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Although cosmic tree symbolism among pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica traces from the Preclassic period, the underlying meaning of the motif and its symbolic permutations are poorly understood. Attempts to identify the plant in a botanical context on ceramic vessels, stucco reliefs, and stone stelae of lowland Maya attribution usually favor determinations as a kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) or maize plant (Zea mays). A botanical assessment of the morphic and ecological characteristics of these motifs suggests, however, a white-flowered water lily of lowland swamps, Nymphaea ampla. Archeological remains at San Bartolo of the Petén indicate that these iconographic practices were established and codified to a certain extent by the first century b.c. The frequent identification of various gods and dynastic rulers as personifications of a water lily world tree underscores the crucial symbolic and ritualistic roles this plant once played in the practice of religion and kingship among Mayan civilizations.
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