Archive for the 'Central American Tribes/Cultures/Countries' Category

Object: Witchcraft Papers

Figures 1 and 2: Handcrafted Otomí paper made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree and the fig tree, respectively. From the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

E/1967/16/001, E/1967/16/002
Witchcraft Papers
San Pablito, Sierra de Puebla, Mexico
Unknown date: Likely produced before March 1963
Materials: Inner bark of fig & mulberry trees

When entering the small town of San Pablito, inhabited primarily by the Otomí people of Sierra de Puebla, Mexico, a distinctive clapping sound can be heard from a good distance away – the sound of Otomí women handcrafting paper. The samples stored in the Ethnology Collection at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History were crafted from the inner bark of fig and mulberry trees. Otomí women boil the inner bark in ash water, place the boiled fibers on a wooden board, hammer them into thin sheets, and leave them out to dry until they can be peeled off and used. [1] These samples in the Ethnology Collection only represent the earliest stages in the lifespan of one of these Otomí papers, however. The Otomí have a well-established tradition of crafting these papers into intricate dolls and effigies for a variety of purposes, ranging from sacrificial offerings to gods, to devices of sorcery and witchcraft.


Although they vary greatly in terms of design and purpose, Otomí dolls crafted from this paper are generally either “good” invocations or employed in various practices of black magic. These two types of dolls are readily distinguishable by their physical appearance, the figures or deities they represent, and their use in various circumstances by the Otomí.

The first type of doll, crafted from the inner bark of the fig tree, is marked by its light hue and used to primarily invoke protection and favor from the spirits. The Otomí believe that a wide variety of spirits control the natural world and every conceivable aspect of life. To win the favor of these spirits, the Otomí engage in a variety of ceremonies often culminating in the offering of paper dolls representing these deities. To placate the Spirit of the Rain (known as the Siren among the Otomí) and ensure proper weather for their crops, the Otomí embark on a pilgrimage to a lagoon where the Siren resides and engage in two days of feasting and celebrating. This ceremony culminates with the Otomí making an offering of foodstuffs, candles, cigarettes, and white paper dolls sprinkled with blood by throwing them into the waters or burying them on the shores of the lagoon. [1] Other figures commonly represented using this form of paper are Pajarito de Estrella (Little Star Bird) and Pajarito de Dos Cabezas (Little Bird with Two Heads.) These dolls represent intermediary figures, spirits that act as messengers between the Otomí and the spirit world. [2] Perhaps the Otomí constructed these figures to serve as offerings to these messengers, ensuring the continued communication between the Otomí and the many spirits they strive to please through their ceremonies.

Additionally, the Otomí craft these light paper dolls to procure protection and aid in a variety of life challenges. A man going to trial for a crime may carry a light doll with its lips sewn shut to prevent the judge from declaring a sentence for him. In other scenarios, a medicine man will craft two light dolls with their arms around each other for a woman whose husband has left her. In what is known as a love ceremony, the medicine man will pass the dolls through the fumes of burning incense and exhale into the dolls’ mouths before giving them to the woman. He will then tell her to follow a variety of instructions, such as to burn a candle before the dolls every day and to take them to bed with her at night in order to ensure that her husband will return to her. [1] The Otomí also buried their dead with these white paper dolls to protect them for whatever lay beyond death. [1] Interestingly, a large number of these light dolls were animal-headed effigies, constructed only for women who had died in abortion; it remains unclear as to why so many of these dolls were made, although it can be speculated that they were buried with and used to provide spiritual protection for these deceased women. [2]

The other variety of Otomí paper doll, constructed from brown paper made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree, primarily sees use in a variety of practices related to witchcraft and sorcery. In particular, the Otomí believe that illnesses are caused by a curse being cast on them, causing an evil spirit to take possession of their bodies; medicine men craft these brown paper dolls in order to cure the ill and cast a curse on the person believed to have originally inflicted the illness. [1] The brown dolls used for curing illness may take on the form of an evil spirit (i.e., the person afflicted by the curse) with the spirit of another evil person attached (representing the person who cast the curse.) [2] When casting a curse or hex, the Otomí bury a brown paper doll pierced by a thorn of Vachellia Cornigera (commonly known as Bullhorn Acacia or Bull’s Horn Acacia), alongside an object from the intended target, such as a lock of hair or a photograph. As such, many Otomí prefer not to have photos taken of them, as they provide the photographer with the ability to inflict a curse. [1]

Even though the two pieces of handcrafted Otomí paper in the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History seem like simple objects, they can actually tell us a great deal about the Otomí people and their beliefs.

