Caves and Ancient Maya Ritual Use of Jute
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A number of previous authors have suggested, based on limited data, that Pachychilus spp., freshwater gastropods often called jute, may have played a role in ancient Maya ritual. Data collected by the authors demonstrate that jute shells consistently appear as part of faunal assemblages in ceremonial caves across the southern Maya Lowlands. At surface sites, jute are often associated with ceremonial architecture, particularly ballcourts. Previous ethnographic accounts are reviewed for clues to ancient Maya jute use. New ethnographic data suggest a role not previously considered by archaeologists. A Q‘eqchi’ Maya informant states that shells are gathered up after meals and deposited in caves as an offering in thanks to “Mother Earth” (Madre Tierra) who provided the mollusks. This practice suggests that the ancient shells may represent a secondary deposition rather than reflecting consumption occurring in the cave. The presence of jute shells may document ancient religious beliefs and ritual activities surrounding an important subsistence resource.