The million dollar question: what is a machacador?

December 16, 2009

During our 2009 survey season, a student approached us asking if it was ok to collect a strange object lying on a mound by his feet. Immediately, Natalia got closer to him and identified the artifact as a “machacador”, reported by Bertha Cuevas in her thesis on El Carrizal. Instantly, the artifact was collected, labeled ant stored in the Laboratory.

Throughout the analysis, we noticed that the only modification of the original form is a flake scar, located in the front end (assuming that the back end is the side that presents a round shape). Apart from that, we observed that the artifact was manufactured in travertine. In addition, it presents a conical perforation on one site, while the other shows the same perforation connected to the proximal end.

We decided to visit the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa in order to find some clues about the purpose and use of this rare object. Luckily, we located a complete display cabinet full of artifacts that morphologically look alike the one we collected. Surprisingly, Museum’s classification labels them as war hammers.

We’ve been asking scholars for their opinion about the artifact. Some of them think it had a deadly function, others reckon it was used for leather treatment or seed processing. Finally, some believe it was a tool to work on wood. However, no one is really sure about its function.

This update is aimed to invite you all to leave us some feedback on this intriguing question, so please feel free to send your opinions, experiences and ideas about the function or use that the machacador artifact might have had. So, the million-dollar question is: What do you think it is?

P1030223 P1030226

Pictures of the machacador recovered at PAC’s 2009 survey.

Comments (119)

  1. Val says:

    Machacar is a transitive verb meaning to crush, hammer, thrash, kill, to grind up, so from that it may be the hand held grinder for a mocahete, used for smashing and grinding grain, nuts, etc., the thumb fitting through the hold for better grip and leverage? It seems to large and unwieldly to be a sewing implement.

  2. Dale Murphy says:

    I agree with Jane. I think it to be a ” Plumb-bob”. I think it had a shaft on it to hold the line (string or whatever material was used). The upper part (as shown above) would have been used to “point up”, aka to( press and shape) the fresh mortar between the stones and maybe add color to the mortar as well. See page 42 lower left photo in September October 2009 issue. The conical upper portion could have also been used in design forming as seen on same page in photo on upper right.
    You may have found a very important building tool.
    Maybe the stones you mentioned above at the Museo Antropologia de Xalapa have a similar use?
    Just my two cents worth.
    Oh well my thoughts might qualify as a definite maybe.

  3. Dana says:

    Ibelieve these items are used for weaving. Smaller models used on looms and larger types (like the one pictuered) used for heavy mats for floors or roofs, possibly for manufacturing rope.

  4. mariana foliart says:

    looks like a weight for a fishing line, like long lining in Alaska

  5. terry martin says:

    It is a potato masher. I did a lot of research on this. I work with a Peruvian gentleman and when I showed him the picture these were the first words that came out of his mouth. He said his grandmother used an implement similar to this and that was its main use. I can not confirm that this is true. I am also an Archaeologist. So take a look at Peruvian artifacts and see if you can get further information. I will take another look at this tomorrow and I have a translator. This is one I would enjoy to solve.

  6. L.A. Demrow says:

    A portable fire starter. Tinder woven into a short thin rope, like used on a matchlock gun, threads through the grove on the bottom into the cup shaped grinding hole on top where a stick is rotated to start the tinder end on fire. The pointed end is pushed against something to hold the fire starter in place.

  7. larry presnell says:

    its used in weaving material

  8. G Eakin says:

    If this discussion is open to laymen.. It looks like some sort of weight or counterweight to me. The hole for the knot…. How heavy is it?

  9. R W White says:

    I go along with L A Demrow. I have a Chumash friend who taught me to start a fire with bow and drill; the shape and function of the conical hole with air on the underside is very similar. I give it the percursor of the ‘Zippo’. The blunt end or pointed end could be used to pulverize the tinder thus improving your ability to ignite an ember. The bow and drill would have decayed under most condition.

  10. Blinds Dallas says:

    I also think it is a tool used to start fire. Considering the power that fire had this was probably a highly wanted item.

  11. rene a meziat restrepo says:

    A “machacador” is a stone to be used to samasch seeds or meat to be stored or eten easly. It takas a round shape about the size of the hand

  12. rene a meziat restrepo says:

    A “machacador” is a stone to be used to samach seeds or meat to be stored or eaten easly. It takes a round shape about the size of the open hand.

