The ethnophysiology of the Tzeltal Maya of Highland Chiapas
Adams, Cameron Littleton
MetadataShow full item record
This dissertation is an attempt to describe Highland Maya concepts of internal anatomy and physiology. Physiology is the study of the functions of a living organism. A thorough understanding of concepts of physiology creates a greater understanding of any medical system. Perceptions of body function inform much of culturally defined medical behavior including practices such as behavioral and medicinal prescriptions and/or proscriptions, the perceived actions of particular medicines, etcetera. However, the ethnophysiology of indigenous peoples has not received adequate attention considering its foundational role in medical practice. Several methods were used in this investigation. The free list task and paired comparison test were used to establish the domain of internal anatomy and to establish organ rankings. Semistructured interviews provided rich ethnographic data. A binary fixed-response survey provided data regarding the generalizability of the findings. The Tzeltal Maya of Ch’ixal Tontik display a high degree of physiological knowledge regarding the heart, blood and lungs and the stomach and intestines. The heart, with the lungs, pumps blood throughout the body. The blood provides the body with life force derived from air that is breathed into the heart and from food. Further, the heart is seen as the seat of thought and the soul. Some Maya acknowledge that the brain is involved in thought, but always in conjunction with the heart. The gastrointestinal system of the Tzeltal is composed of two stomachs and two intestines. Food travels down an increasingly narrow path until all of the life force is extracted and feces is expelled through the anus. Other organs are known to the Tzeltal – liver, gallbladder and kidneys – yet, the role these organs play in the body is not known. Finally, ethnoanatomy and ethnophysiology is informed by metaphoric processes. Knowledge of internal anatomy comes from livestock. Further, health is referred to by the semantic pair ‘walking and working’ and the heart is conceived of as a homunculus; an internal being that makes commands that must be obeyed.