The Avulsed Eye In Prehistoric Stone Sculpture of The Pacific Coast of Guatemala




Stone sculpture found on a farm near Tecpan, Guatemala. This is an image of only part of this sculpture.

avulsed eye -Tecpan

avulsed eye -Tecpan Guatemala

Many pre-classic and classic stone sculptures of human faces found on farms near the Pacific coast of Guatemala exhibit one or both eyeballs dangling from the eye socket. This is a regularly recurrent theme. I have photographed examples of this unusual feature to show how common this theme occurs. I had the opportunity to study a private collection of stone sculpture of over 100 pieces from the Pacific Coast and approximately 20% of these sculptured heads had one or both eyes avulsed. This collection did not include monumental large heads but only smaller heads’ small enough to be transported and collected legally in Guatemala. The following image will show some of these sculptures.



The next image is from the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City. The title is simply Anthropomorphic tenon, South Coast, Classic Period 250-900 AD.



The last sculpture pictured below is the same sculpture from Tecpan seen initially but with the entire sculpture in view.


The messages conveyed by these avulsed eye sculptures is open for discussion. One interpretation is apparently death since in the last stone head the non-avulsed eye is closed and the head is held in the grip of a stone jaguar. Another interpretation is that this stone sculpture represents a shamon transitioning into the spirit world and becoming the animal pictured on his head. Some how the evulsion of the eye is part of the transition. In some sculptures the message is not as obvious since the stone heads with dangling eyes are similar to stone heads without dangling eyes. In addition it is unclear why some heads show both eyes dangling-is this message different than only one eye dangling?

The medical name for this pathologic condition of the eye is avulsion of the globe of the eye. Today the avulsion of the eye is a rare event and there are very few reported cases of avulsion of both eye globes. Globe avulsion is a rare condition today usually resulting from severe trauma to the orbit and face. There are 3 mechanisms: (1) propulsion the globe forward after entering an elongated object to the medial orbit; (2) a wedge shaped object enters the orbit medially and displaces the globe anteriorly; and (3) optic nerve direct transection by a penetrating object [H.Razmjua and M.Masjed; J Res Med Sci. 2009 Jul-Aug; 14(4): 259–260]. Trauma appears to be the most common cause, which may be accidental or inflicted–as seen in a brutal sport called gouging, where the combatant tries to press the opponent’s eyeball out with his thumb [Tabatabaie SZ et al;Iran J Ophthalmol 2008;20:46-9]. Furthermore, there is a psychological illness called oedipism where the subject is known to voluntarily gouge out his own eye [Jones NP; Br J Ophthalmol 1990;74:571-3]. Non-traumatic or spontaneous globe luxation has been reported in patients with floppy eyelid syndrome and Crouzon’s disease, where the etiology is shallowness of the orbital cavity [Alexandrakis G and Chang WJ; Arch Ophthalmol 1999;117; 138-9]. Spontaneous globe luxation is a rare condition. The etiology of spontaneous anterior globe luxation is the presence of a shallow orbital configuration and lax eyelids. Patients suffered from floppy eyelid syndrome (FES). Orbital imaging revealed no orbital masses and normal extra ocular muscles.. There was no clinical, radiological or serological evidence of thyroid abnormality. In this group of patients, the etiology of spontaneous globe luxation is contingent on both shallow orbits and lax eyelids. There is an interesting case report of an

obese 35-year-old man was examined because of loss of vision in his right eye and gradually decreasing vision in his left eye. He also complained of redness, irritation, and a foreign-body sensation bilaterally. His medical history and his vision had previously been excellent, according to his medical records at the company at which he was employed as a computer engineer. However, during the past 4 years he had had an obsessive-compulsive disorder, which was treated with risperidone. His parents reported that he had a peculiar habit of luxating his eyes several times a day. When he was asked to demonstrate, he easily everted his upper eyelids and luxated his globes with his finger. He then pushed the globes back to their normal position [M. Apostolopoulos et al; Arch Ophthalmol;2004;122(10); 1555-1556].

In my practice I have one patient from Guatemala in whom a similar eye irritation precedes the spontaneous avulsion of one eye. This has occurred infrequently and is transient without a change in vision. This patient’s son has the same problem as well suggesting a familial condition.

Returning to the concept that the avulsed eye stone sculptures may represent a Shamon’s ceremonial ritual. There are 5 reported cases in the medical literature of drug induced self-mutilation by eye avulsion. The first [I Tuwir et al; Br J Opthalmol 2005; 89] was a report of a 19 year who took “ectasy” [ 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine], LSD [lysergic acid] and alcohol.

The four additional patients [N. P. Jones; British J Opthalmol;1990; 74; 571-573] had paranoid delusions due to drug induced toxic psychosis and/or functional psychosis such as schizophrenia. Three of these 4 patients were using hallucinogenic drugs.

The late Maya archaeologist Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi, was convinced that hallucinogenic mushroom rituals were a central aspect of Maya religion. He based this theory on his identification of a mushroom stone cult that came into existence in the Guatemala Highlands and Pacific coastal area around 1000 B.C. along with a trophy head cult associated with the Mesoamerican ballgame. In most cases the mushroom imagery was associated with ritual sacrifice in the Underworld, with jaguar transformation and calendar period endings, and with the decapitation and resurrection of the underworld Sun God by a pair of deities associated with the planet Venus. This also supports the interpretation of the jaguar-stone noted above as a transformation.


Since head trauma is the most common cause of global avulsion of the eye in the current medical literature, it is possible that head trauma was responsible for the global avulsion depicted in the stone sculpture found in Guatemala. The question remains, in what context did the head trauma occur? The investigations of ancient Mayan warfare by Dr. Stanley Serafin [S.Serafin et al; Am.J.Physic. Anthropology; 154; 140-151; 2014] in the Yucatan studied cranial and projectile trauma during from the Middle Preclassic (600–300 BC) to the Postclassic (AD 1050–1542) periods. The materials included 116 nearly complete crania from 14 archaeologic sites. Some Mayan weapons had sharp points or cutting edges of chert or obsidian. Long-distance weapons included atlatl darts, arrows, and sling stones, while close quarter weapons included spears, knives, wedge-shaped triangular axes, maces, and clubs [Masson MA and Peraza C.; 2010; Evidence for Maya-Mexican inter- action in the archaeological record of Mayapan. In: Vail G, Hernandez C, editors. Astronomers, scribes, and priests; Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks. p 77–114]. One would expect that the forms of prehistoric trauma most commonly due to assault affect the skull, particularly the nasals, zygomatics, and mandible (Lovell, 1997; Trauma analysis in paleopathology. Yearb. Phys Anthropol 40:139–170].
Dr. Serafin’s research correlated trauma-specifically head trauma-in an attempt to reconstruct changing patterns of violence and warfare among the Middle Preclassic and Postclassic Maya of the northwest Yucatan.

The avulsed eye sculptures appear to have no evidence for head trauma. The skulls are intact. The avulsed eye in my opinion supports Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi ideas regarding the use of hallucinogenic drugs in Mayan ceremonies.

Robert Drapkin MD

avulsed eye -Tecpan

Share this post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *