Figure 1

The 36th page of the Pre-Colombian codex Nuttal (fig.1) depicts (according. to Alfonso Casó) the origin of the Mixtec nation (and thereof the origin of human kind). The small square symbol placed in the right corner at the bottom, called chalchi- huitl meaning the precious stone, is a symbol which denotes “life”. Its form is similar to the scheme of a cell with the nucleus. Above it another precious stone is seen, here in its circular form. It breaks, or divides, and lets the germ out. Such a whole is a hieroglyph for the “beginning of life”.

Cell-like signs of precious stones correlate with Aztec texts. For example:

  1. ritual talk of midwives to the newly born: “You begin to bloom and to germ like a precious stone“,
  2. a message addressed by the Aztec priest to the penitent: “When you were created and despatched and your father and mother Quetzalcóatl (the Feathered Serpent) formed you as a precious stone, very clean, which comes out of the bosom of its mother, where it originates…”
  3. customary announcement of a happy father in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan about the pregnancy of his daughter: “Let you all know, that our Lord extended his mercy because he put in Mrs. M, the maid, recently married, a precious stone and rich feathers which made her pregnant…”
  4. one more Aztec text: “(gods) created you of the precious stone“.

My understanding that chalchihuitl as a reproductive cell – an egg – was established from a correlation of the drawings of the precious stone, resembling simplified cell schemes together with the texts on the properties of this jewel. Its conotation as a mystical “symbol of life” could only be the secondary one.

The ability to build a body from its progeny cells is one of the most important properties of the reproductive cells and is performed in the course of subsequent cell divisions. The texts cited above state explicitly that the ability to build a body is a property of the precious stone too. The possession by the precious stone of the other property, which is basic for life, that is to divide itself, is attested by the drawings of the codex Vindobonensis (2).

Figure 2

The precious stone placed in the attic and inside the symbolic temple of life divides into two and then into four parts. Accompanying rock drawings from Cuba (b,c) depict this event even more accurately.

Another example is seen on page 36 of Nuttal (1). Cross-sections of two `vessels` are visible at the bottom centre. They are presenting halves of the `square` precious stone which is placed on the right. As a matter of fact they are only variations of this symbol, called chalchihuitl apazco, meaning vessel of the precious stone or simply the precious vessel. This symbol which is used in pictoral genealogical records symbolizes the reproductive cell which gives the origin of the queen’s or princess’ descendant body or child. It is a vessel because it serves to preserve “life” and to store

intra-cellular structures – which point is discussed later.

Figures 3a and 3b

In order to determine the reason for depicting the wall of the precious vessel in such an elaborate way, a comparison was made of the drawing (3a) with an electro-micrograph of the cross-section of a human oocyte (i.e. an egg before ovulation (3b).

The successive layers, from the (bottom) centre of the egg are:

  1. cell nucleus,
  2. cell cytoplasm with mitochondria or the cellular bodies supplying chemical energy,
  3. the cell wall with growing out microcilia,
  4. so-called transparent envelope, a jelly-body, protecting the oocyte.

All these layers have their graphic equivalents in the majority of the precious vessels depicted in the codices.

The left side precious vessel (p. 36 of Nuttal) (1), contains a drawing of the sea snail. According to Edward Seler: “the sea snail symbolizes birth of man”. According to Andres de Olmos: “yolcayotl – the snail – signifies the beginning of proliferation”.

Above the snail there is a bunch of grass tied in a knot. In the right side precious vessel there is the same bunch of grass but already untied and held by the god’s hand. Such a bunch of grass is a symbol which denotes malinalli meaning: the twisted thing or something that is twisted. This grass was commonly used by Indians for twisting strings. Location of the sign of twisted string within the sign of the cell suggests an analogy with the helicoidally stranded DNA.

Confirmation of this supposition has been found in many drawings; for example in the codex Borgia (4) there is a symbol of malinalli, the twisted thing, depicted in its original double helix form and placed inside the enlarged nucleus of the precious stone or the egg-cell.