  13. rene a meziat restrepo says:

    According with the picture shown… we must know the environment of this “machacador”, where it has been found, of what material it was made with… the approximately age… and the “culture” where it belongs to. In facts it has beeen made with a purpose, probably to be tied with a rope for instance like a weigth to hold on its place nets to fish with… or to recover water from a large well… The only opinion for sure: it is an artifact with a unique purpose… we have to find for what purpose. Nice question an good luck———-

  14. Niki .G says:

    I think the object might be a pestle, used for pulverizing substances in a mortarium.

  15. miketracker says:

    I think the critter is for pitting cherries or the like.

  16. Rivenburg says:

    At first glance it appears to be a braiding tool as many have stated.
    I would like to see microscopic pictures of the wear patterns on it as distinct from the manufacturing patterns.
    Travertine is too soft for a hammer in most applications, unless it was ceremonial, which this doesn’t appear to be. It’s form appears completely pragmatic except for the softness, this bolsters the non-hammer arguments.

  17. Jack Rice says:

    I like the fire starter and plumb-bob ideas, and I’ll run with plumb-bob except I think it was used to force a rope through a hollow log or bamboo to maybe string several together. The knot would fit in the cone and the rope would feed out the back and the stone/rope could be dropped through the “tube”

  18. Carlos says:

    I never saw a mortar with a hole (if you think maybe this is for separate the seeds from the plant,you are wron because they allway use a stick to hit the plant)

    A machacador (smasher) is the object you hold in your hand to smash..anyways I think the anwser is a smasher,not for dry (seeds etc) but for potatoes,fruit..

  19. paul wood says:

    I simpely love the digs. They are pretty awesome!

  20. kako says:

    hand protector for a drill or fire starting

  21. August Croes says:

    This Agricultural-tool was used in combination with a rope that goes through it which surves a strap around hand in order to un-husk corn and scrap way the kernel of dried mazorcs.

  22. i have thoroughly researched this and i now believe it to be the first ever prostetic hand. As you can clearly see it is perfect for pointing as in giving someone directions. It was also used for poking your wife in the eye if she ever spoke when she should have been listening. It has been designed aero-dynamically so the bearer can run faster.

  23. scott says:

    A soft material that ehibits little wear. A large end that might be used for holding and manupilating this tool. A useful point that can take little work abuse. This could be a pointer used to follow document flow while reading or writing. It could scribe or mark skin as a point for sacrifice, although one would expect ornimentation. Was there a keipoo counting string document or similar counting system associated with account keeping in this culture? It would also be useful in scribing damp plaster for artistic representation. Worn on a string, perhaps, around the neck. That indentation might be useful in sizing pears or beads. A finger over the hole, placed on a round object in a bowl of liquid (of pearls?) would be useful for sorting. Similar shapes are still used in net making today. Hopefully these thoughts are useful to those fimiliar with this culture.

  24. HAL says:

    To check out the drill idea, the inside of the concave part should show rotation wear since the stone is not too hard. The rotational wear would thus be different from the wear marks on the outside which likely vary as per surface shaping. I find it strange that there isn’t a possible comparison with other like items in the area–it essentially being thus totally unique.

  25. Roger Citron says:

    My guess it is a fire starter. I believe the hole is not a part of the original manufacture but the result of extended use and friction — it probably started out with a depression and then discarded when the depression got deeper and pierced a hole, rendering the object useless. The pointed end was probably a stabilizing extension.

  26. Craig Huffman says:

    On a cruise to Alaska one of the guys from South America became jealous of the Inuit Whale Tooth Necklaces. Rather than getting one from the gift shop and letting his neighbors know that he had bought one up there and was stealing someone else’s marketing scheme, he decided to improve upon the original design and market them when he returned. He carved one from stone and then explained to his family and friends that the giant fish up north were in fact made of stone. The fact that you have only found one, and with little marking of the string denotes that he wore his for a few days until his wife made him take it off because, well, it really was sort of stupid.


    It was the precursor to a Swiss Army Knife. Could it be, just maybe, that all of the above theories are correct?

  27. chris truex says:

    i too believe it to be a tool of some sort. i don’t think it was a weapon. possibly used as a fire starter i certainly wouldn’t use it as a weapon when there are more logical types of weapons available farming or processing foods is typical.

