Maya Medicine

Tikal Lord presents offering in vessel to Itzam'ná and Ixch'el The Medicine gods

Medicine among the ancient Mayas was a blend of religion and science. It was practiced by priests who inherited their position and received extensive education. The Mayas sutured wounds with human hair, reduced fractures, and used casts. They were skillful dental surgeons and made prostheses from jade and turquoise and filled teeth with iron pyrite. Three clinical diseases, pinta, leishmaniasis, and yellow fever, and several psychiatric syndromes were described. Weiss argues for the presence of "supra-inial lesions" in Guatemala (Weiss 1967, 1981). The ancient Maya  perceived health as “balance,” whereas illness and disease were “imbalance.” Balance, however, was influenced by season and varied by age, gender, personality and exposure to environmental temperature extremes. A central medical-related theme held that balance was effected favorably or adversely by diet.

Dwarf  figurine from Tikal

According to the skeletal evidence, the first technique to be employed in skull opening was abrasion, which was combined later with drilling and cutting,

“Supra-inial lesion” in the occiput of an artificially shaped skull from Zaculeu

Traditional trepanation’s consequences vary from the immediate death of the patient to his short or long-term survival, and the signatures it leaves range from orifices of different shapes and sizes to healed traces of the procedure. These marks are what anthropologists study to interpret or infer bio-cultural patterns and practices. Evidence of cut and perforated skull vaults are known from many parts of Mesoamerica.

The Maya use their medicine in different ways. They used instruments made of bone, obsidian, leather (for enemas). Plants provide one way for gaining this understanding of the medicine. We also have several names in Maya for what might be called specialties in medicine. Each name works directly with a specific part of our body,
and sometimes refers to the mind as well. The Maya had a primary understanding that the medicine had a connection with calendars, astronomy and with astrology. ‘In Maya  the name, " Xiu"  is the name of the plants.  " X Xiu" ,  means that the woman knows how to use the plants.  " Ha Xiu" ,  refers to the man knowing how to use the medicine of the plants.

In Maya  the name, " MEN"  refers to the process of the mind. This would be linked to today's practices of psychology or psychiatry. The ancient people understood that the mind was very important, and they placed great emphasis in their approach to medicine on the connection of the mind and the body. By definition, a reference to the mind indicated our connection to the spirit. Body and spirit were not separated in any medical considerations. Again, " X Men"  is defined as the process of the mind that the woman knows how to work, and " Ha Men"  refers to the process of the mind that the man knows how to work.

Another word in Maya that is very important  is the word, " PUL YAH" . By definition " PUL"  means to take, and " YAH"  refers to pain. The " Pul Yah"  might be linked to the healer removing physical ailments at the point at which they manifest.

The Maya  practiced the "UAY" . It addresses illness at its most primary stage. "UAY" tells us that some forms of illness can be detected as a disturbance in the inner person. For the woman this practice is called "X Uay" , and for the man it is called "Ha Uay" . It will be the equivalent to Hypochondriacs, and one should intervene in the healing

Enema scene Petén Lowlands

Holistic by its very nature, Mayan medicine is classified as a medico-religious healing tradition. It takes into account not only the physical ills of the body but the effects of the spirit attitudes toward life and living, emotions such as grief, depression, anger, fright, etc. and recognizes how intertwined they are.  Fundamental to the medicine of the Maya is the concept of "life force" or ch'ulel and is the first of the six principles of Mayan medicine. This life force is everywhere and permeates everything, mountains, rivers, houses, plants, people and is said to be from a divine, spiritual source.  Ch'ulel binds everyone and everything together. It is a main goal for the Mayan healer to balance the flow of ch'ulel in the body. Mayan healers also maintain that praying directs ch'ulel to where it is needed.

The second principle of Mayan medicine is that there is no separation between the body and the soul, between the physical and spiritual realms. Ch'ulel means everything is interwoven and interconnected, that the physical and spiritual are only different ends of a continuum. It also means that medicine is actually all around us! Within this continuum are also spirits who can help in healing.

The third principle is the recognition of natural cycles and the veneration of plants. Mayan healers talk with (as opposed to just talking to) plants, as do many herbalists in other traditions. The healer is chosen by certain plants and they develop a very special relationship. These particular plants then especially aid the healer in treating the sick, particularly in difficult cases.

The fourth principle recognizes that healing is an integrative, comprehensive approach, with everybody, including the healer, the patient, spirits, plants, etc.  working together to bring about the healing. There is no single component more important than the other, and especially important is prayer.

Middle Preclassic Figurine representing Blindness from
La Blanca Pacific Lowlands.

The fifth principle is the status of the blood. It also helps distinguish between illnesses that are of physical versus spiritual (emotional) origin and determines the consequent direction of treatment.

The sixth principle is that of hot and cold. The concept of hot and cold applies equally to illnesses, foods, and plants. Fevers, diarrhea, and vomiting are example of "hot" diseases while cramps, constipation, and paralysis are examples of "cold" ones. Hot foods can be garlic, onions, pepper, and ginger while cold foods would include cheese, for example.