Figure 4 C.BORGIA. On the right: serpent with its tongue equating to the self-duplicating, twisted string of malinalli

Strands of DNA contain the genetic record composed of the so called triplet codons, which are sequences of three adjacent bases. Triplets code for one of 20 aminoacids of the protein. The drawing (4) of malinalli also presents on each of its coils 3 coloured stripes (in original: white, yellow, red) as if depicting the idea of an arrangement of the genetic code.

The idea of information arranged linearly (colored stripes) within the cell is often depicted in codices. It is expressed by many-coloured striped strands called tlapapalli or the striped thing, something that is a striped. It is relevant to the notion of chromosome as an elongated cell structure bearing genetic information linearly arranged.

Figure 5

There is a series of drawings recording the birth of the son of a Mixtec princess called 3-Flint (acc. to Alfonso Casó), on the 9th page of Nuttal. One of the pictures (5) shows the precious vessel with the naked body of the princess. In front of her, also in the nucleus of the egg, there is a many coloured striped strand.

The function of this strand in the cell finds a striking explanation in the traditional text in which the Aztec father instructing his daughter exclaimed: “you are my colour, my reflection”.

Another drawing, reproduced from codex Bodley (6), gives to the strand in question the unmistakably biological meaning and significance.

Figure 6. Above C. Bodley; below C. VINDOBONENSIS: precious vessel with a striped strand or tlapapalli

C.BODLEY It shows the Tree of Life growing out of the tlapapalli – the hieroglyph of a chromosome, correctly placed in the precious vessel’s or cell’s nucleus. The whole expresses an idea of the cellular nature of all life (everything has its origin in the cell) and of the commonly shared genetic information arranged linearly along the cellular strand.

Exactly the same strand surrounds page 36 of Nuttal on three sides. It has a stylised head of a serpent with a widely opened mouth added at the end of the left side. There are small, spirally twisted, feathers along the whole body. They testify that this striped, information bearing, twisted strand is being identified with the Feathered Serpent or Quetzalcóatl. (See above: “your father and mother, Quetzalcóatl, formed you” ;”precious stone and rich feathers, what made her pregnant”).

The narrow strand with `mitochondria`, the same which is visible in the two central precious vessels, is running along the serpent’s body. It informs that this serpent’s place is the cell. In this connection, strikingly significant is the Zapotec Indians’ term for the snake: xica pita’o mani, which means an “animal from god’s vessel”.

At the end of the right side the strand transforms itself into a human trunk with kicking legs. The conclusion is that this peculiar symbol equates the strand with the human body, expressing the relationship of genotype and phenotype. Genotype being a collection of genes recorded on the strands of chromosomes and phenotype being a body built with participation of these genes. Such an explanation is supported by the religious song of the Toltec Indians, creators of the Feathered Serpent cult: “I, the reproduction of the Old man, the serpent of the night”. A literary translation is that the man is a specific reproduction of the ancient genetic record on the invisible, hidden in “the night”, serpentine strands of chromosomes.

The Indian rock painting from San Emigdio Range, California (Natural History, No. 6, 1964) provided further evidence that these striped and twisted strands really represent DNA and chromosomes (7).

This painting is only a fragment of what was an immense rock painting with obviously biological content depicting numerous schemes of cells and chromosomes transforming into animal and human shapes. The drawing reproduced here (7 centre) presents the DNA’s essential property, that is the ability of self replication.

Figure 7
Xochicalco Basement self-duplication (left)
Scheme of DNA, San Emigdio Range, Cal.(right)

Xochicalco Scheme of DNA San Emigdio Range, Cal.

Basement self-duplication

In order to duplicate itself, the DNA splits, forming what are termed “replication forks” (7a). The indian drawing (7b) represents clearly, and moreover schematically, the same phenomenon. The spread out hands are an allegorical represenatation of the anxiety of the living thing, existing thus far in its genotype, to realise itself in bodily form.

The progeny strands of DNA originated this way, coexist in the cell nucleus bound together by a small body called centromere. Such a double chromosome is called a bivalent chromosome or simply – bivalent. When preparing itself for the cell division, the bivalent constricts and twists its strands to form two thick rods, still connected and easily visible under the microscope in the form of “x”.