  28. fagoroyo omolayo says:

    THE ARTIFACF MIGHT HAD BEEN USED IN FOR MUITI PURPOSE I.E FOR CRUSHING , GRINDING AND A LOT MORE i have thoroughly researched this and i now believe it to be the first ever prostetic hand. As you can clearly see it is perfect for pointing as in giving someone directions. It was also used for poking your wife in the eye if she ever spoke when she should have been listening. It has been designed aero-dynamically so the bearer can run faster.

  29. glen says:

    L.A. Demrow said on March 4, 2010 at 12:09 pm
    “A portable fire starter. Tinder woven into a short thin rope, like used on a matchlock gun, threads through the grove on the bottom into the cup shaped grinding hole on top where a stick is rotated to start the tinder end on fire. The pointed end is pushed against something to hold the fire starter in place.”

    – It does appear to be a portable fire starter which would be held in place with the heal of one’s foot against it’s flat end to press the point into a secure location. The obvious wear on the item’s underside (shown in the left picture) would be accounted for by a rope being pulled through the hole at a high speed on an uncountable number of occasions. Most likely, a stick with rope or tendon cord wrapped around it was held in an upright position above the bowl and opening but able to spin freely so that when the firestarter pulled a ripcord like handle attached to the rope or tendon, the stick would spin at an extremely high rpm, igniting the tinder which was pinned under and cushioning the rounded or pointed end of the stick. I do believe this explanation accounts for the size and shape of the object as well as the visible wear. The object appears to be too small to have been much aid in the processing of food. The visible wear indicates that it was used repeatedly and intensely for prolonged periods of times (perhaps generations), contradicting the theory that it was used for fishing, since it would be unlikely to retain and recover a fishing weight as many times as would be necessary to leave the wear shown in the picture on the left.
    Contrary to popular belief, stone finger-hands of the era were not used to poke one’s wife in the eye. Instead, a stone finger-hand (which this object is not) would be held up to one’s own mouth in a ‘shhh-ing’ gesture if she ever spoke when she should have been listening.
    Where’s my million dollars ?

  30. Cliff says:

    If a knot was made in the hole then the slot in the back would help this object lie flat against something (such as a person’s chest). The protrusion would be facing upward due to the slot. The object might be a decoration of ritual significance as it appears to be a bird’s head. The knot hole would be the eye. There are many representations of birds and bird heads throughout the Americas. Birds were associated with the flight of the spirit to the sky.

  31. Mike Mellinger says:

    Hmmm. The narrow “trough” does show signs of wear as if a rope or string had been wearing against it. Is this one piece of a multi-piece tool? Perhaps a wooden part was in the conical hole? And the rope/string/ligament fed thru the hole and thru the not pictured “part”. The blunt end does indeed look like a hammer but to hammer something soft or very malleable. Interesting!

  32. Ed says:

    Reading the various comments, it seems no one konws what they are, so the correct conlusion: a multipe instrument used in many activities.

  33. Tara Mandura says:

    It reminds me of a pipe or bong stem…perhaps it was used with a hollowed out potato, as a smoking implement?

  34. Roland Salomonsson says:

    Probably you have a rope put through the hole and a knot protected in the conical part and on the other side is the rope stretched in a protective carving. It suggest that it should have been used where it or something moves. Is it a part of another bigger thing? There is no photo of the two end sides.

  35. Merlin D. DuVall says:

    Ask a good question; get a lot of answers, my thought is that it was used for grinding, just because that is the ‘Keep it simple’ answer. Not always correct, but highly specialized tools would seem to be one of a kind, where generalized tools would have been spread out the area traveled by the indigenes peoples.

  36. Rebecca K says:

    I too thought it might be some kind of fruit pitter and grinder – maybe olives – push the fruit pulp through the hole and leave the pit. But surely this would leave some kind of stain. As for the fire starter – wouldn’t that have left carbon traces? Most likely a weaving tool.

  37. Eric S. says:

    Arrow shaft made straight by this device?

  38. kako says:

    to what end it is not clear but it is a handle to some labor saving activity. handle in the sense that it portects the user from friction injury from rope or wood moving quickly. it could have been used and reused as a handle for different activities due to it s soft qulities until the surface was exhausted. knowing what residues are present would indicate what material have rubbed off in the activity.

