Dirk Koedam


Mayas from the pre-Hispanic period documented important facts and life experiences via a writing system consisting of hieroglyphs. To timetable these events, they used time units such as the so-called day signs, whose origins are largely unknown. Classic Maya civilization included a tradition of keeping native stingless bees in horizontally oriented, hollowed-out logs for the production of honey and wax. The legacy and value of this stingless-bee keeping, also called meliponiculture, can be found in their culture and religion. The most commonly kept species was Melipona beecheii, which the Mayas knew by the name of Xunan-kab. The principal way for Mayan beekeepers to access nest interiors and extract honey and wax was via the ends of the rustic log hives. Here I argue that the day signs Imix, Kib’, Kab’an, Kawak and Ajaw represent cross sections of log hives that are visible when opened at their sides. The signs' interiors reflect extant but stylized bee nest elements that are important to beekeeping, such as food stocks, brood content, adult bees, and nest entrances. Similar to all other day signs and nearly all variants, their roundish, outer frames imitate a hollow log’s solid wall. In those cases where numerous hives were densely stacked together in bee sheds, Maya beekeeping must have become more complex in its organization. To tackle increasing complexity in bee management and sustain colony growth and optimize honey and wax production, Mayan beekeepers likely administered their work based on written figures related to beekeeping details. The five day signs were probably derived from a mnemonic system that originally was intended to identify individual log hives, to keep records of colonies and to share information with others involved in this activity.


Classic Maya civilization; day signs; meliponiculture; log hive cross section; hive administration; scheduling life

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