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Our In-House Team

Question for October 2011

What did they do with the shells of armadillos after eating the meat? Asked by Allenbourn Middle School. Chosen and answered by Our In-House Team.

Pic 1: Modern Mexican armadillo model, with moving head and tail
Pic 1: Modern Mexican armadillo model, with moving head and tail (Click on image to enlarge)

After being asked this question this very month (October 2011) in one of our all-time favourite schools, we decided to answer it ourselves, albeit slightly tongue-in-cheek. All the examples we give here are from 20th century Mexico - yet there seems little reason to believe that the Aztecs/Mexica didn’t have exactly the same creative and practical sense: it strikes us as more than likely that they made use of armadillo shells in much the same ways. We know that armadillo meat - and soup - was part of their diet (though certainly not an every-day item on the menu), and they would NEVER have wasted the shell...

Pic 2: A pair of stuffed armadillos pinned to a tree, northern Mexico
Pic 2: A pair of stuffed armadillos pinned to a tree, northern Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

Given the armadillo’s obvious associations with the earth (its powerful burrowing habit, its tactic of rolling into a protective shell when in danger, its ability to disappear swiftly into the earth...) it’s fair to assume that the animal would have featured in ancient Mesoamerican folklore both as a symbol of our (and the earth’s) gentle side, and as a resource material for craft and utensil making. Its durable, patterned armour plating lends itself to being incorporated into folk masks - a venerable tradition in Mexico. Donald Cordry, in his classic study of Mexican masks, documented three types of armadillo mask: helmet mask covered with real armadillo hide, frontal mask with pieces of armadillo hide applied (examples, Pic 3), and carved armadillo with a hole cut in the middle of the sculpture so it can be worn about the hips.

Pic 3: Armadillo masks used in a traditional armadillo dance (linked to fertility), Guerrero
Pic 3: Armadillo masks used in a traditional armadillo dance (linked to fertility), Guerrero (Click on image to enlarge)

References to the armadillo are few and far between in Aztec sources. The Florentine Codex (Book 11) contains a brief description and illustration (Pic 4), and gives the creature the name ‘gourd-rabbit’. ‘It is called ayotochtli [normally translated as ‘tortoise-rabbit’] because its head is just like a rabbit’s; the ears are pointed, long; the muzzle stubby. And its hands, its feet are just like a rabbit’s. It has a shell; like the turtle it goes enveloped in its shell...’

Pic 4: Armadillo, Florentine Codex Book 11
Pic 4: Armadillo, Florentine Codex Book 11 (Click on image to enlarge)

Ever resourceful, Mexicans discovered long ago that the ‘gourd-rabbit’, turned upside down, can make a perfectly functional carrying basket, with the looped tail curled up towards the head, forming an excellent handle. You can see one (pic 5) in Brighton Museum (link below), and they’re sometimes advertised on internet curiosity sites. Whilst there’s no evidence that the creature was put to this use in pre-Columbian times, its Aztec (Náhuatl) name certainly hints at this (the gourd being a standard container in every household); and a parallel of sorts can be seen in the adaptation by the Mexica of upside-down turtle shells as drums...

Pic 5: Mexican armadillo basket, Brighton Museum
Pic 5: Mexican armadillo basket, Brighton Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources:-
Florentine Codex Book 11, translated and with notes by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J.O. Anderson, School of American Research & University of Utah, Santa Fe, 1963
Mexican Masks by Donald Cordry, University of Texas Press, 1980

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: photo by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore
• Pic 3: photo courtesy the University of Texas Press
• Pic 4: image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 5: photo courtesy Royal Pavilion, Libraries and Museums, Brighton & Hove

Places to visit: Brighton Museum

Try and spot an armadillo mask in our ‘Mexican Masks’ picture gallery!

See an example of a Mexican armadillo folk mask (scroll to near bottom)

Learn more about armadillo baskets!

Our In-House Team has answered 20 questions altogether:

Did the Aztecs have different types of chewing gum to today’s?

Did the Aztecs have a god of snow?

Which parts of the Day of the Dead festival go back to the Aztecs?

Why did they put holes [gaps] in the [upright huehuetl] drums?

Was Snake Woman an Aztec empress?

How big was the Aztec army?

Did they have First Aid?

Which pet was the Aztecs’ favourite?

Why did they call them ‘chinampas’?

Did the Spanish have an interpreter when they conquered the Aztecs?

Which was the Aztecs’ most fearsome weapon?

Why was the Sun God called Tonatiuh?

Did they send post (mail)?

Did they have the same seasons as we do?

What did they do with the shells of armadillos after eating the meat?

Why didn’t Aztec houses have doors?

Which was the biggest group [job sector] in Aztec society?

Why is it better to support loads on the forehead and not on the shoulders?

When children were punished, how long were they held over smoking chillies for?

What was the Aztecs’ greatest fear?

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: What a great pic/example! Actually no, we were referring to the ayotl or tortoise-shell drum. You can see an illustration in our Aztec Music pages, near the bottom of the ‘Music, Song and Dance among the Aztecs - a short introduction’ page. We hope to do a full feature on this instrument, one day...