[Daniel Quintela]

 Works Cited:

[1] Christensen, Bodil. “Bark Paper and Witchcraft in Indian Mexico.” Economic Botany 17.4 (1963): 361-67. Springer Link. Springer International Publishing. Web. 11 Apr. 2016. <>.

[2] National Museum of the American Indian, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2016. <®id=43&culid=373&src=1-1&page=1>. Otomí collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

Object: Maya Mask

Figure 1    Maya "Wolf" Mask from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Figure 1 Maya “Wolf” Mask from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Cakchiquel (Kakchiquel) Maya
Chimaltenango: San Andrés Itzapa, Guatemala
Materials: Painted wood

This wooden face mask has been painted red, with green polka dots, black eyes, and black and white detail behind the ears. This particular mask shows a face with an open mouth displaying carved wooden teeth. The eyes of the mask have been made by carving holes and surrounding the eyes with black paint. The eyebrows are also painted black, and the ears are carved and painted just above the eyebrows. On the sides of the mask are wooden flaps painted black and white, a striking color difference from the mostly red background and spotted green on the rest of the mask. On the forehead of the mask, there is a small hole, probably for hanging the mask.

The mask is sized to fit on a human face. It is 8 ¾ inches long, 7 inches wide, and 4 ¼ inches thick. It was accessioned into the Sam Noble Museum’s Ethnology Collection with only a few scratches in the paint on the nose, forehead, and ears – overall, in good condition. When accessioned, it was determined that the animalistic features on the mask were meant to resemble a wolf. It seems like an unsuitable animal inspiration for the Chimaltenango region of Guatemala (where wolves are not native), possibly meaning that it takes its likeness from another predator.

Instead of a wolf, which does not live in the region this mask was made, the mask may actually be meant to resemble a jaguar. Jaguars have always had important significance to Maya culture, playing an integral role in the Maya creation story. Many successful Maya kings and leaders were known for having the same feline characteristics associated with the jaguar. The jaguar is often the symbol for life and fertility. It is also seen as existing outside of the human realm, giving it associations with the underworld. In the Chimaltenango region specifically, jaguars can be black or yellow with black spots. While the mask in the Ethnology Collection at the Sam Noble Museum is red with green spots, the jaguar seems like a more likely option for inspiration than the wolf.

In order to understand why these seemingly odd paint choices might have been made, it is useful to look at the significance of these colors in Maya culture. Traditionally, red and black were popular in Maya cave art. Red pigment was originally made from the red clay dirt found in or near the caves themselves. In ancient times, Maya temples were painted in red and white colors. The red, white, and black paint on this contemporary mask follow along with this long-standing tradition.

Without speaking directly to the artist, of course, the intentions and inspirations behind this particular mask cannot be known for certain. However, it seems safe to say the original identification of the mask as “wolf-like” is most likely incorrect. Because this mask follows Maya tradition in paint colors, it seems more likely that the artist chose the more traditional jaguar native to the Chimaltenango region to inspire this mask.

[Caitlin Doepfner]

More sources:

Fischer, Edward F., and R. McKenna Brown. 1996. Maya Cultural Activism in Guatemala. Austin: University of Texas Press.

National Geographic. N.d. Jaquar: Panthera Onca. National Geographic. Accessed February 15, 2015.

Lovgren, Stefan. 2004. Masks, Other Finds Suggest Early Maya Flourished. National Geographic. Accessed June 16, 2015.



Object: Spindle and Spindle Whorl

Spindle with Spindle Whorl Weight
Mazatec – Popoloca Indians
Central America: Mexico
Unknown age
Materials: Wood and Clay

This object is a spindle and spindle whorl weight that was used either by the Mazatec or Popoloca Indians from southern Mexico. It is small, only 12 inches long by 1.25 inches in diameter at its largest point. The spindle, or the long thin shaft, is made of wood while the round spindle whorl weight is made of clay. The spindle is tapered on both ends to a narrow point, and the dark brown wood is polished from much use. The clay weight was either molded or machine drilled and also has a polished surface.