Indians were familiar with this form of chromosome too, and commonly depicted them as the sign ollin, composed of two rods. Often it was accompanied by the sign of the precious stone or the cell. (8).

Figure 8. Drawing (8a) is an electromicrograph of the bivalent chromosome. Drawing (8b), reproduced from the Bodley codex, shows ollin or bivalent chromosome inside the schematic view of the cell. Drawing (8c) shows various styles. Legs added to the rods (codex Vindobonensis) express the chromosome’s ability to `trespass’ to the progeny cells.

Drawing (8d), the caban sign, a Mayan substitute for ollin, represents rods together with the sign of a cell, an hieroglyph for `sun-life’.

For comparison the same symbol found in the tomb of the egyptian Pharao Tutankhamon (8e) and another one, a decoration on an Etrurian wine cup (8f) are also shown. In addition, on the golden plate from Crete, there are twin chromosomes which assume the shape of serpents (8g) which, as described above, was also a mexican practice.

In popular use the Aztec sign ollin denoted “earthquake”, but its linguistic meaning is quite different. The stem ol means something round or something rotating which correlates with the helical twist of DNA. The word ollini meant not only the rotary motion but also movement, migration of a big herd, group of people (López Austin) which could refer to the “migration” of chromosomes to progeny cells.

Like Egyptians, the Zapotec Indians used to put the sign of two rods on the ash urns of those cremated as a symbol of eternal regeneration. Their name for the sign was xoo, meaning powerful (and possibly representative of its genetic activity). At that time the Maya tribes Tzeltal-Tzotzil called it chic or getting rid of (the twin rod?) and Mayas from Yucatan called this sign caban or that what is underneath, below or hidden.

These correlations of graphic and linguistic material indicate that the sign ollin, placed in the cell nucleus, primarily depicted the bivalent chromosome and secondarily the “earthquake”.

Figure 9

If the Indians used the notation of bivalent they would also have known that number of chromosomes in the cell is strictly defined and that there are specific characteristics for each species: men have 46 in their cells – 23 from the mother and 23 from the father. The egg and sperm before fertilization contain 23 chromosomes (9b) and it is exactly this which is depicted in the rock painting from Santa Barbara Mountains in California (Natural History, No. 6,1964) (9a).

There is a horizontal strand visible with a scheme of double helix accompanied by 23 (!) rods of different lengths. The presence of the helix suggests that it is related to the rods.

Although the codices depict many aspects of biological origin just one of them, page 52 of codex Vindobonensis (10), is presented here as representative illustration. It is concerned with the origin of the agave, one of the most precious plants of Meso-America, which supplied the Indians then as it does today with fibre as well as an alcoholic beverage. The page presents a “table” explaining basic notions regarding the genetic code and protein synthesis in the cell.

The reading of the pictographs begins in the bottom left corner. The process is animated by the invisible, therefore black, `spirits’. Amazonian tribes call these spirits visible only in shamanic trance and present in plants, animals and all parts of the human body – yoshi or maninkari).

Figure 10

The 20 identical signs (10d) in the left bottom corner can be read as equivalents of the 20 aminoacids most commonly used for protein synthesis. Above, (1e), there is a frame divided into 4 coloured fields, or tlapapalli, the striped thing, symbolising the strand with linearly arranged information. Here it consists of only 4 colours corresponding to the 4 bases coding for the sequence of aminoacids in the protein chain. To the right appears tlapapalli (10f) with only 3 fields of 3 colours, as codons specific for each one of the 20 aminoacids, consists of 3 bases.

The black “spirit”, (f), is shown with its finger pointing upwards at the bunch of malinalli on top of a set of stylised feathers of the Feathered Serpent, (10l), which is the personification of the chromosome ( 1 ).

As already indicated, malinalli, the twisted thing, represents the double helix of DNA. From between the leaves of malinalli, a stream of red blood flows meaning that the twisted thing generated “blood or living flesh” (acc. to Edward Seler). In other words, the double helix structure has generated (stimulated the generation of) an organism.

