Modern Maya, flying kites and Day of the Dead celebrations.

Volcan de Agua
Volcan de Agua (Photo by Dirk Van Tuerenhout)

In the Highlands of Guatemala, about 15 miles north of the city of Antigua, great things are about to happen on November 1st. Every year, on this day, there is a celebration known as the Feria del Barrilete Gigante, or the Giant Kite Festival. Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepéquez, the two towns located north of Antigua, are the focus of this festival.

Lake Atitlan, Guatemalan Highlands
Lake Atitlan, Guatemalan Highlands (Photo by Dirk Van Tuernhout)

The Highlands of Guatemala and neighboring Chiapas, Mexico, are exceptionally beautiful, full of history – some of it enchanting, and some extremely full of sorrow.

In preparation of the Day of the Dead, people in Latin America, and especially in Mexico and Central America, gather flowers, food, and candles. On the day itself, they bring all these items to the cemeteries to honor their loved ones. Food and prayer are the two most important components of this commemoration.

There are regional variations in the way in which these celebrations takes place. Among the living Maya in Yucatán, the Day of the Dead is known as hanal pixan “to feed the souls.” In the village of Pac Chen, Quintana Roo, the shaman starts off the proceedings by praying as he walks around an underground cooking oven, or pib. After the prayers, the food that has been cooking in the oven is moved to a small outdoor altar, decorated with brightly colored flowers.  The shaman further blesses the meal and then the food is served.

In neighboring Tabasco, the Chontal Maya go to church, pray the rosary, and burn candles and incense. At home, they prepare offerings for the dead. The men in the family place a bed of banana leaves on which they arrange food and other items in front of the permanent altar found in all homes. Chicken, tamales and turkey are offered to the ancestors, as they burn more candles and incense on the altar. Eventually, when the remembrance takes place in the cemetery, men play a central role in the ceremonies, as women are forbidden to attend.

In Guatemala, at the end of October, people set up altars with photos of the departed. Around these, they arrange an offering of water, flowers, votive candles and different kinds of food and drink: aguardiente (liquor made from sugar cane), bread, fruit and atole (a non-alcoholic drink made with water and corn flour). During the pre-dawn hours of November 1, members of the family place flowers in the doors of the house to welcome the departed souls. Then comes the rite of “dressing” the graves. The family goes to the cemetery and places flowers on the small hillocks, the last resting place of those who have gone before. They leave wreaths of wax-paper flowers at the head of the grave and then prepare the food which they will eat right there, in a symbolic breaking of bread with the dearly departed. The meal consists of fiambre, a type of Spanish stew made of meat or fish, vegetables, olives and capers; and canshul (based on regional vegetables) which the family eats by the grave.

Santiago Sacatepequez Kite Festival
Santiago Sacatepequez Kite Festival.

The regional specialty of Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepéquez is that they fly kites. A tradition going back more than a century, some of these span 40 feet and are contraptions made of lashed bamboo and vibrant tissue paper held together with gallons of glue. The smaller ones are made of corn stalks and twine.

Maya women elected queens for the Day of the Dead celebrations
Maya women, elected queens for the Day of the Dead celebrations.

It takes a whole village to build these kites. Men travel to the south coast of Guatemala to collect canes for spars; wire and rope hold the kites together. Groups of Sumpango residents collaborate to make each kite. The standard size 10-foot kite takes up to 15 people up to a month and a half to design, create, and assemble, depending on how complicated the design is.

The kites serve as a means to communicate with the deceased, while at the same time also operating as a filter – removing any bad vibes that might exist in the cemeteries.

Gathering around the tombs of loved ones
Inhabitants of Santiago Sacatepequez gathering around
the tombs of their loved ones.

These kites with their vibrant colors, dashing through the sky above the cemeteries add an extra dimension to the gathering of the families around the tombs of their loved ones. An eyewitness account described the experience as follows:

“As the morning wore on, a team of boys and men tested the wind. They grasped a long rope attached to an 8-foot kite and ran into the gusting breeze. Spectators created a narrow corridor as the kite runners raced to pull their creation aloft before they ran into a wall – literally. With a final tug, the brightly colored disk rose steadily, then swooped down close to the heads of the crowd before sailing up again. The fickle winds couldn’t always hold the swerving kites, and they would come plunging down and scatter the crowds. More teams pulled their kites into the air in the afternoon. Some were all-women teams in traditional dress. Others were made up of children or students. Ropes got tangled and shouts went up as a kite dive-bombed.”

One can get a good feel for the excitement that runs through the crowd when some of the giant kites catch the winds and stand upright, by watching – and listening to – the following video.

