Lawrence G. Desmond, Ph.D.
Senior Reseach Fellow in Archaeology
Mesoamerican Archive and Research Project
Peabody Museum, Harvard University

Bibliographic Reference

Lawrence G. Desmond, Chacmool.  In, David Carrasco, ed.,
Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, 3 Vols.,
New York, Oxford University Press, Vol.1, pp. 168-169, 2001.

The chacmool is a sculptural figure seated on the ground with its upper back raised, the head is turned to a near right angle, the legs are drawn up to the buttocks, elbows rest on the ground, and its hands hold a vessel, disk or plate on the stomach where offerings may have been placed or human sacrifices carried out.

The current name chacmool is derived from the name "Chaacmol" which Augustus Le Plongeon gave to a sculpture he and his wife Alice Dixon Le Plongeon excavated from within the Temple of the Eagles and Jaguars at Chiche'n Itza' in1875.  He translated "Chaacmol" from Yucatecan Maya as the "paw swift like thunder" (Le Plongeon 1896:157).  The name, he said, was given by the ancient Maya to a powerful warrior prince who had once ruled Chiche'n Itza', and was represented by the sculpture.

In an article on the archaeological work of Le Plongeon by Stephen Salisbury, Jr. that was  published in 1877 in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, the name Chaacmol was changed to chacmool (an archaic Yucatecan Maya word for puma).

The chacmool excavated by the Le Plongeons was hidden near the village of Piste', about one kilometer from Chiche'n Itza', while they waited for permission from the president of Mexico, Lerdo de Tejada, to ship it to Philadelphia for the Centennial Exposition in 1876.  It was discovered however, and then paraded with great fanfare into Me'rida, the capital of Yucata'n.  The Yucatecans considered it a great cultural treasure and put it on display, but within a short time the new president, Porfirio Diaz, recognized its importance and sent an armed military contingent to Me'rida to bring it to Mexico City where it has remained.

Chacmools are found in Central Mexico and Yucata'n with the greatest number concentrated at the archaeological sites of Tula, Hidalgo, and Chiche'n Itza', Yucata'n.  A chacmool excavated from the Aztec Templo Mayor in Mexico City in the early 1980s was found fully polychromed.  At Tula and Chiche'n Itza', the chacmool was usually placed in the antechamber of a temple presumably to receive offerings or for sacrifice.

Aztec chacmools exhibit Tla'loc iconography, and the one unearthed at the Templo Mayor was found on the side of the Great Temple dedicated to Tla'loc.  Maya chacmools also have Tla'loc characteristics, and Tla'loc iconography is incised on the ear ornaments of the chacmool excavated at Chiche'n Itza' by Augustus and Alice Le Plongeon.

Twelve chacmools have been located at the Toltec city of Tula, fourteen at Maya Chiche'n Itza', one without provenience is stylistically Aztec, and two are from the Aztec Templo Mayor in Mexico City.  Other chacmools have been found at the archaeological site of Cempoala, in the states of Michoacan and Tlaxcala, and at the Maya site of Quirigua' in Guatemala.

A sculpture identified as a classic period Chalchihuites culture proto-chacmool excavated at Cerro del Huistle, Huejuquilla el Alto in the state of Jalisco may indicate that the chacmool had its origin in north-central Mexico.

In Central Mexico, no antecedents of the chacmool have been located at the important archaeological sites of Teotihuacan, Cacaxla, and Xochicalco, nor are there examples of the sculpture in the surviving manuscripts from Central Mexico.

There have been no proto-chacmools found in the Maya area.  But, stylistic similarities to the chacmool such as the reclining position of a figure in a classic period mural painting at Bonampak, the position of "captive" figures in stone bas reliefs found at classic sites, and the form and function of the post classic chacmool, have been used to explain an origin for the chacmool in the Maya area.

Annotated Bibliography

Desmond, Lawrence Gustave and Phyllis Mauch Messenger.  A Dream of Maya:
Augustus and Alice Le Plongeon in Nineteenth Century Yucatan.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988.  Provides an account of the lives, archaeological work, and theories of the Le Plongeons within the context of the developing field of archaeology during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.   The excavation of the chacmool at Chiche'n Itza' is described in detail.

Graulich, Michael.  "Quelques observations sur les sculptures Mesoamericaines dites 'Chac Mool.'"  Annales Jaarboek, pp. 51-72, 1984.  A study of the chacmool and its place in Mesoamerican religious practices including human sacrifice, and as an intermediary between man and the gods of rain, water, and fertility.

Hers, Marie-Areti.  Los Toltecas en tierras Chichimecas.  Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, Instituto de Investigaciones Esteticas, 1989.  The author devotes a chapter of her book to a sculpture identified as a proto-chacmool which was uncovered during excavations at Cerro del Huistle, Huejuquilla el Alto in the state of Jalisco, Mexico.   The in the stylistic development of the chacmool presented by the author, the proto-chacmool is place within the Chalchihuites culture of the classic period.

Le Plongeon, Augustus.  Queen Móo and the Egyptian Sphinx.  By the author, New York, 1896.  Considered by Augustus to be his most important work; in it he sets forth his evidence that the Maya were the founders of Egyptian civilization.  The chacmool is presented by Le Plongeon as the likeness Prince Chaacmol,  one of the rulers of Chiche'n Itza'.

Miller, Mary Ellen.  "A Re-examination of the Mesoamerican Chacmool."  The Art Bulletin Volume 67, No. 1, (1985): 7-17.  A study of the chacmool based on art historical and archaeological evidence which gives its spatial distribution, stylistic development, religious meaning, and places its origin within the Maya area.

Salisbury, Stephen Jr.  "Dr. Le Plongeon in Yucatan."   Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, No. 69, pp. 70-119, 1877.  This article, based on reports sent to Salisbury by Le Plongeon, was published at the height of Le Plongeon's reputation as an archaeologist when he had financial support from the American Antiquarian Society.  The Le Plongeon name Chaacmol  is changed to chacmool by Salisbury in this article.