Guatemala Flora, Fauna and Ethnology

Flora. – Altitude has an evident influence on the distribution of vegetation. On the Atlantic side, behind the coastal selvedge of the Paletuvieri, the tropical forest develops luxuriantly, with tall trees (precious woods, rubber plants, etc.) and very thick undergrowth with epiphytes. The forest also extends into the Petén, with a large representation of palm trees, and also camping, cashew, mahogany; only in the center of the country, less humid, does the forest yield to the savannah. In the higher regions, on the other hand, the forest is made up of coniferous trees, pines, firs, giant cedars, cypresses, and also oaks; the undergrowth consists of ferns, Vaccinium shrubs, etc. The pacific side, drier, is covered at the bottom by a gallery forest with undergrowth of dense, often thorny, shrubs.

Fauna. – According to Cachedhealth, the fauna of Guatemala is part of that fauna complex that zoogeographers indicate with the name of the neotropic region (South and Central America).

The Monkeys include various species of cebi; the Bats various large species of vampires. The Insectivores lacking in the neotropic region are represented in Guatemala only by a species of the genus Sorex whose presence is interpreted as due to recent immigration. Among the Carnivores we will mention the jaguar, various raccoons, some martens; among the Artiodactyls the peccary and among the Perissodactyls the tapir. There are many species of Rosicanti including various mice, the paca. The Toothless have various armadillos and anteaters; the Marsupials the opossum and some related species.

Birds are richly represented with many forms common to the regions of North America, but still with many forms typical of the neotropical fauna. The herpetological fauna is very rich, especially of Ophidî, Iguanas and other Lacertilî and terrestrial tortoises. Equally rich is the fauna of amphibians and freshwater fish.

The invertebrates include innumerable forms of insects, arachnids, terrestrial and freshwater molluscs.

Ethnology. – The Indian element counts, according to the 1921 census, including mestizos, 1,300,000 individuals (about 65% of the total population) and, when abstracting from the Xinca tribes of southern Guatemala, it is made up entirely of Maya tribes, since the Nahua colonies, from whose language comes the name of the country (quauhtematlan “on the place where the wood is cut”), have been completely absorbed by the rest of the population. The Maya population that still uses the mother tongue numbers about 700,000 individuals and is divided into the following groups: on the southern highlands the Quiché and Cakchiquel (420,000); in the western districts the Mam (120,000), in the northern ones the Pokomchi, the Kekchi and the Pokoman (130,000); the Chorti (20,000) belonging to the Chol group live in the Río Motagua valley. About equal in number are the Hispanized Indians. With the disappearance of the ancient civilization that archeology shows us to have reached such a high degree (see maya), the Maya are today mostly peasants. Corn is the main food, alongside black beans seasoned with salt and chile ; hunting and fishing are of secondary importance. The Indian, although reluctant to toil, with great activity creates clearings in the forest to extend his plantations.

They live in rectangular houses with sloping roofs; on their travels they use primitive screens covered with leaves. Most Indians are Catholic, although the lack of religious culture makes a good number of ancient customs and beliefs survive among them. This is explained by the fact that their economic base is, as centuries ago, the cultivation of corn, with which the old religion had many connections. The deity of corn is still generally worshiped; she is the giver of all goods and is invoked in prayers as “our father and our mother”. The religious pantheon of the Kekchi is complemented by a large number of nature deities (Tzultacá), which reside in the mountains, on the passes, in the caves, in the rivers, in the springs, in the trees. From their quarrels comes the storm; when they smoke clouds are formed. Whoever passes by a hot spring places a small bundle of dry branches there with respectful fear, as a ward off the fever that is attributed to such springs. Some of these beings hide under Christian names, so Tzultacá Xucaneb (the highest mountain in Alta Verapaz) often appears under the name of San Pablo. The most important divinity is, as already mentioned, that of maize, called Cagua (the Sir); he has an enemy who is tied up in the interior of the earth and causes earthquakes. Sorcerers still enjoy great authority everywhere. Many special customs are observed in cultivation. Marital abstinence is exercised for 13 days before the corn is sown, a custom that is also followed for other important enterprises. In some secluded regions the sexual act is performed in the middle of the field to ensure a bountiful harvest. The economic significance of corn explains the important part it plays also in mythical tales; in fact, as the Aryan shepherds told of the rape of oxen and their reconquest, so the Indians report how the corn was once hidden by a Tzultacá in a cave.

Guatemala Flora