— piste — past and present

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For seven successive years I made a detailed annual survey of Piste, noting typical conditions and changes; and, for comparative material, I studied more briefly Chan Kom, Xocenpich, and Pencuyut.

Piste, with an approximate population of 400, is classified in Mexico as a pueblo. With several other small towns in the vicinity, it is under the jurisdiction of the nearby and larger municipio of Tinum. In such communities the chief officer is the comisario, who, with the help of his secretary, administers local affairs. There is also a president and secretary of the League of Working Men, and a justice of the peace. All these officers are elected by acclamation of the adult men. The town clerk, or registro civil, whose duty it is to record births, deaths, and marriages, is a semi-permanent officer of the state. Police duty is considered part of the civic responsibility of every man on the town list. There are always two men on duty, each of whom serves a week at a time without pay.

Piste follows the general plan of nearly all northern Yucatan communities in that it centers around a cenote, a plaza, and a Spanish church. (frontispiece). Cenotes, natural water holes caused by the breaking-through of surface limestone, vary greatly in size and shape (pls. 2,3), the openings varying from a meter or so in diameter to 60 m. 28 The depth from the land surface to the water level ranges from a meter on the north coast of Yucatan to approximately 25m at a Chichen Itza, and even deeper as one moves further inland. Since Yucatan communities depend largely upon the cenotes for their water supply, most towns have grown up around them. Piste has three cenotes within its boundaries, and 85 wells dug chiefly during the period of Spanish domination (fig. 5).

All business transactions and town festivities take lace on the plaza. Here games, bullfights, dances, and carnivals are held on fiesta days. Even in the precolonial period Maya villages centered around the plaza, for Landa writes of the Maya towns of 1560:

Before the Spaniards subdued the country the Indians lived together in well ordered communities; they kept the ground in excellent condition, free from noxious vegetation and planted fine trees. The habitation was as follows: in the center of the town were the temples, with beautiful plazas, and around the temples stood the houses of the chiefs and the priests, and next those of the leading men. Closest to these came the houses of those who were wealthiest and most esteemed, and at the borders of the town were the houses of the common people. 29

In general this description still holds true, only that in some of the buildings surrounding the plaza have been installed the village school, a cantina (saloon), and small stores. The church, the largest structure in the village, dominates the plaza (frontispiece).

From the plaza the streets, bounded by stone walls, extend to the outskirts of the town (pl. 7c,d). It is on such streets that the majority of the population lives. 30

Each road leading into a Yucatan town is marked at its entrance by two piles of stones, one on each side of the road and with a wooden cross on one or both sides. The custom of putting up such markers is one of long standing. Landa writes: “In all the towns of Yucatan it was the custom to have at each of the four entrances of the town two heaps of stones, one in front of the other; that is, at the east, west, north, and south; and here they celebrated the two festivals of the ‘unlucky’ days.” 31

There are no large, active haciendas near Piste at this time. The nearest was the cattle ranch at Chichen Itza, 2.5 km. to the southeast. It has not been in operation for more than 60 years.

In 1933, when the present survey was begun, the church and cuartel (town hall) appeared as in plate 4c. The present cuartel was formerly the priests house. In 1935 the outward appearance of the church and cuartel were the same, though a part of the church roof had fallen. The church was no longer used, and the altar decorations (pl. 5) had been transferred to a small thatched house belonging to Yrineo Cauich. In 1936 the altar decorations were replaced although the roof had not been repaired. By February 1938 no additional changes had been made, but in May 1939 the church had been completely remodeled with a new floor and roof. A little paved platform in front of the church for village dances was given to the town in 1928 by Carnegie Institution.

From 1906 to 1933 school was held in no. 31 a thatched house similar tothose used as private dwellings (fig. 6). In 1918, however, the school for the larger children was conducted in no. 32, which was a large stone structure. The smaller children remained in no. 31. Approximately 125 children were on the school list in 1918 as compared with 65 in 1933 and 57 in 1937. In 1931 and 1932 no. 32 was closed for repairs, and the entire school again met in no. 31. In 1933 the whole school was moved into no. 32, and the other house was used as a residence for the schoolteachers. In 1937 a group of townsmen established a cooperative store (pl. 7a) and took over half of the school building no. 32. A cloth partition separated the two activities (fig. 6, pl. 7a).

A new schoolhouse and its associated buildings, a stone bathhouse and stone houses for raising rabbits and pigs, were started in 1934 but remained uncompleted and unused for nearly four years.

In addition to schools, church, and cuartel, the town also has a cemetery with a small thatched shelter inside the enclosure. Residents of both Piste and the Chichen Itza area bury their dead in the Piste cemetery. Formerly the inhabitants of Xkatun and Chan Chen, which are at least 15km. distant, also used this burying ground, but in 1938 they began to take their dead to Chan Kom and Tinum respectively. As far as can be learned, the Piste cemetery has always occupied its present site. It is exactly one mecate, or 20m. square. Grave holes, dug in the solid limestone, are re-used constantly, since the body remains in the grave for only two years, after which the bones are interred in smaller spaces along the cemetery wall, unless unclaimed and therefore thrown outside. Because of an increase in the construction of houses near the cemetery, there was agitation in 1937 to move the graveyard to a less populated area on the west end of the town, but due to superstition and local sentiment the project was abandoned.

