Incidents of Travel in Yucatan 4: Red Handprints

At the Mayan ruins of Tulum, on the southeastern coast of Quintana Roo, Mexico, my camera battery died. Not in the sense that I had failed to charge it, but in the sense that it had outlived its usefulness; having lasted me some 3 years, it had lost the capacity to hold a decent charge. I managed to get one picture out of the sucker before it went dead…which ought to give at least some indication of how amazing a place Tulum is.

This building is called the observatory; you’ll note the three small offeratory shrines at its northwestern corner bear a strong resemblance to the water god shrine I found on the beach about 30 miles to the north.

Tulum was constructed in the middle postclassic period, around 1100 AD. The Mayan cities of the southern Yucatan had collapsed, and the Toltec invasion had radically altered even the most remote remnants of the Maya culture. All the buildings are oddly skewed in their symmetry and proportion, as though they belong in something by Dr. Seuss. The idea one is inclined to infer about its builders is of a ruling elite, no longer driven by the enlightened goals of the high classic, but rather by a desperate desire to maintain the high standard of living to which they had become accustomed, without the advanced knowledge of astronomy and engineering that standard of living had originally required.

Testament to this, perhaps, are the red handprints that adorn Tulum’s best-preserved structure, the Temple of the Frescoes:

(not my photo–I got this from some dude’s Tulum collection on

The red handprints are a recurrent phenomenon in Mayan architecture, to be found in ruins all over Central America. John Lloyd Stephens mentions them several times in Incidents of Travel, noting the shiver of connection they convey, the inevitable parallel drawn between the temple’s ancient builders and the living human being standing before it. I indulged in a sense of temporal vertigo, and with sudden, giddy credulity, allowed myself to suspend disbelief long enough to accept those markings at face value: as physical proofs of a divine intervention in this city’s construction. These were the handprints of a god, taking physical form to bestow his blessing and approval on the faithful. For a minute, standing there in the sun and the seabreeze, surrounded by sweating tourists and indifferent lizards, I bought into the myth wholesale.

Giving up the crutch of the camera had a lot to do with this, I think. As we had passed beneath Tulum’s encircling wall, Erin had offered me a sarcastic consolation. She said something like, “you’ll just have to remember it, instead of taking pictures.” I took that to heart. I flung myself into my senses and didn’t come out. If there was ever a moment when I was in danger of being sucked back nine hundred years, immersing myself in the experience of the Maya culture as it had once been, it was when I stood in front of those red handprints.

Look at the picture again. You’ll note the left hand appears to have seven digits. The guide claimed this was a characteristic of the grandfather god, Itzamna–along with the supernatural height that would have been required to place the prints where they were. But she offered a more mundane explanation. The ruling class among the Maya, like those of feudal Europe, valued bloodlines too highly to allow intermingling with common stock. They also valued, even revered, certain deformities. I’d seen art depicting midgets carried atop people’s shoulders like household gods. Why shouldn’t polydactyls have been equally exalted? Especially, argued the guide, since the mummified corpse of the great king Pacal, the architect and ruler of the Guatemalan city of Palenque, was discovered to have seven fingers?

When I got out of the sun and came back to my senses I looked into this. Actually now that I think about it, I don’t think I can claim to have come to my senses, or else I wouldn’t have looked into it nearly so deeply.

It turns out that according to the most recent reexaminations of the mummified corpse of Pacal, he didn’t actually have seven fingers after all. Put the word “polydactyly” into Google and you get all kinds of freakish pictures, none of which bear any similarity to the remarkably uniform and well-proportioned shape of the seven-fingered hand imprinted on the Temple of the Frescoes. Recently I went to the Body Worlds 2 exhibit at the Museum of Science–which I found, as I expected from the hype, to be on average one part disturbing, one part educational and one part egomaniacal. But they happened to have on display the plasticized corpse of a six-fingered man. (You killed my father. Prepare to die.) I examined the superfluous digit in detail, using my own hands and the others on display as comparison. And keeping in mind the extensive results of the Google search, the conclusion I drew was that even in the most innocuous cases of polydactyly, the extra finger is drastically reduced in size and functionality, even more so than a pinky. It tends to curve inward, huddling against the fifth finger like a scrawny little brother. In the specimen I examined, the sixth finger appeared to possess almost nothing in the way of independent musculature.

What I’m saying is there’s no way a real polydact produced the red handprints.

So maybe what we have is proof that the priest-ruler-architects of Tulum were not believers, but corrupt oligarchs deliberately pulling the strings of their congregation’s faith in order to keep themselves well-supplied with jade and mead and brightly-colored dye and willing volunteers for sacrifice. Certainly the recently laid bare failings of our own dominant religion lend credence to this view. But they also make it seem too easy a conclusion. If Apocalypto accomplished nothing else, it made clear the tendency of popular thought to read our own percieved shortcomings into the past. To turn history into parable.

I’d like to keep an open mind on the whole subject, if I could.

But look, there are only two possibilities. Either somebody faked the sixth and seventh fingers on the hand, perhaps simply by making a half-print followed by a whole one, or Itzamna really did descend from on high to bestow his blessing on his holy chosen. With the practical effect of dooming them to imminent enslavement and collapse. Unless, you know, he liked his worshippers so much that came down to retrieve them, and only left the handprints behind as proof that he’d allowed them to ascend.

Had it not been for the death of my camera battery, I suppose I might have been more inclined to take the rational view.

After floating out into the salty sea and seeing Tulum from the perspective of the Spaniards approaching through the gap in the reef, I walked barefoot through the ruins, over sharp limestone gravel, dodging thorn creepers and thumping big lizards, to the gateway in the ruins’ western wall. As usual, the bus was leaving, and I didn’t want to be on it. Erin left me behind with a frustrated humph, but she was the one who’d made me see the camera’s death as an opportunity. It was only five minutes I spent standing alone, looking back on the ruins, burning their shape into my memory, opening my senses to the salt wind and the heat–but I undertook it as a spiritual experience. An unmediated memory, which for the rest of my life I’ll be able to hold up against fiction and film and blanket advertising and say, “has any of it ever been as good as that?”.

A pelican approached from the direction of the Observatory. It circled the Castillo on motionless wings, perhaps contemplating the wisdom of picking a fight with an iguana. Then it sailed down over the cliffs out of sight. A little pod of tourists shuffled past me through the gate. After another moment I followed. And I felt… I don’t know. Connected.


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