FROM NULL SIZE TO NUMERICAL DIGIT; THE BEHEADED QUEEN BEE AS A MODEL FOR THE MAYAN ZERO GLYPH T173, EXPLAINED THROUGH BEEKEEPING

Dirk Koedam

Resumo


The characteristic signs for natural numbers and zero that pre-Hispanic Maya scribes used to depict counting facts must have been developed based on daily life experience, although for several of them their origins remain unclear. One such case is the sculptured, three-sided or partially visible quatrefoil glyph, catalogued as affix T173. This glyph had several textual functions, but its scribal variations were most frequently used as a positional zero. In several cases of T173’s use, its syllabic reading has been recognized as mi, which can be translated into “lacking”. Yucatec Mayas kept stingless, meliponine bees for honey and wax production and trade, and the cultural value of this practice reveals itself through the worshipping of several bee and beekeeping gods. In species of the genus Melipona, queens are constantly produced. Worker bees eliminate superfluous and useless queens all year round, commonly by biting off their heads. These worker-controlled killings of excess queens allow colonies to perpetuate themselves but occasionally lead to irreversible colony loss, which would seriously undermine honey harvests. Beheaded queen bee figures in the Madrid Codex demonstrate that Mayan beekeepers knew from experience how the deaths of residing queen bees affected their beekeeping businesses. Here I propose that Maya artists sculpted beheaded queen bees and used them, among other things, as zero placeholders in counting, namely T173. If this rationale is correct, the presence of this glyph on Classic period monuments reinforces the idea that Maya beekeeping has a long-standing tradition and was more widespread than is generally acknowledged. In its zero position, glyph T173 may originally have embodied a pre-existing concept of “nothing” or “void” from beekeeping: a vacant beehive due to the permanent loss of the queen caste. Additionally, the effect of other aspects of adult lifecycles of Melipona queens on colony development could explain other textual applications of glyph T173.

Palavras-chave


Classic Maya civilization; T173; stingless beekeeping; Melipona beecheii; queen bee decapitation; vacant hive

Texto completo:

Koedam 2018 (English)

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.22276/ethnoscientia.v3i0.114

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