To the far right (i), a fragment of the precious vessel is visible to inform that the events described have their place in the cell.

In the upper part of the page the “stepped fret” patterns are visible. These symbolise building blocks of the “temple of life” or the earthly body. In the context of the whole they might be represenations of the protein particles.

The whole process results in the original production of the bush of agave presented in two projections (s, w) framed by “protein blocks”.

An adequate spoken commentary to the drawings are the words of an Aztec song honouring the god of corn, Xochipilli:

“The god of corn (thus the corn plant) is born
In the fog and water place
Where human children are being made
In Michoacan of the precious stone”.

Michoacan is a mythical “place of descent” of the new born from heavens to the earth (acc. to E. Seler and Piña Chan). This place of birth is identified here as a nucleus of the precious stone or a germ cell, where obviously plants and people originate.

The application of the biological approach to the Indian symbols allowed me to understand how their biological knowledge had been transformed into a religious system and had led to the creation of Quetzalcóatl, The Feathered Serpent (quetzal – the holy bird, cóatl – serpent), the most worshipped, if not the supreme, god of Meso-America and regarded as the creator of Man.

Figure 11. Two rods of a bivalent chromosome; each one is a strand of double helix with protruding loose loops of DNA

Page 36 of Nuttal (1) depicts the cell strand twisted, bearing linear information and transforming itself into a human body – as a serpent with feathers. A kind of allegory is suggested: from the feathered serpent, the chromosome (or simply from the DNA’s double helix), to the human body. Unanswered is why the Indians compared the chromosome (or DNA’s double helix) to the serpent with feathers as there was no such creature existing in nature. The electromicrographs of the bivalent chromosomes provide the answer (11).

From the chromosomal strands (11), numerous loose loops of DNA protrude. Biologists call this form “the lampbrush chromosome”. But for an Indian, also a contemporary one, such a picture would more likely be seen as a serpent with feathers!

There are many other examples which strongly support such an explanation. Throughout the whole Meso-America feathered serpents commonly appear double, as a pair or as one body with two heads. The drawing ( 12) shows how one serpent (single tail) “replicates” itself to produce two twin serpents. The twist of their bodies is an allusion to the double helix. To avoid any doubt, a hieroglyph of malinalli grass is added, meaning the twisted thing.

Figure 12. The process of serpent’s “self-duplication” similar to that of dna


Quetzalcoatl’s other commonly used name was the Precious Twins, which is in full accordance with effigies of doubled, twin serpentine bodies representing bivalent chromosomes or DNA’s double helix. This is why the artist placed two such serpents (wearing symbolic mask’s of Quetzalcóatl) inside the cell nucleus and surrounded them with the double helix ring marked with triplet codons (4). According to Quiche Indians (the holy book of Popol Vuh), the first living being in the primaeval ocean was the serpent with green (holy) feathers. The same creature has been identified as “the living germ of the lake and the sea” (acc. to J. de Cordoba).

Zapotec Indians used to refer to the serpent with the words: xica pita’o mani, which means “an animal from god’s vessel”. The god’s or precious vessel, chalchihuitl apazco, proved to be a living cell.

It is reasonable to presume that such were the cases for the serpent worship in Meso-America. (see also next chapter).

On the completion of my search I concluded that my initial thesis, i.e. that the ancient Meso-American Indians possessed biological knowledge has been confirmed as:

  1. the great quantity of formal likenesses between Mexican pictographs and biological structures excludes it having happened by chance or coincidence;
  2. the original Indian texts which correlate with graphic biological presentations, additionally attest to their biological intention;
  3. symbols do not appear separately but form logical, complete monothematic sequences, furthermore, symbols of simple structures, set together to form symbols of higher complexity, are always in accordance with the correct biological order;
  4. the extent of the numerical reconciliation definitely excludes chance or coincidence:
    – cell’s or chalchihuitl division in 2, then in 4 parts,
    – 20 symbols of aminoacids and 4 bases of the genetic code and 3 bases of codon,
    – 23 rods of a double helix structure, 2 rods of a bivalent chromosome.

