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Mayan Medicine

The Maya were a powerful pre-Columbian civilization who thrived between AD 600 – AD 800. They were literate and had a complex language including pictograms, glyphs, and phonetic representations. The Mayan produced codices (books) some of which were reported to detail 800 years of their history.

The ancient Mayan culture is also owed respect as one of the great medicinal traditions of the world. The physicians of the Maya were referred to as “Ah-men”, which translates to “he or she who knows”. It was the task of the Ah-men to keep “Ch-ulel” or the life force that is present in all living things in balance.

Developing a special connection with the medicinal plants plentiful in their surroundings, the Mayan were known to employ remedies using a color coded system based on the color of the plant itself:

  • red for rashes, blood disorders & burns;

  • blue for neural sedatives;

  • yellow (the colour of bile) for diseases of the liver & spleen.

  • white was generally avoided since it was seen as a signal of death.

In 1566, Diego de Landa Calderón O.F.M., a Spanish bishop of the Roman Catholic

Archdiocese of Yucatán, said the following about the Mayan knowledge of medicinal

plants in his opus on Mayan life, “Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán” (Report of the

Affairs of Yucatán), “There is in this land a great quantity of medicinal plants of various

properties; and if there were any person here who possessed a knowledge of them, it

would be most useful and effective, for there is no disease to which the native Indians

do not apply the plants.”

Calderón is also famous for ordering an Inquisition in 1562 during which he ordered

the destruction of 5000 Mayan statues and the burning of ancient Maya codices. (Photos shown below.) In response to the complaints from the Indigenous people, he was remanded to Spain for his atrocities. Yet in spite of his support of a systematic conquest and a program of colonization of the Natives, he was exonerated by Spanish crown authorities and by 1572, was named the Bishop of the Yucatán where he remained until his death in 1579.


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