line by FAMSI.
    www.famsi.org/reports/03101/02vargas_arias/02vargas_arias.pdf

    The use of the word alligator is a typical result of Spanish language using informal terms such as lagarto. Itzamna is either a crocodile, or a caiman. Unless it is a composite he can't be both. And there is a 66% chance he is a crocodile and only 33% chance he is a caiman (which in theory would make it allowed perhaps to be called, informally, an alligator).
  • WRIGHT, Lori E.
  • 2005
  • In Search of Yax Nuun Ayiin I: Revisiting the Tikal Project's Burial 10. In Ancient Mesoamerica 16. Cambridge University Press, pp. 89-100.

    This burial had a complete skeleton of a crocodile but the head is not shown as that was excavated a year or so before by another archaeologist.

 

Significant web sites on Crocodiles, Alligators or Caimans

http://agrigator.ifas.ufl.edu/gators
Facts and tips from the University of Florida.

http://crocodilian.com/cnhc/csl.html
Helpful list of all 23 species of the crocodilian species around the world.
This web page has disappeared.

www.msu.edu/user/urquhart/rainforest/Content/Spectacled-Caiman.html
By Dr. Gerald Urquhart. Has good photos; basic text. But is missing Crocodylus moreletii.

In the future we will update this research with a bibliography on the Crocodile Trees, especially of the pre- or proto-classic stelae of Izapa, Chiapas, Mexico. I worked on this iconography for my PhD dissertation and circa 2000-2010 I did field research all over Guatemala studying trees to learn which was “the” Crocodile Tree. FLAAR has indeed found the trees which inspired the Crocodile Tree (and it is more than just the spines of Ceiba pentandra).

 

Crocodiles in Teotihuacan art

Not many actual crocodiles in the murals or ceramic art of Teotihuacan. But the headdress of a parading priest could be a composite of dentition of various creatures include a bit of a crocodile (especially the long upper jaw and raised area at the end). To call the 3-dimensional reptile heads of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent a crocodile would be blasphemy. But venomous snakes have just one thick fang on each side. Crocodiles have several long fang-like teeth. Since the seashells that are adjacent to this “feathered serpent” are from the sea, and since crocodiles are more likely to be near the shore and more visible than water snakes, we should open the question of whether this is a composite reptile monster: part snake but also part crocodile. First would need to learn whether salt-water crocodiles are on the coast nearest inland Teotihuacan.

 

Crocodiles in the murals of Cacaxtla

The murals of Cacaxtla are a mixture of Maya (God L as but one example), Teotihuacan, and local Mexican styles. Marine creatures are featured, which is perhaps a result of international trade across the Caribbean Sea? Because Cacaxtla itself is not on the Gulf Coast.

Water birds, turtles, crabs, conch, and shellfish of many other species are showcased in these murals. But so far I have not noticed any crocodiles. Snakes yes.

 

Crocodiles and Caiman in Zapotec Art of Oaxaca

Since the Zapotecs were part of the international trade route from Mexico across Soconusco (Chiapas) to the adjacent area of Guatemala inland from the nearby Pacific Ocean, surely the Zapotecs knew of crocodiles. But crocodiles are not a major component of Zapotec art of Oaxaca, nor Tiquisate-area Teotihuacan-related art of the Boca Costa of Guatemala.

 

Crocodiles and Caimans in Aztec and Mixtec Codices

There are more crocodilians in Aztec and Mixtec codices than in art of previous civilizations of central Mexico.

 

Crocodiles in Art of the Olmec

LOTS of crocodiles in the art of the Olmec and thus in proto-Classic Izapa and some in proto-Classic Takalik Abaj. We show all these in our crocodile lecture, Hellmuth 2023.

 

First posted August 31, 2023 by Nicholas Hellmuth

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