Credited with inventing the calendar, achieving notable advances in astronomy and agriculture, and constructing highly decorative temples that are still standing today, the ancient Mayan civilization of Mesoamerica is often said to be one of the world’s most influential cultures.
Mayan mythology is well documented in books such as the Popul Vuh (the Mayan story of creation). However, one U.S. archaeologist believes these documents contain more than just myths, and has dedicated his life to separating history from legend on each page of the sacred Mayan texts.
“In the Popul Vuh, when Hun Hunahpu is playing the ballgame, at one point he has no head – his head is cut off – and his brother goes out and makes a head out of a pumpkin,” says Nicholas Hellmuth, the founder and director of FLAAR, The Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research. “What we study is: is that true? Did they have pumpkins shaped like heads?”
In search of the answer, Hellmuth and his team embarked on a month-long field trip traveling all over Guatemala. They studied around 3,000 pumpkins, visited every pumpkin patch in the country and spoke with farmers and locals, before eventually finding what they had been looking for in the back of a truck: a pumpkin shaped like a head.
Hellmuth and his Guatemala-based team at FLAAR verify the authenticity of every mention of flora and fauna that decorate the pages of ancient Mayan books and scriptures to unearth what is mythical and what is not. They hope that the findings will assist in suggesting better diets for local people and save native species from being forcibly removed by residents who are unaware of their benefits.
According to Hellmuth, no one has ever documented the quantity of flora and fauna that FLAAR has recorded to such a detailed level before. The organization has the first ever list of all the plants used by the Mayans and has electronically categorized them, dividing them into categories of edible and non-edible plants.
“We decided we were going to make a complete list of every plant [the Mayans] ever used: whether it was for cleaning their toenails, cosmetics, eating or smoking – anything. We list them theme by theme: edible plants, edible pulp and edible flowers,” says Hellmuth.
The U.S.-born archaeologist originally came to Guatemala to work on Mayan excavations. He was part of the team that dug up the burial chamber of the Jade Jaguar King in Tikal in the 1960s, which first sparked his interest in Mayan plants.
“When I dug up the tomb, the guy was smoking tobacco – that’s a plant. There were plants in all the vessels – every vase had food in it,” explains Hellmuth.
Changing subjects as new plants start to flower, the FLAAR team works at night to capture Guatemala’s nocturnal activity and has developed new cameras and photography techniques to aid this epic mission. Findings are uploaded onto the organization’s website as items on the ‘Most Wanted’ list are gradually ticked off, giving people an insight into what Mesoamerica was like 2,000 years ago, and providing the world with one of the most extensive collections of flora and fauna every recorded.
“Finding these plants is very difficult. We were looking for magnolia for four years and we just found it, but we haven’t found it flowering. There are some plants that we haven’t been able to find anywhere in the country after four years of looking for them. But we know they are here and we will find them,” says Hellmuth.