In their wars, the Maya made use of a range of deadly weapons. These included the iconic wooden club known as the macuahuitl, the spear-thrower, and according to some traditions, hollowed vegetables filled with hornets used as grenades.
The Maya civilisation developed in an area of Mesoamerica that today incorporates southeastern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, as well as parts of Honduras and El Salvador. The first Maya cities developed around 750 BC while the last Maya city, Nojpetén, was captured by the Spanish Empire in 1697.
Considered a ‘stone age culture’ by some archaeologists, the Maya had minimal access to metals and minimal knowledge of metal-working techniques. As such, their armaments were quite distinct from European weapons of the time, namely swords and match-lock muskets. The Maya instead made creative use of the materials they had to hand: wood, jadeite and obsidian, a volcanic glass that could be sharpened into deadly blades.
Against Spanish invaders and Mesoamerican rivals, the Maya used these 5 lethal weapons.
1. Obsidian-edged club
The macuahuitl is a wooden club which was used by Mesoamerican civilisations including the Aztecs and the Maya. Sometimes referred to as the ‘obsidian chainsaw’, the macuahuitl had sides embedded with narrow, flake-like blades typically produced from obsidian. Though no specimens remain, one is depicted in a carving at Chichen Itza.
The macuahuitl predates the Maya and Aztecs but had become widely distributed in Mesoamerica by the time of the Spanish colonisation of the Americas in the late 15th century. An example of a macuahuitl was captured during the 16th-century Conquest of Mexico (during which the Spanish conquistadors and their indigenous allies subdued the Mexica, or Aztecs) though it was destroyed by a fire in 1884.
In his account of the conquest, the conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo described the macuahuitl as between 0.9 and 1.2 m long and 75 mm wide. A groove was located along the edge. Flint or obsidian pieces were fixed inside, probably with bitumen. The club may have been used one-handed or two-handed, depending on the size. It was capable of disabling opponents, but could also decapitate a horse.
The Maya made use of the spear-thrower known as an atlatl, or a hul’che. Common across multiple pre-Columbian cultures, atlatls were especially prominent in Central Mexico. Effectively an extension of a throwing arm, the spear-thrower is a tool which uses leverage to throw darts and javelins. The butt end of the projectile is placed into the cup of the spear-thrower, then it is thrown with an overhand wrist motion.
An important figure described in Maya stelae is a ruler from Teotihuacan called Spearthrower Owl. He was perhaps a ruler of Teotihuacan in the 4th and 5th century AD, responsible for expanding the city’s influence in the Maya region.
The name ‘Spearthrower Owl’ is one invented by archaeologists to describe a symbol that appears in Maya glyphs (of an owl holding a spear-thrower). The visual is stylised in such a way that it suggests it represents a name.
3. Bow and arrow
The Maya used bows and arrows. According to anthropologist David Webster, Maya warfare would often involve missiles being projected at long range between advancing enemy forces. Bows were important and deadly Maya weapons, but they were also useful for hunting.
Spears were much more common in Maya warfare than bows and arrows, but most of the fighting in Maya warfare took place at close range with weapons such as the macuahuitl and axes. The Maya used axes with heads of stone, obsidian, bronze or jade. A sharp edge could kill an opponent, while a flat edge could be used to maim opponents in order to capture them.
Obsidian was widely used in Mesoamerican daily and ritual life. It is a relatively easy-to-work material thanks to its glassy internal structure, which means it breaks in predictable ways. As well as being used in weaponry, obsidian objects have been found in important tombs, while obsidian flakes have been found linked to offerings at the Maya site of Tikal.
5. Hornet grenade
The K’iche’, a Mayan-speaking indigenous group, are renowned for writing a book of myths and epics known as Popol Vuh. The text includes a beguiling reference to the use of wasps and hornets as a weapon of war.
The folktale describes containers being filled with hornets and wasps. Ahead of a confrontation, they are released to frustrate and ultimately defeat the aggressor. On the other hand, the folktale’s antagonists are jaguars and the defenders are crickets in league with rabbits.