In 1937 there were 175 privately owned buildings in Piste, 107 of which were classified as dwelling houses, all very much alike. Wauchope believes “that the types of ‘bush house’ seen almost everywhere throughout the Maya area today have changed very little in the last 1900 years.” 32 The present-day bush house (one having a thatched roof) is nearly rectangular, with rounded ends, averaging 7.5 m long and 3-3.5 m wide. The walls, about 1.8 m high, are made of poles 2.5-5 cm in diameter tied together with lianas, or woody vines (pl. 9). Sometimes the spaces between the poles are daubed with mud. Four large upright poles support the palm-thatched roof. There are two doors, one in each long wall, directly opposite each other. If made of finished lumber, they are swung on hinges. In Piste about half of the houses have wickerwork doors with rope hinges. The floors are generally bare earth, sprinkled with water daily to settle the dust and tamped hard by the constant tread of bare feet.

On the floor at one end of the house, generally away from the prevailing easterly wind, are three stones marking the boundary of the family fire. An iron kettle for boiling corn and an iron griddle for baking tortillas are found in nearly every Piste home. Poor families may substitute tin pails and pieces of tin from discarded gasoline cans. A stone metate (pl. 10a) for grinding corn is generally set on a long, low bench nearby. Many families use a small metal hand mill for grinding their corn, but recently the stone corn grinder and the hand-operated mills are being replaced in some of the larger towns by gasoline-operated mills owned by private individuals or occasionally by the town as a community project.

In the Maya household nearly everything is handmade, often by the head of the house, including small tables, chairs, washtubs, and dishes. Small benches or hand-hewn blocks of wood serve as chairs (pl. 10b,c). A three-legged low table accommodates the making of tortillas.

At the end of the room opposite the fireplace stands the family trunk, its lid bulging with extra clothing and other possessions (pl. 11). Next to it, corn is often stored, either loose on the floor or in sacks or bins. Chickens, pigs, and dogs have free run of the house, pestered by the ever-present fleas and ticks.

There are no pictures on the walls, no clocks or mirrors. Often a table, on which rests a cross with an image or a picture of a saint, serves as an altar. Candles and cloth draperies lend an air of sanctity. In the few Protestant homes in Piste, the open Bible takes the place of cross and candles.

Hung along the walls or stuck between the poles of every dwelling are a shotgun, an ax, a machete, one or more water gourds, and a small bag called a sabucan. Crude shelves contain salt and spices and whatever dishes the family may own.

Hanging from the cross poles are hand-woven hammocks, the beds of Yucatan (pl. 11b). Married couples customarily occupy one hammock. In Indian homes they are made of henequen fiber; in those of the wealthier white people, imported lined thread. Of the ancients Landa writes, “They sleep on beds made of small rods, covered with mats, and with their mantles of cottons as covering.” 33 It was learned from one Piste informant that when she was small, perhaps 65 years ago, beds for the children were made of small saplings tied together with lianas. Pedro Castillo informed me that about 40 years ago, when he was in British Honduras, he found people sleeping in beds built with small poles which were covered with banana leaves, but these sleeping platforms can no longer be customary, for I have failed to locate one. Apparently hammocks have been quite uniformly adopted by the Maya of Yucatan.

Various objects are hung from the ceilings of houses as protection from insects and rodents, most commonly bundles of beans in the pod, which serve also as food and as seed for the coming year. Dishes made from half gourds (pl. 10d), containing unused food, are suspended form the thatched roof by cords which pass through an inverted gourd to prevent rats and mice from running down the strings.

In the yard behind the house one generally finds a few fruit trees, a chicken coop, a little vegetable garden raised on poles, and several gasoline tins containing flowers. The raised vegetable gardens are ordinarily built on a platform 1.8-2.5 m above the ground as a protection against chickens, pigs, cattle and the prevalent leaf-cutting ants. There are no privies. That the back yards remain in a fairly sanitary condition is due to the hot, dry climate, the vultures, and the livestock.

In Piste an extra house behind the dwelling often serves as a kitchen. Occasionally this is rented to migrants from other towns at two to three pesos a month. Near the dwelling there is often an open thatched-roof shelter for the washing of clothes. The wash tub is a hollowed split log, 9-1.5 m long and at least 30 cm in diameter, so that the bottom is flat and the sides 7.5-10 cm high. This bench-like tub is then placed horizontally on stones or wooden supports about waist high, and the clothes are rubbed on the bottom as upon a washboard. Not much water but considerable soap is used in the process.

Chicken coops, 1.2-2.4 m square and .6-1.2 m high, are made either of thin poles or of stones. Chickens are shut in during the night (pl. 12a,b). There are no shelters for hogs or horses. Several head of cattle may be confined in a corral, one or two cows are allowed to find shelter where they may.

