Articles

A CANNON BONE KING

 

The ancient natives in both American continents had an assortment of game animals to harvest for food.  These included rabbits, turkeys, squirrels, geese, turtles and a huge variety of fish.  But one animal that was probably the highest on the list of desired game, especially after the Pleistocene mega fauna were eliminated, was the white-tail deer or Odocoileus virginanus.  These herbivores roamed, and still do, throughout most of North and Central America and the northern half of South America.  Today the estimate of the numbers of these animals in the United States varies from fifteen to twenty million but during the period immediately before Columbus landed in AD 1492, the estimate is that there was about sixty million wild white-tail deer living our country and many millions more in Mexico, Central and South America.  This even-toed ungulate family thrives throughout our earth and includes such mammals as giraffes, camels, llamas, cattle and goats along with the large deer family.   Deer provided much for the Indians including food in the form of their venison along with shelter and clothing material by using their hides and tool making materials from their antlers and bones.  Of all the many bones in the animal’s body, the long front leg bone or metacarpal and the equally long rear leg bone or metatarsal were probably the most useful.  Commonly called the cannon bones, these long skeletal parts were used as beamers for tanning the deer skin, as awls and needles for sewing the skins into shelters and wearing apparel as well as for cutting tools.   Sometime during the probable AD 500-900 time period a native craftsman, in the territory that would later be named Guatemala, split and carved a piece of deer leg bone  into this unique knife that this writer calls a cannon bone king.

 

The nation of Guatemala takes its name from the Aztec Nahuatl language word Quauhtlemallen which translates as “place of many trees”.  The land was possibly inhabited as early as 12,000 years ago by peoples who migrated from Asia and maybe Southern Europe.  Starting around 2,000 BC and lasting until the sixteenth century AD, the Mayan Culture ruled the entire Central American region which included the modern countries of Honduras and Belize, part of El Salvador, all the Mexican state of Chiapas and the Yucatan Peninsula states of Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo as well as the Republic of Guatemala.  However beginning in AD 1524 the Spaniard conquistador Pedro de Alvarado led an army into the Guatemalan country and almost totally wiped out the native population in an arrogant search for gold, silver and slaves.  But before this Spanish incursion for riches and vassals, the Mayan imperial rulers controlled the natives in a civilization that was almost as brutal and warring as the Castilians would later bring.  This Mayan cultural entity was centered around their various deities and royalty who demanded strict obedience to the kings and to their gods and all of whom reportedly had a lust for human blood.  Both the divine beings and the sovereign rulers were idolized with large carved statues in stone along with smaller effigies in ceramics, marine shell and animal bones as well as polychrome wall paintings in temples and stone walled graves.  During the last  fifty or so years, as linguists have deciphered the complicated Mayan hieroglyphic-type writings, the world has learned much more about these unique people by studying and decoding their carvings and paintings.  The painted wall art often depicts the Mayans realistically while many of the carvings are highly abstract with the human form represented in often unorthodox and distorted modes.

 

The artifact pictured with this article was found in Guatemala in the 1930’s and legally brought into this country since at that time the government there was more concerned in tourist money than in their ancient heritage.

 

More than a thousand years ago, a Mayan craftsman did alter a deer cannon bone so as to fashion this knife.  It is 10 5/8 inches long with perhaps a quarter inch of the probably needle sharp tip broken away. The detail of the carving will be difficult to see in the photo so I have made a drawing of it.  At the top or handle of the knife, is the king’s stylized rectangular head upon which rests his feathered  headdress or crown.  One side of the head features two small square objects thought to be portrayals of an ear below which is an ear spool ornament as was worn by these people.  The various lines just below the face are most likely representations of jade and shell beads strung and worn as necklaces.  The left arm of the royal is seen resting across his midsection which is construed as a sign of sovereignty while the right arm hangs down along his side.  Below the left arm are some plain sculpted lines which may have been representations of clothing or perhaps they had some other meanings to the knife maker but the significance of these carved messages have now been lost in time.  It is obvious that at one time the cutting edge of the weapon was made sharp but a thousand plus years of weathering have made this keen edge rather dull.  Some people call bone tools such as this “sacrificing or sacrifial knives” meaning they were used to remove the still-beating heart from a victim who was to be offered to the blood thirsty Mayan gods.  I do not believe that since most early European witnesses to these ritualistic slaughters noted that the priests used chert and obsidian knives to cut open the living victim’s chest.   Instead I consider that this was simply a blade that the ruler carried on his person, perhaps thrust into his belt or clothing.  When I was maybe six years old, I began carrying a pocket knife as most all boys my age did and it was not for protection or mischief.  It was simply something that many small town boys did, sixty plus years ago, just to prove that we were boys.  We whittled and played mumblety-peg or just showed off our cherished knives to friends.  Perhaps the ancient Mayans did the same.  Conceivably this knife was the king’s badge of authority and honor and just to show he was a man.   Or maybe it was indeed an instrument of quick chest splitting death.  Or possibly it was a weapon used in the many regional Mayan battles.  But for whatever obscure reason it was created and used, I am now certain that it was made by a royal skilled worker in the stylized likeness of a cannon bone king.

 

REFERENCES:

 

Coe, Michael D.                                                                              1992

     BREAKING THE MAYA  CODE

Demarest, Arthur                                                                          2005

     ANCIENT MAYA: THE RISE AND FALL OF A RAINFOREST CIVILIZATION

Foster, Lynn V.                                                                               2007

     A BRIEF HISTORY OF CENTRAL AMERICA

Gallenkamp, Charles S.                                                                1959

     MAYA: THE RIDDLE AND DISCOVERY OF A LOST CIVILIZATION

Malmstrom, Vincent H.                                                                1981

     THE ORIGINS OF CIVILIZATION IN MESO AMERICA

Schmidt, Peter, Mercedes de la Garza & Enrique Nalda     2007

     MAYA

Stuart, George E & Gene S. Stuart                                            1977

     THE MYSTERIOUS MAYA