My final conclusions are as follows:

Biological awareness in the Meso-American nations, despite being somewhat general and fragmentary, was possessed at least 750 years before the acquisition of similar knowledge by modern civilisation.

The fundamental question posed by these conclusions is what was the source of such an advanced biological understanding by the ancient sages and priests. In the first place I believe that shamanic learning techniques should be considered.

It is commonly known that american Indians practise what is termed “altered state of consciousness” or the “shamanic trance” which gives them access to information unavailable for them by the usual, sensual methods of learning. Such a view has a strong support from the results of numerous recent scientific studies and experiments. It is very probable that ancient Indians used the same way to obtain knowledge about their own bodies.


Many more examples derived from the iconographical as well as spoken messages could easily be cited to support this necessarily concise presentation of evidence. The biological interpretation of symbols does not exclude their mystical or legendary explanations; both superimpose and entwine.

The question posed is, from where the Indian knowledge came , as its elements appear at least several hundred years before the development of the microscope in Europe, not to mention the discovery of DNA’s double helicoidal structure in 1953.

I am convinced that this knowledge originates from the alternative to the scientific source, that is the “altered state of consciousness”, which gives the mind access to the universal “field of information”, induced by the ingestion of the hallucinogenic plant substances. This is widely described in the anthropological literature as “shamanic trance”. The meaning and scope of this practice has never been properly acknowledged nor understood. Even students as prominent as Malinowski or Eliade have never been ready to acknowledge natives’ reports on their encounters with spiritual beings when in a trance, as dealing with any kind of objective supernatural reality whatsoever. According to Indians, these supernatural beings are spirits of nature, plants, animals and stones and protective spirits of tribes, persons and spirits of progenitors.

One of the scholars who ventured to undertake a personal experience is Michael Harner. Whilst residing with Conibo Indians in the Peruvian Amazon, he drunk the halucinogennic ayahuasca and:

For several hours after drinking the brew. I found myself, although awake, in a world literally beyond my wildest dreams… I met bird-headed people, as well as dragon-like creatures who explained that they were the true gods of this world. I enlisted services of other spirit helpers in attempting to fly through the far reaches of the galaxy. Transported into a trance where the supernatural seemed natural, I realised that anthropologists, including myself, had profoundly underestimated the importance of the drug in affecting native ideology…
(Harner, Michael, 1968, The sound of rushing water. Natural History Magazine, 77/6:28-33, 60-61).

Harner noticed that his visions emanated from giant serpents resting at the lowest depths of his brain. This experience fully accords with what shamans around the world unanimously say about giant serpents, reptiles and dragons being the first entities to appear in trances and transmitting visual or verbal messages. The instructive potential of these trances is attested by another of Harner’s writings.

First they showed me Planet Earth as it was eons ago, before there was any life on it. I saw an ocean, barren land, and a bright blue sky (…) Before me the magnificence of plant and animal creation and speciation – hundreds of millions of years of activity – took place on a scale and vividness impossible to describe.
(Harner, Michael, 1980, The way of the shaman, New York, Harper&Row).

Jeremy Narby as well, whilst staying with Shipibo Indians in Perú, after having drunk ayahuasca entered into a trance:

I suddenly found myself surrounded by two gigantic boa constrictors that seemed fifty feet long. I was terrified. These enormous snakes are there, my eyes are closed and I see a spectacular world of brillant lights, and in the middle of these hazy thoughts, the snakes start talking to me without words. They explain that I am just a human being (…) I find myself in a more powerful reality that I do not understand at all and that, in my arrogance, I did not even suspect existed (…) I fly in the air, thousands of feet above the earth, and looking down, I see an all-white planet (…) I see a green leaf, with its veins, than a human hand, with its veins…
(Narby, Jeremy, 1998, The cosmic serpent, DNA and the origins of knowledge, Victor Gollancz, London).

