Shepherdesses and Sentimental Sheep

For more than 400 years the Tzotzil Maya Indians have inhabited the highlands of Mexico's remote and southernmost state, Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala. Today, sheep and sheep's wool play a central role in Tzotzil economy and society. The Tzotzil adopted sheep from the Spanish conquerors during the first half of the 16th century. Their breed is descended from the Spanish Churra, Manchega, Lacha and Castella breeds. Early on, Tzotzil women developed their own Chiapas breed of sheep, along with a unique husbandry system that allows these animals to survive in the difficult mountain environment.

The Tzotzil system of ovine husbandry and health care is derived from ancient Mayan ethnomedicine and cosmology combined with herding techniques learned from the early Spanish colonists. Chiapas sheep experience significantly lower occurrences of certain illnesses such as fascioliasis, or liverfluke disease, compared to sheep raised under experimental conditions. The animals' good health is due in large part to the care they receive from their shepherdesses.

Chiapas sheep have high milk production. Although their wool production is low by Western standards, they yield a longer, coarser fiber that is easy to process by hand. More than 400 years of adaptation have made the sheep exceptionally hardy and disease resistant. Numerous government agencies have attempted to introduce improved breeds plus modern animal-husbandry techniques into Indian-managed flocks. To date these attempts have all failed, largely because they have not offered any real improvement within the context of Tzotzil production systems.

A Sheep's Life

An average family flock consists of 10 sheep: three rams and seven ewes. Most of the animals are offspring of an initial pair of sheep given to a couple as a wedding gift. Families earn up to 40% of their annual income from sheepraising via an active trade in wool and woolen garments. Sheep are rarely sold, and the Tzotzil religion prohibits the consumption of mutton. Moreover, sheep are believed to have souls and to experience human emotions such as happiness and sadness.

The Tzotzil sheep are grazed daily from about 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. They are tethered to a stake that is moved three or four times a day. During the rainy season, the sheep are grazed on communal pastures. In order to protect the maize crops that the flocks pass on the way to graze, each animal is muzzled with a handmade grass muzzle. During the dry season, sheep graze the harvested maize fields. Later in the season the flocks are moved to the forest to browse.

At night the sheep are kept in wooden shelters within the family vegetable garden. The shelters are moved every six weeks to manure the soil. The flock is watered once or twice daily from buckets, almost on an individual basis. Once a week the animals are given local mountain salt and, when available, crop surpluses such as squash or potatoes left from a seed batch.

Proof in the Fluke

Fascioliasis is predominant in the Chamuls region during the dry season. Caused by Fasciola hepatica, a leaf-shaped fluke, the course of fascioliasis depends on the number of parasites an animal ingests. With a heavy infection, sheep may die in six to eight weeks. The parasite requires moisture and certain snail species for its development. Adult flukes live and reproduce in the bile ducts of their vertebrate host. Their eggs are excreted in feces. The small larvae hatch from the eggs, then infect a snail host. The larvae leave the snail and encyst themselves on wet vegetation. Goats become infected when they feed on the infested vegetation. Symptoms include swelling in the lower jaw and reduced lactation. The swelling results from pathological changes, such as disturbed circulation and/or depressed blood protein. Swelling of the lower jaw may also be due to other diseases, such as common stomach worms.

Tzotzil shepherdesses refer to lower jaw swelling as 'water necklace' and consider it a specific sheep disease rather than a non-specific symptom. They attribute it to the ingestion of various plants that grow near wells, rivers, meadows and maize fields. In particular, a small herbaceous species known in Tzotzil as "lake flower" and "sheep sorrel" (Rumex acetosella) are associated with the disease. According to the women, the second most common cause of 'water necklace' is sadness when the sheep feel that something is amiss. Sadness may be triggered by a husband and wife arguing, an owner thinking about selling his animals, or any other disturbance such as an inattentive shepherdess.

The Tzotzil treat 'water necklace' with home remedies, prayers, and rituals. The most popular therapy is drenching sheep for several days with an infusion of 13 sprigs of Espatorium ligustrinum. This shrub is commonly found in the highlands of Chiapas and is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Another cure involves mixing three small cloves of garlic with homemade sugarcane alcohol, and administering this to the sheep orally once daily over several days. Shepherdesses say this preparation also relieves bloat. Following the same schedule, a mixture of salt and dried maize may be fed to ailing sheep. Another oral preparation given only once is 13 chili peppers blended with water. This remedy is used for liver illness in general.

Because the Tzotzil believe that 'water necklace' may be caused by sadness, a ritual treatment may be called for. In one such ritual, the shepherdess leads the sick sheep to a trail crossing and requests the sadness to leave her sheep and depart down any of the trails.

Local Knowledge

The Tzotzil practice of muzzling sheep and container watering, minimizes contact with aquatic plants and the moist areas where the snail hosts of F. hepatica flourish. The regular cleaning and moving of shelters makes it difficult for the parasite to reach infective stages. The value of Tzotzil therapies is more difficult to assess. Certainly, the salt and maize feedings produce some nutritional benefits. The action of other ingredients in Tzotzil ethnoveterinary medicines is unknown, although further evaluation is planned.

Conventional approaches to livestock development that ignore local knowledge, practices and beliefs have uniformly failed for the Tzotzil. It is time to learn from local people's stockraising experience, disease terminology, home remedies and even their concept of animal emotions. Only then will it be possible to design appropriate and acceptable interventions to help keep a few more livestock souls "happy" and thus healthy and productive.

Perezgrovas, R. Sheep Husbandry and Healthcare Among Tzotzil Maya Shepherdesses. In Ethnoveterinary Research and Development. C. M. McCorkle, E. Mathias-Mundy, T. W. Schillhorn van Veen (eds.). Forthcoming, 1995.


Dr. C. M. McCorkle
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