But the concept of hot and cold is most important in choosing plants to use in treatment in as much as "hot" plants treat "cold" illnesses and vice versa. Mayan healers maintained that many illnesses are a result of quick temperature changes, such as drinking "cold" drinks with "hot" foods. This can cause a shock to the system and result in gastrointestinal problems.

Honey:  The stingless bees Melipona beecheii and M. yucatanica were the only native bees cultured to any degree in the Americas. They were extensively cultured by the Maya for honey, and regarded as sacred. Mayan Priests harvested honey twice a year to create a meade for medicinal healing ceremonies. These bees are endangered due to massive deforestation, altered agricultural practices (especially insecticides), and changing beekeeping practices with the arrival of the Africanized honey bee, which produces much greater honey crops.


Native meliponines (Melipona beecheii being the favorite) have been kept by the lowland Maya for thousands of years. The traditional Mayan name for this bee is Xunan kab, literally meaning "royal lady". The bees were once the subject of religious ceremonies and were a symbol of the bee-god Ah-Muzen-Cab, who is known from the Madrid Codex.

The bees were, and still are, treated as pets. Families would have one or many log-hives hanging in and around their house. Although they are stingless, the bees do bite and can leave welts similar to a mosquito bite. The traditional way to gather bees, still favored amongst the locals, is find a wild hive; then the branch is cut around the hive to create a portable log, enclosing the colony. This log is then capped on both ends with another piece of wood or pottery and sealed with mud. This clever method keeps the melipine bees from mixing their brood, pollen, and honey in the same comb as the European bees. The brood is kept in the middle of the hive, and the honey is stored in vertical "pots" on the outer edges of the hive. A temporary, replaceable cap at the end of the log allows for easy access to the honey while doing minimal damage to the hive. However, inexperienced handlers can still do irreversible damage to a hive, causing the hive to swarm and abscond from the log. On the other hand, with proper maintenance, hives have been recorded as lasting over 80 years, being passed down through generations. In the archaeological record of Mesoamerica, stone discs have been found which are generally considered to be the caps of long-disintegrated logs which once housed the beehives.

Plants:  The medicinal use of cacao, or chocolate, both as a primary remedy and as a vehicle to deliver other herbal medicines have been documented since the Preclassic. Three consistent roles can be identified: 1) to treat emaciated patients to gain weight; 2) to stimulate nervous systems of apathetic, exhausted or feeble patients; and 3) to improve digestion and elimination where cacao/chocolate countered the effects of stagnant or weak stomachs, stimulated kidneys and improved bowel function. Additional medical complaints treated with chocolate/cacao have included anemia, poor appetite, mental fatigue, poor breast milk production, consumption/tuberculosis, fever, gout, kidney stones, reduced longevity and poor sexual appetite/low virility. Chocolate paste was a medium used to administer drugs and to counter the taste of bitter pharmacological additives. In addition to cacao beans, preparations of cacao bark, oil (cacao butter), leaves and flowers have been used to treat burns, bowel dysfunction, cuts and skin irritations.

The various illnesses were provided names and causal origins presumed, sometimes attributed to the body/spirit of birds (i.e., the red mo-macaw) associated with specific trees. At the conclusion of chants to cure skin eruptions, fever and seizures, a bowl of chacah (i.e., medicinal chocolate) that contained two peppers, honey and tobacco juice, was drunk by the patients. When the cacao was combined with liquid from the bark of the silk cotton tree (Castilla elastica), it was said to cure infections, To relieve fever and faintness the prescription called for 8–10 cacao beans to be ground with dried maize kernels and blended with stalky cornsilk flower (Calliandra anomala); then, the mixture was drunk. More than 100 plants have been documented, including the avocado, almond and zapote trees, and herbs such as kalawala (Lycopodium), now in use for autoimmune diseases, chamomile, aloe and lettuce. The Mayan pharmacopoeia revealed that tissues of Chilli (Capsicum sp. a Solanaceae), are included in a number of herbal remedies for a variety of ailments of probable microbial origin. In a 1996 a scientific study in Ohio demonstrated that: The plain and heated extracts were found to exhibit varying degrees of inhibition against Bacillus cereus, Bacillus subtilis, Clostridium sporogenes, Clostridium tetani, and Streptococcus pyogenes. (Cichewicz RH, Thorpe PA in J Ethnopharmacol. 1996 Jun;52(2):61-70).

  A variety of drugs and alcoholic beverages (Balché) were used in medicine and religious ceremonies. Drunkenness was connected with the wide-spread practice of divination, a ritual act designed to allow direct communication with certain supernatural forces such that an individual could foretell the future or understand due causes for events or illness not otherwise understood. A drunken state was supposed to give one the insight to interpret the reasons for illness, misfortune, adverse weather, and so forth. The Balché was made with the bark of the tree with the same name (Lonchocarpus longistylus Pittier) and honey. Wild tobacco (Nicotiana rustica), that is stronger than the domestic and could be hallucinogen,  and other species of plants were smoked or administered in enemas to induce a trance-like state, (ingesting psychoactive drugs anally produces a more powerful and instantaneous reaction than drugs taken orally).

