The enigma around the ritual use of jaws in pre-Hispanic cultures

Human and animal jaws were used for ritual purposes by different Mesoamerican cultures

The enigma around the ritual use of jaws in pre-Hispanic cultures
Jaws were used for ritual purposes in ancient cultures - Photo: File photo/EL UNIVERSAL
English 15/08/2020 14:41 Antonio Díaz Mexico City Actualizada 14:41

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Historian Guilhem Olivier, bioarcheologist Ximena Chávez Balderas, and Doctor in Sciences Santos-Fita teamed up to make extensive research on the ritual use of human and animal jawbones in Mesoamerica.

In a book published by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the experts give a general explanation about the use of jawbones without focusing in a specific pre-Hispanic culture, according to Guilhem Olivier from the Institute of Historical Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

“We studied cases from Teotihuacan, Tenochtitlan, Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Oaxaca, and even Belize. That is, carving jawbones was a practice done all over Mesoamerica and even beyond,” said Olivier.

The experts documented nearly 30 cases of jawbones that have iconographic elements that were analyzed.

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One of the most emblematic cases was the jaw of a young man who would have lived during the late post-Classic period and that is currently at the Centro Cultural España museum.

This jaw portrays the head of a snake, Mixc{oatl, the god of hunting, and also related to ancestors. Moreover, it has a xiuhcóatl, a turquoise snake, although they were actually two, but the jaw was not entirely preserved.

“The quality of the carving is very detailed and corresponds to the most elaborate Aztec art. Mixcóatl was a deity linked to sacrifice; the person was obviously sacrificed. The xiuhcóatl was the weapons used by Huiztilopotchtli to kill his enemies, that is, it has a sacrificial symbolism,” added the expert.


Nevertheless, the UNAM expert mentions that the jaw found at Mexico City’s historical center is just an instance of a deeper analysis.

“Not all cases are related to sacrificial matters; some jaws only have geometrical motives the meaning of which we still ignore. There are also cases, mainly in Oaxaca, in which [the jaws] were carved with dates that could refer to the person’s name or the name of the one who captured them.

“A possibility is that they belonged to ancestors, that is, not all skulls were of people who were sacrificed; some could have been ancestors who had a specific funeral treatment during which they could have been painted. There is a wide array of elements and we must be careful with our interpretations,” he said.

Other elements to take into account
During their research, the experts noticed the jaws were not only carved but some of them were also modified with inlays.

“What is most interesting is the process, that is, Ximena Chávez Balderas detects the prints to know how they cleaned the jawbones, their treatment, and the prints of how they removed the meat.”

In addition to analyzing these other characteristics in the vestiges, Guilhelm Olivier mentions that they were also interested in knowing the meaning of preserving the skulls and the jaws, mostly because the latter were not only from humans but also from animals.


“It’s interesting to see the symbolism of the jawbones in a wider framework, in hunting matters, and ask what they did with the skulls of hunting and war preys, that is, the captured, because during pre-Hispanic times, hunting was very similar to war; oftentimes, the objective was to capture the animal alive to sacrifice it later; the same happened with prisoners; they had the idea of having the skulls as trophies.”

Olivier explains that another aspect that must be taken into account is that remains such as jaws and bones, in general, were considered as sedes during pre-Hispanic times because they thought that if they were buried in specific places, there would be a rebirth of the preys and the prisoners who were sacrificed, “It’s an idea we also find in current practices of indigenous people who still hunt.”

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The enigma
Olivier highlights the process to interpret the elements found on jawbones because there is still not accurate information to assign meaning to the ritual use of these elements.


“It’s an enigma why they gave that treatment to the jaw, it’s something we still don’t know. A possible explanation could come from thinking it is the only part of the skull that moves because it is the place from where life is reborn because it’s the origin of language, the vital breath, there must be a connection with it,” he proposed.

Nevertheless, he mentioned there cannot be a single interpretation because there are other factors such as the use of jawbones in bracelets because “when they captured a prisoner, they kept the jaw to use it as a bracelet,” as well as necklaces or chests.