Figure 2    Image of a woman spinning painted on a Greek vase
Figure 2 Image of a woman spinning painted on an ancient Greek vase

The history of spindles and spinning is a fascinating one, beginning at least 10,000 years ago. All around the world, as long as people have been able to spin plant fibers such as wool, flax and cotton, they have been able to create a wide range of useful and decorative textiles such as clothing, blankets, rugs, bags, etc. Hand spindles, such as this one from the Ethnology Department, have been used since ancient times to twist fibers into yarn that can then be woven, knitted, sewn or otherwise turned into a useful object. This type of spindle is known as a support spindle because it is set on a flat surface and spun like a top. Thread is created by pulling the fibers away from the spinning object and then letting the thread gradually wind onto the spindle.

Spindles have been used for thousands of years all around the world from places like Africa and Asia to Europe, North America and South America (among many others). This includes the Popoloca and Mazatec Indians of southern Mexico. The Popoloca Indians reside in the state of Puebla while the Mazatec Indians reside in the nearby state of Oaxaca. Both the Popoloca and the Mazatec are predominately agricultural peoples, relying on crops like maize (corn), beans, squash, and chilies, supplemented by grains and fruit. Settlements are loosely organized around village centers. Rectangular houses are typically built of vertically placed poles covered with thatched roofs, although sometimes mud bricks are also used. Crafts such as weaving and pottery were once much more common among these people, but such traditional crafts are becoming scarce, with their products replaced by commercially-made goods. Using objects such as this spindle and spindle whorl weight to spin thread and yarn is increasingly becoming a thing of the past for many indigenous cultures of Central America.

To see an example of how a supported spindle works, take a look at this useful video:

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

Object: Shirt

Shirt or Huipil
Chuj Maya
ca. 1945
Materials: Cotton

This shirt, or huipil, from the Sam Noble Museum collection was made by an unknown member of the Chuj Maya community of Guatemala. Chuj is a language belonging to Q’anjobalan-Chujean family of Mayan languages. There are five branches in the Mayan language family, namely, Cholan-Tzeltalan, Huastecan, Q’anjobalan-Chujean, Quichean-Mamean, and Yucatecan. The Chuj language is spoken by many people in Guatemala and Mexico today. In Guatemala, most Chuj live in the department of Huehuetenango. Huehuetenango is one of Guatemala’s largest departments and is located along the Sierra de Los Cuchamatanes mountain range. This shirt is believed to have come from San Mateo Ixtatá, one of the two main Chuj communities in the region.

The huipil is a traditional Mayan garment, usually made of one or two pieces of hand woven cloth that is heavily decorated with embroidery around the neck. The designs used on huipiles are usually specific to the maker’s community and combine elements of Precolumbian and European styles. The influence of modern western-style clothing on traditional Mayan garments can be seen in this huipil’s fabric. Rather than being woven on a traditional backstrap or treadle loom, the fabric for this shirt is commercially produced muslin.

The following video shows a woman using a traditional backstrap loom.

[Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Dresden Codex Copy

Copy of Dresden Codex
Jorge Enrique Bonilla Mendez (this copy)
Maya (original)
Yucatan, Mexico (original)
ca. 11th -13th century (original) / ca. 1960s (this copy)
Materials: Wood, paper, & ink

This object is a handmade copy of the Dresden Codex, made by Guatemalan artist Jorge Enrique Bonilla Mendez in the 1960’s. The original Dresden Codex is one of the oldest known books written in the Americas and may have been a copy of an even earlier text dating back to 700-900 CE. Considered to be the most complete of the Mayan codices still in existence, it contains ancient Mayan almanacs, astronomical observations, astrological tables, ritual schedules, and calendars. The 74 page book know referred to as the Dresden Codex is named for the European city in which it was kept from the 1700’s onward. Little is known about how the so-called Dresden Codex made it to Europe, but it may have been one of a group of ancient texts collected by Hernán (or Hernando) Cortés in the early 1500’s. The first known record of its existence came in 1739 when it was purchased (in three pieces) from an unknown private collector by Johann Christian Götze, the Director of the Royal Library at Dresden. Next, in 1810 Alexander von Humboldt published a portion of the text (the first modern reproduction) in his Vues des cordilleres et monuments des peuples indigenous de l’Amerique. In 1829 Constantine Rafinesque-Schmaltz was the first to identify it as a Mayan codex, and in 1880 Ernst Forstemann was able to correctly reassemble the three sections of text. Translation and interpretation of the text has continued to this day, including a much hyped end of the world prediction loosely (and most would say incorrectly) based on Mayan calendars like those found in the Dresden Codex.

