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The Mexica pinauhuiztli beetle

The ‘deer-killer’ beetle

Do you remember the Mexica beliefs surrounding the pinauhuiztli, or chafer beetle? (“Ask the Experts”, December 2005)? Ethnozoologist Matthew McDavitt has kindly identified it for us...

Pic 1
Pic 1 (Click on image to enlarge)

Dr. McDavitt has written to us pointing out that, according to a list of modern-day Náhuatl words for anthropods from the State of Guerrero, pinawistli is the name given to what we variously call a camel spider, wind scorpion, or sun spider, belonging to the Solifugae family*. This means it does not like the sun and comes out to feed mainly at night (main pic).
Dr. McDavitt then compared it to images of the pinauhuiztli insect in the codices (pictures 1 and 2) and was able to confirm that it is one and the same. The similarities between these images and the real thing are very striking.

Pic 2
Pic 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

As arachnids go, it is quite large and, according to Dr. McDavitt, it moves very quickly on six of its eight legs. The other two (at the front) serve as sensors which it uses to feel out its path. Despite its size, rather ferocious appearance, and a fearsome reputation (in Mexico today it is also known as matavenados – “deer killer”!), it is not venomous but kills its prey (usually other insects or small lizards) by scooping them up and crushing them between its huge jaws. Quite the little warrior of the insect world! It is hardly surprising that the Mexica viewed it with such awe.

*Dr. Jonathan D. Amith, Náhuatl Learning Environment, entry pi:na:wistli; identified as Solifugae by A. Ballesteros of the Institute of Biology, National Autonomous University of Mexico (go to www.balsas-nahuatl.org); also known as i:na:n ko:lo:tl (‘mother of scorpions’).

Special thanks to Dr. Eleanor Wake, Dr. Matthew McDavitt, Dr. Arthur Anker and Dr. Jonathan Amith.

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: A camel spider in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Dr. Arthur Anker
• Pic 1: The pinauhuiztli, detail from the Codex Borbonicus (folio 3), scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 2: The beetle as a design on a ritual cloak named for the Lord of Death, detail from the Codex Magliabechiano (folio 3r), scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1970

‘Ask the Experts’ December 2005, answer by Dr. Eleanor Wake

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Mexicolore replies: Well pointed out! We think this is an error introduced by our translator into Spanish, so we’ve removed that bit in Spanish altogether from the 2005 answer, and simply left the term ‘escarabajo’.