Jaguars, deer, and monkeys are commonly pictured in Classic Maya art. Crocodiles, water birds, and macaws are often in Mayan art as well. But you do not often find a tapir. Yet the tapir is one of the largest mammals of the entire Mayan world.

A Mayan ceramic pot with a three-dimensional tapir-like snout is the last illustration of Lewis Spence’s Chapter V on Myths of the Maya. The illustration is a copy of a copy (so hard to see detail) and no citation is given, but I estimate it may be a plumbate kind of ceramic, which means Post Classic. The identical vessel appears in Schlesinger’s discussion of a tapir (again, no citation of where the image was borrowed from whatsoever).

Where you may find tapirs are as headdresses. For example, it would be worthwhile analyzing every single headdress of the Bonampak murals. But so far, most animal identifications in monographs and articles are about 10% to 50% incorrect. We see later on this page that even translations of the Popol Vuh can have a tapir appear by a linguist’s mistake (though he did admit his identification was iffy).

Figures of Naranjo, Peten, are one of the few examples of tapir identifications which are acceptable, though the polychrome vase on the same Figura 11 is iffy, since this vase may be partially repainted by art dealers to pump up the price. Plus the rest of the dancer is clearly a feline (most likely a jaguar). But the figurines of Naranjo are close enough to the appearance of a tapir, plus what other animal would they be? However I would prefer to see these figurines in-person, to check how the end of the nose is shown.

Tapirs would not be expected to be common in the dry areas of Yucatan, but can be found in Quintana Roo, Campeche, Chiapas, and probably in Tabasco. There are a few areas of Veracruz and Oaxaca also inhabited by tapirs (Naranjo 2009). In Guatemala tapirs could be found for sure in Peten and Alta Verapaz and probably also in Izabal. Belize also has tapirs.


Tapir, Tapirus Bairdii, at the AutoSafari Chapin

Tapirs in Mayan mythology

A deity-like character is translated by Tedlock as a tapir in the Popol Vuh. Tapir appears in Quiche (K’iche’) dictionaries of Christenson and Renner, t’ix. I doubt any tapirs live anywhere in the Highlands, but Quiche kings could easily have had their own zoos (as did the Aztec emperors of Mexico).

The tapir is mentioned in a couplet with a Great White Peccary. The association between a peccary and tapir should be worked out by a linguist (a good job for a future thesis on tapirs, see last section of this page).

In the couplet the White Peccary is the grandfather, the White Tapir is the grandmother (the grandparents of Hunaphu and Xbalanque). All this is in the episode of how the Hero Twins interact with Seven Macaw.

Tedlock admits that he is estimating the ancestor is a tapir; he suggests could be a coati:

zaqui nima tziz, "white great peccary, white great tapir (or
coati)"; in abbreviated form, "Great White Peccary, Tapir" or "Great
Peccary, Great Tapir." These are epithets for Xpiyacoc and Xmucane,
respectively. That the ak is "great" and "white" identifies it as
the white-lipped peccary (Tayasu pecari), which has white jowls and is
markedly larger than the collared peccary (Tayasu tajacu); the
white-lipped peccary is strictly a lowland species, ak being the
Cholan term for the male (K.). That the tziz is "great" and "white"
identifies it as the tapir (Tapirella bairdii), which is enormously
larger than the coati and has white hair all over its jowls, cheeks,
and chest; no Quiche term for the tapir has been reported in
dictionary sources, but tzimin is "tapir" in Cholan (K.). Like the
white-lipped peccary, the tapir is a lowland species. What the coati
or tziz (see coati) and the tapir or tzimin have in common, in
addition to the first syllable of their names, is a very long and very
flexible snout. What the tapir and peccary have in common, in addition
to long, flexible snouts, is that they are ungulates."

Christenson’s translation of the same passage of the Popol Vuh calls the grandmother a Coati. In fact, elsewhere in the Hero Twin’s saga, a coati is again paired in couplet with a peccary:

Now it was all the animals, both great and small, that had done it—the puma and the jaguar, the deer and the rabbit, the fox and the coyote, the peccary and the coati, the small birds and the great birds. These had done it. In a single night they did it.