At the end of the day, kites that were torn by the winds are burned inside the cemetery. The surviving kites are exhibited in the local Catholic Church during a novena for the deceased. Then they are burned, and the ashes are buried in the cemetery, completing the annual ritual for the Day of the Dead in Santiago Sacatepéquez. With the outside world discovering this wonderful festival, and with up to 15,000 international visitors descending to these two cemeteries, some of the kites are now sold to these visitors. This leaves the local Maya both delighted (as this generates extra income) and puzzled as to why one would want to acquire them (as these kites act as filters to remove negative sentiments from the cemeteries) (J. Maxwell, personal communication, February 16, 2011).

I referred earlier to the tradition of kite flying going back more than a century. I am basing this primarily on the observation of the texts written on the kites as shown in the photographs above. This chronology is echoed in some sources. However, it should be noted that some sources peg the origins of the giant kites to the 1940s.

The hanal pixan ceremony mentioned earlier, while occurring on the days of the Day of the Dead celebrations in the Catholic liturgical calendar, has its roots in pre-Columbian ancestor veneration.

Redfield and Rojas (1934) studied the Maya village of Chan Kom including their beliefs in the afterworld, and their burial customs. They reported that the Maya believed in demons, okol pixan, who would waylay a person’s soul the moment it left the body on its way to paradise. To prevent this from happening, the Chan Kom Maya employed a maestro cantor to recite prayers, thus keeping these “soul thieves” at bay. Diego de Landa mentioned the existence – in the 16th century – of demons that swooped in to abduct the soul of the deceased. Scholars wonder if these 16th century demons might be the okol pixan of early 20th century Yucatán. The same Chan Kom Maya were also convinced that animals, rather than humans, were able to see human souls attempting to leave the body, moments before death. Thus, when dogs barked all night, they were convinced that a death was imminent. A soul returned to its home for up to seven days after death. During this period, a house should not be cleaned, as the deceased is thought to return to collect what is his or hers, especially its sins so that it can be judged in the afterworld.

Sometimes souls are stuck. When a person dies a violent death, either by accident or by murder, they are trapped in the place where the person died. This sometimes means that the souls are caught under a rock or in a tree until they are liberated (by someone moving a stone, for example). The sounds made by trees during windy weather are seen as signs of these trapped souls.

Customs observed during the early Colonial period by Diego de Landa reflected the customs in place during the final portion of the Late Postclassic period, just before the arrival of the Spaniards. de Landa described how among the upper echelons of the elite, the custom was to cremate the remains, rather than bury them. The ashes were then placed in great ceramic burial urns. As far as the “regular” elite were concerned, their ashes were placed in wooden statues, which were then kept and venerated. We see here in both cases clear attempts to keep the remains of the deceased in order to pray to them later.

We learn that among the upper crust, there was a firm belief and desire that the statues resemble the appearance of the deceased, especially the facial features. Moreover, these statues were brought out during ceremonies when people wanted to appease the souls of the deceased. People shared meals during such ceremonies and offered food to the statues (Tozzer, 1941:131).

The customs described above are recent examples of Maya people honoring the dead. What do we know about the pre-Columbian roots of these customs? As far as I know, there is no evidence of pre-Columbian Maya flying kites. In one instance, Tozzer (1941:131, n. 612-613) provides us with an answer dating back to pre-European times. Archaeologists found wooden statues and human skulls painted and modified to look lifelike at the site of Chichen Itza in northern Yucatán. It is tempting to see in the statues seen by Tozzer the most recent descendants of the pre-Columbian statues.

The ancient Maya also honored their dead by burying their dead underneath the floors of their dwellings. There is good evidence that after an interment the house and its contents was burned to the ground and a new house was then constructed on top of it. Such acts of destruction and reconstruction, acts of rebirth and renewal, correspond with the cyclical view of life and nature that the Maya held. Predictably, the tombs of the rich and powerful were separately built affairs, filled with valuable grave goods.

The burial customs of the ancient Maya elite inform us best about ancestor worship. Temples built on top of pyramids, some of which enveloped royal tombs, were decorated with art and text referring to the ancestors of the ruling dynasty. These temples were the place where ancestor rituals took place and, as such, they constituted a portal between the world of the living and the afterworld (Foster, 2002, p. 211).

Tikal Altar 5
Tikal Altar 5.