Enema Figurine, Escuintla

Some mushrooms names clearly indicate their use, such as one type called "k'aizalah okox," the "lost judgment mushroom" (Psilocybe cubens). There is evidence the Maya used the seeds of The Morning Glory or "Quiebracajete" (Ipomoea violacea) and another very similar plant (Rivera corymbosa), along with Balché,  to achieve a trance-like state connected with divination. The Morning glory is 5 times stronger than the R. corymbosa, and they have 6 ergotamine alkaloids. Easily the most entertaining device for altering the mind was due to the large tropical Wad tod, (Bufo marinus). Used to deter would-be predators, the compound was extracted by the Maya and taken in measured doses to transport their minds to another level of thinking and communicate with their "Way". The Spaniards reported that Mayas added tobacco or toad skins to their alcoholic beverages to give it an added kick. The Peyote Cactus (Lophophora wiliamsii), known in Central America as "Aguacolla" was also used.  The Spaniards priest describe it's use both, medicinally and ceremonially, for many ills and that when intoxicated with the cactus (Mescaline, related with LSD), the user saw "horrible visions". The Angel's trumpet or "Florifundia" (Brugmansia arborea) is a psychoactive plant, was also used in ceremonies and as an sleep aid. The Water Lilly (Nymphaea ampla) found in Lakes and Lagoons in Guatemala, also was smoked due to the hallucinogen characteristics' of its bulbs and roots. The Devil's trumpet or "Vuelveteloco" (Datura Candida), was also used, this plants contain hiosciamine and scopolamine. All these substances could be involved in the Bloodletting rituals, to kill the pain, and a better communication with the gods.

Massage:  Maya abdominal massage for women was reported to help alleviate common problems such as menstrual cramps, menopause, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and to correct infertility.8 This aspect of traditional Maya medicine is still practiced in parts of Mesoamerica today. It is evident from these few examples that massage has had a significant place in traditional Maya health, practices from ancient times to the present. It also was used in conjunction with sweatbaths, or “pib' nah” and “zumpul-che´,” defined as  a bath for women after childbirth and for sick persons used to cast out disease in their bodies as it was in many other cultures. Ailments treated by sweatbaths included certain fevers, poisonous stings or bites and rheumatism. Sweatbaths were used for purifying the body and ridding it of unhealthy “humours.” Maya bonesetters in Guatemala are called hueseros, compone huesos, componedores de hueso, or sometimes sobadores (i.e., a term also used for massage specialist). It is interesting to note that archeologists have found skeletons from the Pre- Columbian era with bones that apparently had been broken, realigned and healed, all of which indicate skill in treatment. Two different approaches to bone setting have been found in the central Guatemalan highlands.

The Kaq'chik'el Maya bonesetters believe that they have an innate ability, and that their hands “act of their own accord in locating problem areas.” These bonesetters rely on their hands to guide them in diagnosing and treating injuries; a combination of experience and intuition were used. First the bonesetter listens to the person’s story, then looks for deformity, reddening, edema and bruising to determine the type and location of the injury. They also may check range of motion in the area. A lubricant is applied so that their hands can glide smoothly over the area, pressing and looking for signs of tenderness. The person might have a golpe or deep bruise, a zafadura or sprain, a dislocation or a fracture. In many cases, massage and limb movement are the main treatment. In cases of fracture, skillful bonesetters will use traction, pressure and immobilization to reset the bone. Their approach is practical and non-supernatural.

Tzu'tuhil' Bonesetters in San Pedro Atitlán represent a different approach. They believe that they are divinely called to the vocation through dreams, and use sacred objects called huesos or baq in their work. These sacred objects might be small animal bones, potsherds, obsidian or Jade Pre- Columbian artifacts they’ve found. The huesos are said to move over the body of their own accord and indicate to the bonesetter the location and type of injury. The bonesetter uses the object in setting or realigning the bones, and then uses lubrication to touch the area directly and finish the treatment. These bonesetters rely heavily on a supernatural or divine element, in addition to manual skills.

Dental Decoration and Filling

Chronologically, the practice of dental decoration arose in the Preclassic and remained a widespread custom until the beginning of the Post classic, the present

Dental Incrustations and mutilations, Cancuén and Ixlú

 data suggest that the mutilations were inflicted on frontal teeth of persons more than 15 years old. In the case of incrustation, it is supposed here that this practice occurred at an age slightly above 15, while filing occurred throughout adult life. Filing (particularly pattern A) was generally preferred among the female population, while incrustation prevailed among men, although no technique or pattern was exclusive of either sex. Dental decoration is slightly more common in the female population. Generally, jadeite, hematite, pyrite, turquoise and different organic substances were used as obturation material. A distinctive feature have been found in Cancuén, a site with jade workshops, where non noble burials have been uncovered with Jade incrustations, maybe because of the wealth by working the gem stone.