Based on the fact that the couplet throughout the Popol Vuh is peccary and coati, and that they are both animals that would wander through maize fields at the same time, I would tend to accept Christenson’s translation and accept Tedlock’s doubt. In other words, I doubt tapirs are mentioned in the Popol Vuh.

Even though absent from Mayan art, we still enjoy studying the tapir

There is one species of tapir in Mesoamerica, and two in South America. Ironic that there are also tapirs in Malaysia.

Despite their size, these animals must be easy prey for both jaguars and crocodiles. In fact since jaguars like to swim, I am surprised that tapirs can survive in swamp areas (with the crocodiles being more potential danger than felines, since at least the felines are also often on dry land or up in trees (again on dry land). Nonetheless, tapirs have survived until today.

Tapirs can be extremely aggressive

When I told a zookeeper that I had personally interacted with a tapir at AutoSafari Chapin he was incredulous. He said that at his zoo the animals could be aggressive and that no zookeeper would try go even get near one.

Yet Francois Berger showed me that his tapirs accept his presence, even when the mothers have babies. So the next time I went to his zoo I also interacted with the mother tapir. Here is the video.

Tapirs in Mayan diet

A tapir is not an animal I would seek out to eat (and not just because they are endangered). The sounds of tapir steak or barbequed tapir ribs does not get me running to the dinner table. But local people, who have no income because they are subsistence farmers or work for inadequate wages somewhere, will obviously eat a tapir if they happen upon one near a swamp.

If you look at all the zooarchaeology reports, on bone fragments uncovered in Mayan middens, you can probably find abundant evidence that tapirs were consumed by the Mayan people for thousands of years.

Tapirs in Mayan mythology, iconography, zooarchaeology
would be good study for BA or MA thesis

For a PhD, one should tackle more animals than just a tapir, but for a BA or MA thesis, studying tapirs would keep you busy, especially if you go to Tikal, Yaxha, El Mirador, Calakmul, or pertinent sites in Belize where tapirs can also be spotted nearby. Be sure to realize in advance, that these animals are not easy to find unless you focus on them.

Tapirs can also be found in Veracruz and Oaxaca (Naranjo 2009:142).

Also realize that at night pit vipers are active, so have snake venom available

And, have a team member who knows how to give the injection. And be sure you are not allergic to horse serum (which is what snake venom in the 1970’s was made of).

We kept snake venom at Yaxha in the 1970’s, but I was allergeic to horse serum, so if I were bitten, would have to use other treatments. But today I understand that other kinds of snake anti-venom are available.

One of our workers was bitten at Yaxha, several meters from me. When I opened the package of syringes, one was broken (no surprise since we hauled our equipment and supplies by vehicle from USA; so lots of opportunity for things to get mangled). I opened the backup kit and was able to administer the anti-venom.

Frankly to stick a needle in someone’s butt while they are writhing in pain from snakebite is not an easy job (especially since I had never used a needle before). So it does help to watch soap operas such as General Hospital to learn how to use a needle!

Also, learn which part of the body you should inject. In hindsight I am not sure the tail end is the ideal spot in today’s medical knowledge.

We will include in the future a list of the word for tapir in all Mayan and Mexican languages. Will be interesting to see if Highland languages (where tapirs do not roam in the wild) will have their own words or will borrow terms from Lowland Mayan languages (where tapirs exist in the wild).

Bibliography on tapirs of Mesoamerica

We are preparing a complete bibliography on tapirs of Mesoamerica for our bibliography web site, As soon as donations are available we can move forward and post our material. But in the meantime, here are two helpful articles on tapirs of the Mayan areas.

  • LINARES Palma, Adriana
  • 2009
  • Animales en espacios ceremonials: Estudio de figurillas zoomorfas en Naranjo, Guatemala. In XXII Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueologicas en Guatemala, 2008. J. P. Laporte, B Arroyo and H. Mejia, editors), pp. 986-1007. Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia, Guatemala.
  • NARANJO, Eduardo
  • 2009
  • Ecology and conservation of Baird’s tapir in Mexico. Tropical Conservation Science Vol.2 (2):140-158.
    Available online:


Posted early February 2016.

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