A unique carved Maya monument allows us a fleeting glance at ancestor worship among the Classic period Maya elite. Tikal Altar 5 shows Tikal Lord Jasaw Chan K’awiil I and an unknown lord from the site of Maasal. One can see a skull and long bones depicted between them. These remains are identified as those of Lady Tuun Kaywak. The hieroglyphic text refers to an act of consecration, in conjunction with the word “knife.” The monument is dated to AD 711, a period when Tikal and Calakmul were at war. It has been suggested that we are witnessing the removal of human remains, likely an ancestor of the ruler of Tikal, for reburial at Tikal, at a moment in time when the original burial site, Maasal was threatened by Calakmul. Rather than risk the tomb of his ancestor be desecrated, the ruler of Tikal exhumed the remains and brings them back to his capital. A cranium and long bones were recovered by archaeologists near this altar (Fitzsimmons, 2009, pp. 164-165). This is a touching example of the close ties between the living and the departed, as they were felt in pre-Columbian days.

The overview provided here shows that both modern and ancient Maya honored their departed loved ones. Though the sentiments may be the same, they chose different ways to express them.

Further reading:

Fitzsimmons, James L., 2009. Death and the Classic Maya Kings. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Foster, Lynn V., 2002. Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Redfield, Robert and Alfonso Villa Rojas, 1934. Chan Kom, a Maya Village. Carnegie Institution. Publication 448, Washington, DC.

Tozzer, Alfred, 1941. Landa’s Relacion de las Coas de Yucatan: a Translation. Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Papers, 18, Harvard University.

100 years – 100 Objects: Women’s Huipil

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Dirk, the museum’s curator of anthropology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent human cultures throughout time and around the world, that we’ll be sharing here – and at – throughout the year.

guatemala-womane28099s-blouse-or-huipil-resizedContemporary Maya weavers produce some very fine, intricately designed clothing. Using a backstrap loom, which goes back to Pre-Columbian days, modern Maya continue make these women’s blouses, called huipiles.

Similar dresses with similar designs can sometimes be seen on Pre-Columbian carved stone monuments, attesting to a deep history while also illustrating that Maya culture is still very much with us.

Explore thousands of years of Native American history in the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at

Note: heat from active volcano may damage running shoes.

at the base of the volcanoRecently I went on a trip to Antigua, Guatemala and had the opportunity to go to the top of an active volcano just a short distance away from the city called Pacaya. One of the main reasons we chose to visit Antigua was the proximity to active volcanoes because ever since I saw the Ring of Fire IMAX when I was a child I have been fascinated by volcanoes and lava.

So we reserved our spot to go to the volcano and they gave us a slip of paper that told us to pack snacks, water, a flashlight (we signed up for the afternoon/night hike) and wear running shoes or hiking boots. The tour group picked us up at our hotel and we were off for our one and a half hour ride in a van packed with people on winding roads – for a girl like me who gets a little car sick, keeping the window cracked was important on this drive.

When we arrived at the base of the volcano, we were immediately met by the children who live in the village at the base of the volcano, with hands full of walking sticks and “ponchos” telling us to buy these things from them.  The “ponchos” mostly turned out to be garbage bags but it was rainy and the thought of a long hike in the rain for those in our group who did not bring rain gear probably made garbage bags look like a reasonable idea! The children demonstrated how sturdy and good their walking sticks were and said “stick for you?” One man (pictured) did not want a stick but this little boy followed him for about the first 10 minutes of the hike. You might also note that this man was not wearing appropriate footwear – socks and sandals seem like a very bad choice on a rainy day up a volcano – but maybe that’s just me.

Our guide told us that the trip to the top of the volcano was going to be at most 1 hour and 45 minutes. The rain decided to stop a few minutes into our trip so we were able to pack up our rain gear and continue on our journey. The first hour or so of the hike was on steep, narrow dirt paths in the forest; as you can imagine it was pretty muddy after the afternoon rain. It was at this point that I knew it was going to be my fate to have very muddy pants before our ride home. With no lighting along the path the journey back down the volcano was sure to be a slippery adventure.

With about 30 minutes left in our trip up to the top we walked out of the forest and the landscape changed completely – suddenly there were no more trees or life of any kind – only black lava rocks as far as the eye could see. The path we took across was mostly made of tiny tiny rocks, which is very much like trying to climb uphill in a sandpit or on a treadmill – you use a lot of energy without making much progress. The altitude change made it harder to breathe and I kept having to take little breaks, but with a glowing river of lava in sight it was definitely no time to quit.