José Chica Casasola whilst making a study of shamanic methods of healing by the Mazateca Indians in Mexico, and when cured of heavy influenza by an Indian medicine woman Inéz with bronquitis, ate several pairs of halucinogennic mushrooms and:

De repente todo era sentir y ser pulmones, y a la vez, ser el contenido de esa visión. Estaba muy asustado (…) Podia ver los tejidos externos e internos de los pulmones; luego la visión sentida era la de un conjunto de finisimas fibras de colores agitandose en un espacio muy reducido que las contenia…
(Chica Casasola, José Manuel, 1994, La enfermedad como oportunidad, Edición del autor, España.

Anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff also ventured to experience personally a shamanic trance, and upholds the view that it may be a source of learning when he describes his visions:

Like microphotographs of plants; like those microscopic stained sections; sometimes like from a pathology textbook…
(Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo, 1975, The shaman and the jaguar: a study of narcotic drugs among the Indians of Colombia. Philadelphia, Temple University Press).

Quite extensive and now specialist literature on the subject leaves no room for any doubts that halucinogennic substances used by natives introduce the human mind to a reality where it communicates with intelligent beings or entities who can supply objective information that is useful in the real world, e.g. recipes of natural medicines.

No doubt all people of Mesoamerica commonly practisized (and widely practise up to the present day) the altered state of consciousness.

Linda Schele (The Forest of Kings) identified the “Vision Serpent” of the Maya stelae, which according to scholars made the encounter with the progenitor’s spirit possible (like in the case described by J.Narby above). Its effigies present a serpentine and sometimes feathered body with a human head of the progenitor emerging out of the widely open jaws of the serpent.

(I suppose that common in the nahuatl culture – starting from Teotihuacan, Tula and Xochicalco – effigies of human heads emerging from serpentine jaws of Quetzalcoatls – are most probably referring to the same phenomenon observed by priests in their trances. At the same time these effigies express the idea of human origin in the double serpent symbolised strands of DNA as was proven in the first part of this paper).

Reports of medicine men, shamans and introduced men of all cultures agree that trances are the source of both useful and practical information. This information is supplied in a symbolic form depending on the cultural background of the individual as well as the level of introduction, education, psychological state and even ethical qualifications. For these reasons visions can hardly be an object of scientific experiment. It is also why information coming from this source, deals only with general ideas such as cell, divisions, chromosomes, double helix strand.

I am convinced that acknowledgement of the great and true part played by halucinogennic trances in the life of natives will uncover the actual origin of religious beliefs – a multitude of gods and demons emerged from trances. I am totally convinced that this is a place where one should look for the reason behind animal and human blood offerings. When Nezahualcoyotl, the king of Texcoco talked about numerous gods and demons worshipped as “enemies of the human kind”, he surely had in mind the disastrous influence on the minds of kings and priests of the low and malicious immaterial beings (whatever they might be) appearing in trances.

The same transcendental influence, I suppose, could possibly have fomented the bloody wars between Mayan towns-states – which we know from recent archaeological discoveries is well documented.

In 1995, Jeremy Narby completed his research (independent of mine) on shamanic hallucinatory practices and published its results in the first French edition of the above cited book (Le serpent cosmique, l’ADN et les origins du savoir, Georg Editeur, S.A. Geneve, 1995). Fully supporting my earlier (1990) suppositions, he writes:

My investigation led me to formulate the following working hypothesis: in their visions, shamans take their consciousness down to the molecular level and gain access to information related to DNA, which they call “animate essences” or “spirits”. This is where they see double helixes, twisted ladders and chromosome shapes. This is how shamanic cultures have known for millenia that the vital principle is the same for all living beings and is shaped like two entwined serpents (…) DNA is the source of their astonishing botanical and medicinal knowledge, which can be attained only in defocalized and “nonrational” states of consciousness, though its results are empirically verifiable.

Mexico – Warsaw, 1999.

Maciej Kuczyński
Woronicza 14/17, 02-625 Warszawa, Poland,
e-mail: [email protected]
Copyright© by Maciej Kuczyński 1990

Author will appreciate all comments and remarks giving new evidence to the subject.