Information on length of occupancy was obtained from 89 houses in Piste for which the approximate date of building was known. Fifteen of these were older than 33 years but not much so. Fifty of the 89 houses are less than five years old and 61 less than 10. The average occupancy, a figure based on houses for which the building and destruction dates were known was 18.5 years. Termites are the chief cause of destruction, although occasionally fire completely consumes these pole-and-thatch structures.

Indian houses in Yucatan frequently require re-thatching, often accomplished by building an entirely new house. In the five years 1933-38 less than one-half (35) the owners of dwellings kept them unchanged.

From 1933 to 1938 the stores in Piste underwent considerable change. In the absence of licenses cantinas in 1933 and 1934 liquor was secretly sold in several private houses. In 1935 a cantina was opened in house no. 2 and was maintained in 1936 and 1937 (fig 6). In 1935 a partition was placed in house no. 7 and liquor was sold there. This place was torn down in 1936, but on the opposite side of the street a similar partition was placed in house no. 6 and liquor was sold there during the next year. In 1936 a group of townsmen operated in a newly built house a liquor store which also lasted for one year only, while, in 1937, liquor was sold in two of the Piste stores. During recent years drunkenness in Piste has been far more prevalent. In 1933 and 1934 only rarely were drunken Indians found about the plaza, but by 1936 and 1937 they could be seen nearly every afternoon, and on Sunday and fiesta days nearly one-third the population was under the influence of alcohol. General stores, where corn may be exchanged for sugar, coffee, salt, and other necessities, also increased at this time. For example, in 1933 two stores were maintained in Piste, one in house no. 9 of the Castillos and the other in house no. 36 of Alejandro Calife. From 1934 to 1937 the first two stores were maintained, but Alejandro Calife (a Syrian) moved from no. 36 to no. 2. In 1936 and 1937 the cooperativa likewise maintained a small grocery store (pl. 7a). In 1936 another store, no. 69c, was opened in Piste on the Merida-Chichen Itza highway. In addition to the usual business transactions, gasoline was sold to motorists, who became more numerous after the road to Merida was opened.

Twice during the period 1933-38 corn-grinding mills were established, only to fail and be removed to other towns. A baker came to Piste in 1935 and set up his shop in a house (no. 9) near one of the many old Spanish ovens, maintaining a profitable business in 1936 and 1937. In 1937 a group of townsmen that make up the cooperativa hired another baker from Merida and operated a separate bakeshop in their store, house no. 32, which at that time was also the village schoolhouse. In 1937 a butcher from Merida set up a counter and scales outside his house, no. 69, and sold fresh meat to the villagers. He did a regular and prosperous business, which in previous years had been carried on solely by migrant butchers.

The population of Piste increased from 316 to 439 in the five-year period under consideration. In 1936 the total population of 397 persons was slightly less than in 1935, when there were 420 people. This may be due to the fact that the Merida-Chichen Itza road was not yet completed in 1935, when the census was taken and many of the road workers were temporary residents.

The following table is based on the census records for February 1936.



Dwelling Houses

Total # of Inhabitants

Ratio of people to occupied dwellings









Chan Kom












It is difficult to ascertain the average age of the inhabitants of Yucatan towns, since about 75 percent of the persons do not know their exact age. One of the problems that prompted this study of the Maya dealt with the comparative growth of children of different races. Exact ages were, of course, necessary and because of this much time was spent in reading the town and church records for the birth dates of the Piste population. Considerable research revealed exact birth dates for 65.6 percent, from which the various age groups were determined. It was found that the mean age of the Piste population in 1933 was practically the same as in 1937. The mean age of the townspeople is relatively young, 19.3 and 19.4, respectively, for the two years. Figures given by Redfield for Chan Kom were slightly less, 17.0 years.

Many villages in Yucatan have some industry like hammock or hat making, the manufacture of pottery (pl. 8a), baskets, candles, or chocolate mixers, but Piste has none of these. Some communities specialize in cattle raising or henequen growing. Piste grows no henequen and raises only a few cattle. It is primarily a corn-growing community, and nearly every man owns a cornfield. Piste people who do have special trades have all come from other towns. Of the two merchants, one is from Dzitas, the other form Merida. The two stone masons also came from Merida. During 1937 and 1938, there were two bakers and one butcher form other towns. Although in none of these trades are local people gainfully employed, there are about 10 native men who act as barbers.

There are still some women in Piste who spin thread from wild cotton and, in the nearby village of Yaxche, there is a woman who even today weaves cotton cloth (pl. 8e,f). In the village of Dzitya near Merida I found men making chocolate pots and bowls by means of a primitive lathe (pl. 8b).

Rodrigo Dzib and Gregorio Bolio of Piste are able to make fire without matches. They use the wood of the chacah tree (Bursera Simaruba), twirling a stick rapidly in a small depression of the two main block until the fire is made (pl. 8c,d). This takes from five to ten minutes depending upon the speed with which the stick is revolved.

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