When we reached the top, the heat radiating from the lava beneath the thin crust of cooled lava felt a lot like the beginning of a sunburn on my skin. We used our trusty sticks to tap the surface in front of each step to be sure the crust would not crack beneath our weigh – sometimes the tap would cause a whole patch of crust to fall in – yikes! Certain cracks exposed glowing lava flowing beneath – it was incredible! I’m including some photos below but I realize now it’s pretty difficult to get the sense of the lava flowing from any of the photos – but believe me – it was an awesome experience and I would recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to see an active volcano up close. It was completely worth the wacky van ride and trying uphill journey!

A WORD OF ADVICE FOR ANYONE INTERESTED IN TAKING THIS TYPE OF JOURNEY – When we made it back to the bottom of the very muddy mountain in the dark of night (and yes, I did manage to slide down a bit of the trail on my rear end) I realized that my running shoes were a slightly different shape! The heat of the surface near the flowing lava heated the puffy layer of rubber in the soles of my shoes and as I tromped down the mountain the softened layer shifted and my shoes were newly lopsided. Perhaps hiking boots would have been a better choice. Oh well, I guess you learn something every day! Also, note that the stick you may “purchase” at the bottom of the volcano will likely be more of a “rental” when you return to the bottom and the same children who 3 hours earlier had sold you the stick will be welcoming you back to the village by saying “stick for me?” It probably wouldn’t fit in your luggage anyway.

there are a lot of rules when visiting Pacaya.

There are a lot of rules to know about when visiting Pacaya!

A diorama of the volcano and our path up to the top.  

I was laughing while sliding backwards down the slope trying to pose for this one!

look! that's real lava glowing under there!!

Look! That’s real lava glowing in there! It was very interesting to see the folds of the surface of the cooled lava flows.

one place I decided it would not be safe to step...

One spot I tapped with my walking stick and decided not to step.

This guy in our group was close enough to the river of lava to set his walking stick on fire – it was incredible!

Our guide brought a bag of marshmallows to the top and handed them out so that people could roast them over the lava.

Exploring Sri Lanka

Most people know that Sri Lanka is the post-1972 name for Ceylon, the large island off the southeast coast of India.  But most people – myself included before this trip – probably don’t know much more than that about this fascinating country and its ancient culture.  For two weeks in late September/early October, I had the chance to visit and learn more.

Our guide, Anselm de Silva

Our guide, Anselm de Silva

My three travelling companions were Paul, a herpetologist who worked for 25 years at the Houston Zoo; his wife Barbara, formerly head of the zoo’s primate section; and Lynn, who currently works in the primate section.  My interests are in plants and insects – so the trip had a broad biological orientation.  Our in-country guide was Anselm De Silva, a herpetologist and professor who has written many books about the reptiles and amphibians of Sri Lanka.  He put together quite an itinerary for us natural history geeks, taking in seasonal forest, dry forest, cloud forest, a huge botanical garden, but also some famous archeological sites, a tea picking operation and processing factory, and the bustling city of Kandy, one of the country’s former capitals.

Things I learned about Sri Lanka…one, it has an incredibly ancient (and violent) history.  We visited several ancient archeological sites, including Anuradhapura, which reminded me very much of Tikal in the Peten area of Guatemala:  both are ancient metropoli that were abandoned and subsequently covered by jungle.  Both flourished during the same (long) time period:  about 400 BC to 1000 or so AD.  Both were mainly religious sites (Buddhist and Hindu, in the case of Anuradhapura; polytheistic in the case of TIkal) with many temples and extensive living quarters for the monks and/or priests of the religious class.  The architecture, carvings, and other art work found in the two sites are amazingly similar. 

Polonnaruwa is another historical site we explored – it dates back to the time of William the Conqueror.  The nearby fortress city of Sirigira was also impressive.  Like some of their counterparts in the New World (Tikal, Palenque, etc.), these archeological sites in Sri Lanka are great for seeing wildlife.  Macaques and langurs ran about the ruins, lizards basked on the ancient brickwork, and exotic birds flew among the trees. 

Elephants bathing at Yala National Park

Elephants bathing at Yala National Park

In addition to its archeological riches, I learned that Sri Lanka has protected about 8% of its land area in 15 impressive national parks and other reserves (over 100 protected areas in all).  We visited just a few of them.  My favorite was Ruhunu or Yala, the largest park in the country, comprising over 32,000 hectares (80,000 acres) of dry forest on the southeast coast.  Visitors to Yala are only allowed to travel safari-style with a driver and guide; there are too many large and potentially dangerous animals to let people wander on their own.  It was the end of the dry season, so the shrinking water holes were the best place to see wildlife.  We had hoped to see leopards, as Yala has the highest concentration of these animals of anywhere in the world – but we missed on this one.  However, we saw dozens of elephants, axis deer, water buffalo, wild pigs, crocodiles, along with langurs and macaques, mongooses, a variety of lizards, and dozens of birds. 

