The ancient Maya, a powerful group of people whose culture and civilization dominated southern Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala during the First Millennium common era, left behind many temples, buildings, and buried cities as an attestation to their greatness. However, the discoveries of early twentieth century archaeologists have left the certainty of the builders of the Mayan temples in doubt. Following the excavation of several Mayan cities, the ancient Mayan art of breeding and training tarantulas (taranchulerismo) was rediscovered.
The Mayans discovered the Giant Mexican Birdcatcher Tarantula as early as the third century, common era, to be highly intelligent for an arachnid, easily tractable, and easily trained to perform a variety of menial tasks. They were far more intelligent than the local Fishcatcher scorpions1, which the Mayans deemed unacceptable as beasts of burden because they were less apt to work and more inclined to break line, sting the foremen, take long agave breaks, and sit around and smoke2 when nobody was watching. However, members of the tarantula species were described in the Mayan Arachnid Codex3 as "trustworthy, loyal, friendly, helpful, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent," (such qualities later became the template for the twentieth century North American organization, the Boy Scouts of America). Also, the Codex explains that "while they would bite if provoked, the victim would suffer no more than two days fever with possible intermittent delirium." Nevertheless, all scholars agree that the great cities and temple complexes of the Mayans would not have been feasible without the labor of millions of devoted, industrious tarantulas.
Following the Spanish conquest of the 16th and 17th centuries, taranchulerismo was banned in the Viceroyalty of Spain, which considered taranchulerismo no better than sorcery or Lutheranism. Practitioners who made the unfortunate mistake of getting caught transporting, or especially employing, tarantulas for the purposes of building were treated with utmost severity. In 1559, seven taranchuleros were hanged, drawn, and quartered in Vera Cruz; four others had been similarly dealth with in Tegucigalpa in 1557, and five more in Oaxaca in 1604. Taranchulerismo, as a result, became limited to a secret caste of taranchuleros working in seclusion in the jungles surrounding Quintana Roo. These taranchuleros hired themselves out to carpenters and architects in neighboring cities who could not afford human or animal labor, concealing the black market tarantulas in specially fitted fat suits4. If transport was conducted safely, then the taranchulero could expect to receive a hefty sum well in excess of what it cost to train the tarantulas; several of the more successful taranchuleros are known to have retired in relative seclusion further north with the Tlascalans, who were known to have taranchulerismo sympathies.
By 1610, several taranchulero cartels had sprung up in the Spanish cities of Oaxaca and Quintana Roo, and in Tegucigalpa and Vera Cruz. There were a few less powerful Tlascalans, too. Each cartel bred its own strain5 of Birdcatcher, claiming their tarantula superior to those of their competitors. By 1625, the tarantula black market had become so widespread that shops on the side of the street in Tegucigalpa could be found selling "genuine taranchulero" fat suits as souvenirs to passing Spanish tourists. As more and more effort was put forth on the behalf of the Spanish Inquisition to suppress the tarantula trade6, more and more trade was conducted by the ever-more cunning taranchuleros.
By the middle of the 18th century, however, the cartels had collapsed due to taranchulerismo legalization. Under the influence of the Enlightenment -- and the suppression of the Jesuits, who around 1655 formed their own cartel rivaling that of Quintana Roo, the greatest of the Mayan cartels -- the Council of the Indies, acting under orders from King Charles III of Spain, issued regulations authorizing taranchulerismo, which it defined as "the keeping, nurturing, and breeding of spiders, with an average span of an Andalucian vara7, for sale or trade or otherwise for profit." All taranchuleros were required to purchase a taranchulerismo license from the Crown (to be issued by the local Viceroy, pending notarization), and were required to pay one-eighth of any profits, or, failing that, one-eighth of the herd as enumerated and enrolled on the Feast of St. Anthony of Padua8. A corps of Inspectadores del Taranchulerismo was established in several grades to enforce the regulations and collect the fees and profits due the Crown. Export of the Giant Mexican Birdcatcher Tarantula was strictly forbidden, except to the Viceroyalty of New Granada, the Canary Islands, and the Island of Fernando Po9. While some of the taranchuleros were able to adjust to the new regulations, many were forced from the area and moved further south where they settled in present-day Colombia, which fell under the somewhat lax jurisdiction of the Viceroyalty of New Granada.
Evidence of taranchulerismo has been seen as recently as 1905. According to locals, Don Ignacio de la Cerda, the head taranchulero of the remnants of the old cartel at Quintana Roo, was saved by a traveling reporter after falling from his horse during a stampede of tarantulas spooked by the reports of a group of Jesuits in the neighborhood. Don Ignacio took the young man in as his apprentice in the taranchulerismo trade, and as of 1970 reports of the last taranchulero and his loyal Birdcatcher tarantulas were still circulating widely throughout the Yucatan.
1. The Yucatan and surrounding areas have recently been declared disaster zones by the Mexican and Central American governments due to the sudden increase in Fishcatcher scorpions as a result of heavy spring and summer rains. Tobacconists in the region have suffered millions of pesos in damage as a result of frequent raids by the scorpions.
2. According to an ancient Mayan myth, the first cigar - a tobacco delicacy widespread in Mayan civilization by the time of the Spanish invasion - was given to one of the local farming peasantry in a village in Oaxaca by the scorpion god Ah Cichac, in return for the use of his fields as nesting grounds for Ah Cichac's broods.
3. The Mayan Arachnid Codex was, at the time, the most extensive codification of arachnid species in the North American continent, although several of the Plains Indians had extensive, oral descriptions of all arachnid species they encountered.
4. Early fat suits were constructed of materials which were quickly deemed too thin to provide proper protection from the somewhat claustrophobic tarantulas following the discoveries of three taranchuleros by Spanish patrols after the smugglers were bitten and collapsed.
5. The "Taranchularajas" group of taranchuleros in Oaxaca were rumored to have successfully cross-bred the Birdcatcher tarantula with the Fishcatcher scorpion. Surviving records suggest that the experiment was successful, but was quickly terminated from the inside for unkown reasons. Rumors have surfaced in the past 20 years, however, of sightings by peasant farmers of giant bugs ensnaring and devouring stray livestock.
6. Taranchulero storage houses could be identified by the tarantula entrails frequently present outside the entrance.
7. The Andalucian vara was a unit of measurement originating in the Andalucian region of Spain. Based on the Andalucian pit viper, which is 2.9 feet in length on average, one-sixth an Andalucian vara is roughly the size of a dinner plate.
8. The Feast of St. Anthony of Padua happened to be on the same day as the day on the Mayan calendar on which the remaining number of living tarantulas in the work force was assayed by feeding the deceased tarantulas to members of the lower human working caste to lessen the cost of food.
9. Despite the ban of exports, there were reports of Birdcatcher tarantulas in remote parts of Spain and Southwest France as late as the first Carlist War (1836-42), where they instinctively constructed Spanish Abbeys and miniature Mayan temples.