San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Unraveling the Mayans… and their myths

GUATEMALA CITY – Once shrouded in mystery, the history, culture and glyphs of the Mayan people are being unraveled with increasing speed thanks to scholars collaborating over the Internet to decipher texts.

Nicholas Hellmuth is one such individual who has dedicated his life not just to decoding ancient scriptures, but also to separating history from legend by verifying the authenticity of every mention of flora and fauna that decorate the pages of Mayan texts.

“In the Popul Vuh, when Hun Hunahpu is playing the ball game, at one point he has no head – his head is cut off – and his brother goes out and makes a head out of a pumpkin. What we study is: Is that true? Did they have pumpkins shaped like heads?” asked Hellmuth, the founder and director of the Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research, or FLAAR.

In search of the answer, the U.S. archaeologist and his Guatemala-based team embarked on a month-long field trip traveling all over the Central American nation. They studied about 3,000 pumpkins, visited every pumpkin patch in the country and spoke with farmers and locals, before eventually stumbling across what they had been looking for in the back of a truck: a pumpkin shaped like a head.

According to Hellmuth, no one has ever documented the amount of flora and fauna that FLAAR has recorded in such detail before. The organization has the very first list of all the plants used by the Mayans and has electronically categorized them by edible plants and non-edible ones. The team hopes its findings will assist in suggesting better diets for local people and saving native species from being forcibly removed by residents who are unaware of their benefits.

“We decided we were going to make a complete list of every plant they’d ever used, whether it was for cleaning their toenails, cosmetics, eating or smoking. Anything. We list them theme-by-theme: edible plants, edible pulp and edible flowers,” Hellmuth said.

Hopping, skipping and jumping between subjects as new plants start to flower, the FLAAR team ventures out at night all over the country to capture Guatemala’s nocturnal activity. They have developed their own cameras and photographic techniques to assist them. Findings are uploaded onto the organization’s website as the team slowly begins to tick off the items on their “Most Wanted” list, which enables them to piece together what Mesoamerica was like 2,000 years ago, based on flora and fauna.

“Finding these plants is very difficult. We were looking for magnolia for four years and we just found it, but we haven’t found it flowering. There are some plants that we haven’t been able to find anywhere in the country after four years of looking for them. But we know they are here and we will find them,” Hellmuth added.

FLAAR’s vast operation has turned a small corner of Guatemala City into a mini-jungle and provided the world with one of the most extensive collections of flora and fauna ever recorded. The organization hopes to publish its findings in books and animation that will allow people of all ages to connect with the ancient Mayans.

For more information about FLAAR, visit

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