Vulture Hacha, Maya, Cotzumalhuapa Culture

    Guatemala, Terminal Classic Period, 800–925 CE

    Vulture Hacha, Maya, Cotzumalhuapa Culture, Guatemala, Terminal Classic Period, 800–925 CE
    Stone, 11 3/4 x 9 3/8 x 1 1/8 inches (29.9 x 23.8 x 2.9 cm)
    Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Early Americas, Exploration and Navigation, Miami Dade College, MCD PC 2022.1.28

    The Mesoamerican ballgame was among the most significant and enduring features of pre-Hispanic culture, and its accompanying paraphernalia of yokes, hachas, and palmas comprise one of the most important categories of stone sculpture. These forms appear to have originated in southern Veracruz during the Late Classic period, then spread to southern Mesoamerica, specifically to areas along the Pacific Coast of Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador, as well as inland western Honduras.

    The term "hacha," Spanish for “axe,” is a misnomer. It was originally used because the form of these objects, which are relatively flat and taper down to a narrow edge, resembles that of axe heads. But while they were never used as axes, their true function remains unknown. It is possible that stone versions of hachas (as well as stone yokes and palmas) may be ceremonial versions or effigy sculptures of the lighter-weight paraphernalia made of perishable materials and used in the game. The palmas—so called for their palm-frond-like shape—may replicate lightweight gear worn over the chest during the ballgame. Stone hachas and palmas may also have been markers for the game or trophies.

    Hachas are carved in a variety of forms, including human heads, animals, and abstract ritual objects. In this hacha, identical carving on each side depicts a vulture’s head, with a small perforation at the beak, an indentation for the eye that may have held a piece of inlaid shell, obsidian, or stone, and a larger perforation at the top of the cranium. It is possible that this latter perforation represents the suspension hole that would have been required for real skulls to have been worn as parts of ceremonial costumes. The bold and assured carving ranges from deeply incised to a fluid low relief. This style of carving, as well as the abstraction of this hacha, is characteristic of Cotzumalhuapa, a mysterious and little-known culture on the Pacific coast of southern Guatemala. Thousands of years ago, the Cotzumalhuapa culture carved and raised hundreds of stone stelae and sculptures.

    The vulture was an important creature of symbolic and ritual value for the Maya. All living species of New World vultures and condors are scavengers. Strong powerful birds known as “garbage” eaters, they are indispensable to daily life. The American black vulture and the king vulture appear in a variety of Maya hieroglyphs in Mayan codices. The king vulture is one of the most common species of birds in the codices and its glyph is easily distinguishable by the knob on the bird's beak and by the concentric circles that represent the bird's eyes. Ancient Mayan culture considered that the vulture, by consuming the dead, cleans the earth, thereby renewing and transforming it.

    Photos by Lynton Gardiner. © Kislak Center at MDC.