Howler Monkeys Among the Maya: Divine Patrons to the Artisans

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John Lloyd Stephens, who documented important Maya sites in Central America in 1839, described howler monkeys found at the ruins of Copán as “grave and solemn, almost emotionally wounded, as if officiating as the guardians of consecrated ground.” Today, in sites such as Tikal, they remain standing guard over the ruins, sharing space with hundreds of tourists.

Howler Monkeys as deities to the Maya in Central America, Copan Ruins, Honduras, Maya People, Maya Indians, Maya archaeology

Howler monkey statue, Temple 11, Copán, Honduras. Photo: Adalberto Hernandez Vega.

Dueling Howler Monkeys Amid the Ruins of Northern Guatemala

John Lloyd Stephens, who documented important Maya sites in Central America in 1839, described howler monkeys found at the ruins of Copán as “grave and solemn, almost emotionally wounded, as if officiating as the guardians of consecrated ground.” To the Maya of the Classic Period, they were the divine patrons of the artisans, especially scribes and sculptors. They were seen as Gods in some tribes, and the long, sleek tail was worshipped for its beauty.

Copán in particular is famous for its representations of Howler Monkey Gods. Two howler monkey brothers play a role in the creation myth of the Maya Hero Twins included in the Popol Vuh, their Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings. The stone sculpture of a seated writer found within the House of the Scribes in Copán is often described as a howler monkey. However, it is the two large statues of simian figures shaking rattles, found on both sides of the “Reviewing Stand” of Copán’s Temple 11, that approach much more closely the standard representation of this animal in Maya art and in Long Count inscriptions (including the snakes in the corners of the mouth).

In the mantic or divination calendar, Howler Monkey (Batz), corresponding to Spider Monkey (Ozomatli) in the Aztec system, denotes the 11th day, which is associated with the arts. In the Long Count (see Maya Calendar), the Howler Monkey can personify the day-unit, which connects him to the priestly arts of calendrical reckoning and divination, as well as to ritualistic and historical knowledge.


Dueling howler monkeys at the ruins of Tikal, Guatemala.

Black Howler Monkey (Alouatta pigra)

Howler monkeys are among the largest primates in the Neotropics. They can grow between 22 to 36 inches tall when standing, having tails about the same length as their bodies. Male howlers are black, while females are brown. They have prehensile tails used to grab onto branches. They make loud vocalizations to mark their territory, thus earning their name. Their howls can be heard over two miles away. Group males generally call at dawn and dusk, as well as interspersed times throughout the day. Most individuals live up to 15 years in the wild, though howlers can survive over 20 years.

Howlers are found only in the rainforests of South and Central America. They live in tall hardwood trees in groups of between 4 and 19 members. They travel from tree to tree in search of food — walking from limb to limb, rather than jumping. While not particularly perky primates, they are most active during the day (diurnal), sleeping up to 15 hours high in rainforest trees at night.

 STORY: Maya Ruins at Tikal: A New Beginning at Winter Solstice

male howler monkeyDiet

Howlers are strict vegetarians, eating only flowers, fruits and leaves. In Belize, special community managed protected areas have been established to keep people from over-harvesting the fruit and flowers that the howlers need to survive.

howler monkey, Central AmericaThreats

Howlers have both natural and human-induced threats to their existence. The black howler monkey, known as the “baboon” in Belize, is endangered throughout much of its range due to hunting and habitat destruction. As forests are cleared, howlers, who need several acres of forest per troop to survive, are becoming increasingly rare. Throughout the region in which they are found, howlers are hunted both for food and for sport. Some experts believe that howlers could become extinct within the next 35 years.

Other threats include their being captured for captivity as pets or zoo animals.

Sources: Rainforest Alliance

Photos By Jeff Bouton

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About Jack Eidt

Novelist, urban theorist, and environmental journalist, Jack Eidt careens down human-nature's all consuming one-way highway to its inevitable conclusion -- Wilder Utopia. He co-founded Wild Heritage Planners, based out of Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com. Follow him on Twitter @WilderUtopia and @JackEidt