  39. HRMike says:

    Lots of good ideas, but the word machacador mean to crush or squash, therefore if that was the purpose there should still be either patina or microscopic residue of whatever it was crushing, whether it was plant, or animal. If it were a fire starter there should have been blackened carbon residue in the cup shaped indentation. I see none on the two examples. A plumb is definitely a possibility.

  40. kako says:

    with out the access of a cellphone, sundials were often used. this is a sundial tool
    used as a compass with string and stick marking out your dial.

  41. kako says:

    a spindle whorl, yes, with a stick. it could do it.

  42. I think this instrument was used to start making paper from tree bark. You hold the stone in the middle and use the broad end to start fixing, by gently hitting, the prepared mat of interwoven bark fibers, to a working board. The pointed end was useful when realigning the fibers moved when crushing with the broad end, and re combing the knotting fibers. This two functions tool in just one hand is a great invention!
    The holes are to have this tool handy by hanging it in a convenient place. The conical depression holds the end knot of a cord which passes trough the hole and is permitting an easy hand grip hand thanks to the groove. This cord is fixed in its other end to a pole, a branch or a peg in a wall. Once the preliminary work with this tool finished, you passed the fiber mat, on its board, to a second worker who used a stone paper beater to finish the amate sheet.
    I have made amate paper with tree barks and as you start with wet fibers and a sticky substance that you have to add to help the process, the beginning of the work is quite messy. You hands are full of the bark residues and it is hard to do a clean and good job. I founded this initial part of paper making quite difficult for these reasons. With this instrument, and its easy access, you can make initial boards with matting fibers quite easily and then finish the product with the stone paper beater. ( These beaters look like stone pieces of soap, with the larger sides with carved parallel lines of different thickness to do the preliminary work and then the finishing with the finer ones. They also have another carved line in the edge sides to install a flexible wood handler to move the beater with more power and rhythm.)

  43. Alessandro says:

    In my opinion the asymmetrical shape is due to the fact that it is and object held and used by hand.

    The shuttle of a loom? a Back Strap Loom to produce textiles?

    The shuttle or a weight ?

    may you add other photos of other specimen? is the object light or heavy?

  44. Diana says:

    When was the name “Machacador” assigned to this tool? If the goove on the left hand picture is for a thumb hold, the user would have to be left handed. Is left-handedness dominant in the Americas? The hole is elaborately designed if only to be used to hang it by a string. The tool is well-shaped and appears smooth by intention rather that wear. The rounded sides and flat end make me me think Mano/Metate, but the pointed end and hole indicate another use as well. I like the paper-making description of a dual-use tool. Perhaps the hole and point allowed for drawing the tool, pointed end down through the bark to assist in separation after rolling and tamping with the rounder side.
    I love a mystery.

  45. Gloria says:

    If I could hold it in my hand, I may have a better idea. If it is more suitable for a woman’s hand, I would say it is some kind of weaver’s shuttle for heavier projects such as weaving rugs. The weft yarn (horizontal) would be drawn through the hole of the object and woven in an out of each alternating in and out of each alternating warp strand with the pointed end. The point on the object would also be used to beat down the weft after each pass. Also, because of its weight, it may have been used as a drop spindle to twist and create yarn from raw wool for weaving. Use this link for an example of my thoughts. Perhaps it is a multi-purpose tool and one should not limit its capabilities in the ancient home. “Hand me the plumb bob, honey….no, I’m not done making my rug….go borrow the neighbor’s Machacador.” Good luck!

  46. Roger W. Manning, Ph.D. says:

    It is obviously an antropogenic stone. Microwear analysis may sugggest its use. If it was used to mash potatoes, it should show different wear than if it was used for tanning leather or making rope. Otherwise, it was used to contact the planet Xeno.

  47. Joelb says:

    this tool may have been used for several things, but principally was for weaving large textiles and ropes, imho. the hole may be for strings/twineheld by either hand while weaving, the pointed end for inserting the temporarily held twine/string into the pattern.


    someone is having a great laugh at our expense.

  48. kako says:

    jaj, jaj , ja, ja, ja !

  49. Unfocused_mean says:


  50. katasca says:

    A starch analysis would reveal the identity of any particles left in tiny crevices that may have been associated with its use.