The following video excerpt describes the ongoing process of translating ancient Mayan texts. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Drum incense burner

Drum incense burner
Mexico: Chiapas
ca. 1970
Materials: ceramic, leather, plant fibers, wood

The Lacandone (or Lacandon) people of the Chiapas region of Mexico are one of the remaining tribes of Maya Indians, and are considered by some, to be the most traditional Mayan group remaining. This group of Maya live exclusively in the Laconadon rain forest of southern Mexico. In 1978 the Mexican government declared approximately 600,000 hectares of Lacandon forest a “protected zone,” and gave the land to the Lacandone people. Roughly half of this protected area is known as Montes Azules (Blue Woodlands) and is one of the largest remaining tropical rainforests in Central America. Traditionally the Lacandone engaged in a sustainable slash-and-burn form of agriculture that would utilize small areas of the forest for subsistence crops and then allow the field to remain fallow for a number of years before being returned to use. The Lacandone would supplement their diet with hunting, fishing, and gathering.

Incense plays a large part in traditional Lacandone religion, and this drum shaped incense burner was likely meant to be used as part of a Lacandone ceremony. The Lacandone worship a number of deities, many of which have their roots in ancient Maya tradition. Religious ceremonies can take place at a number of sacred sites, including natural caves, Mayan ruins, and in small house-like structures within the villages called “god houses.” These ceremonies traditionally included offerings of food and/or drink to the deities and the burning of copal incense. The incense, made of tree resins, is burned in special pottery vessels called “god pots.” These incense burners are shaped like a simple round bowl with a large human-like face modeled on the rim. While the faces of these pots are all very similar, the pots are often painted with specific colors and patterns to indicate that the pot is a representation of a specific deity.

Other examples of Lacandone pottery can be found at Williams College Museum of Art, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Milwaukee Public Museum, and others.

The following video shows a Lacandone drum similar the one at the Sam Noble Museum being used. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Jar

Raramuri (Tarahumara)
Mexico: Sierra Madre
Occidental or Copper Canyon
Date unknown
Materials: Ceramic & slip

This water storage jar was made by the Raramuri (Tarahumara) people of northwestern Mexico. The name Raramuri means “foot-runner” or “he who walks well” and this tribal group is renowned for their long distance running and hiking abilities. The Raramuri came to live in the remote canyons and mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental after encountering Spanish settlers in their previous homelands in the Chihuahua region of Mexico during the 16th-18th centuries. Their first contact with the Spaniards was with the Jesuit missionaries around 1607. In addition to religion, the missionaries also brought new agricultural techniques such as irrigation, the plow and the axe to the Raramuri. During the 17th century silver was discovered on Raramuri lands and much of their territory was confiscated and many of the Raramuri were captured to serve as forced laborers in the mines. This caused the tribe to move deeper into the mountainous areas of the Sierra Madre Occidental, where they made an effort to avoid further outside contact. The Raramuri are primarily farmers specialized in raising corn, goats, cattle, beans, potatoes, and apples but are also expert hunters. In modern times they have also begun selling their pottery, drums and baskets in the tourist trade.

The following video shows how the Raramuri live today.

© Arizona State Museum

Pottery has been used by the Raramuri for many years as everyday storage and cooking containers and is often used in their religious rituals as well. Pottery vessels are also particularly important to the Raramuri for the brewing of tesguino, a corn-based beer that is brewed in ceramic jars. Raramuri pottery historically was unpainted and decorated primarily with attached leather and rawhide. Today painted pottery is becoming more common as a part of the tourist trade. The “paint”, a type of thin mineral slip, is obtained from red ochre, iron oxide or hematite and applied by hand or using a feather or cloth-wrapped stick as a brush. The pottery is hand made by coiling a thin rope of clay on top of itself into the desired shape. The surface is then smoothed and the coils are fused together using a piece of gourd, stone or wood. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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