Langur family

Langur family

Flying fox

Flying fox

In Bundala, another large park along the southern coast that was mostly lagoons and swamps, we saw many of the same animals but also many water birds – herons, egrets, storks, flamingos, lapwings, stilts, etc., etc.  Our best views of elephants was at Minneriya, where we watched two bull elephants in must mingle with a large herd of cows and youngsters, while in the distance a pair of jackals yipped back and forth, and spectacular Brahminy kites flew overhead.  Wild peacocks and jungle fowl (national bird of Sri Lanka – ancestor of the domesticated chicken) were everywhere in all these parks.  Flying foxes (giant fruit bats) were everywhere, hanging chittering in the trees by day, flying off en masse in the evenings.  They were spectacular!  Sadly, we noticed many caught (electrocuted) in electrical lines, especially near roost areas. 

I learned that tea, coconuts, rubber, fish, coffee, and spices are all major export crops in Sri Lanka.  We had a chance to spend a couple of days in the refreshingly cool tea-growing area in the central mountainous area.  The plantations themselves – hills covered with carefully pruned tea bushes, coral bean (Erythrina) or other trees providing some shade – looked and felt very much like the coffee-growing areas of Costa Rica’s central plateau.  However, the brightly dressed Tamil workers reminded me that this was the East and not the West. 

Tamil women

Tamil women

I also learned that Sri Lanka has a relatively high standard of living (the highest of any Asian country,according to WIkipedia) and a literacy rate of over 90% – among the  highest in the developing nations.  The country is predominantly Buddhist, but Hindus, Muslims, and Christians are also represented, and all appear to co-exist quite peacefully (the Tamil Tiger rebels are Hindu, but their rebellion is based on ethnic and economic problems, not religion).  The people we met were friendly, and I didn’t notice any who were desperately poor.  Most people spoke at least a few words of English, and there was a lot of interest in our upcoming election!  I loved the clothes – most women wore colorful saris – in all colors of the rainbow.  I saw only a few women, and only in the cities, wearing pants.  Men had a wider range of possibilities – some wore pants, others shorts, and many wore long or short sarongs.  Sandals and flipflops were the footwear of choice for both sexes.  Muslim men often wore caps on their heads, and the women covered their hair with a scarf.   


Sri Lankan breakfast fare

Sri Lankan breakfast fare

The food was good – although I did crave a bowl of cold cereal or a simple peanut butter sandwich more than once.  “Rice and curry” is eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Sri Lankans traditionally eat with their hands (the right hand only is used).  That took a little getting used to since I have been discouraged from putting my hands in my food since I was about two years old – and this was not discrete finger food, but rice and helpings of often soupy curried vegetables, or meat, or lentils, etc.   But, we managed (and sometimes broke down and ate with a fork).

Tsunami monument at former tourist lodging

Tsunami monument at former tourist lodging

Our time was short and there were things we didn’t get to do – we missed seeing the traditional dancers in Kandy, for instance.  And I would have loved to check out some of the beaches, which were fabulously beautiful, with clear blue water and pinkish sand.  Colorfully painted wooden fishing boats, and endless skeins of fishing nets, were strewn over some of them; others were completely pristine.  Although most areas have been extensively repaired, we saw some evidence of the devastating 2004 tsunami in places along the coast.  Seeing the bare foundations of houses, and hearing people’s stories, reminded us that Sri Lanka lost over 35,000 people in that disaster, with over half a million displaced – making our recent hurricane “Ike” seem benign by contrast.

Fishermen and nets near Galle
Fishermen and nets near Galle

All in all it was a very interesting visit.  If I go back, I’d like to have more time to explore on my own and get to know the people.  I’d especially want to go back to Galle, an old Dutch outpost on the southwest coast.  The colonial part of the city in particular was very picturesque.  The highland village of Ella had marvellous views and plenty of accomodations for tourists.  I would definitely want to get to Sinharaja, a rainforest preserve with many endemic plants and birds.  And I’d want to spend at least a bit of time on any of the gorgeous beaches – and do some shopping! 


Hindu temple entrance

Hindu temple entrance

Picking tea

Picking tea

Ancient temple at Anuradhapura

Ancient temple at Anuradhapura

Great Stupa at Anuradhapura

Great Stupa at Anuradhapura

Street scene in Gampola

Street scene in Gampola

Reclining Buddha (Gal Vihara) at Polonnaruwa

Reclining Buddha (Gal Vihara) at Polonnaruwa