New DNA Evidence Sheds Light On How The Maya Chose Victims For Human Sacrifices

Research conducted on genetic material found in an ancient Maya cistern revealed a practice of child sacrifice focused exclusively on males with close kin relationships, challenging long-held beliefs that the Maya preferred women for these sacrifices.

The ancient city of Chichén Itzá, built on what is now Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, has been investigated by archaeologists for over a century.

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Now, an international team of experts found DNA evidence pointing to the sacrifices of young boys, a discovery that sheds light on the poorly understood practice of ritual killing.

Chichén Itzá was a populous and powerful political center during the AD 800–1000 period. The city is “best known for its extensive evidence of ritual killing, which includes both the physical remains of sacrificed individuals and representations in monumental art,” reads a news release announcing the findings.

A new DNA study on 64 samples of human remains has revealed a practice of sacrificing young boys, including twins, in the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá

Image credits: Johannes Krause

The dredging of the Sacred Cenote, a large natural sinkhole in the city, previously identified the remains of hundreds of individuals, including many children and adolescents.

In 1967, a subterranean cistern near the cenote filled with the remains of more than 100 young children was found.

While researchers used to believe the sacrificed individuals were girls and young women, the team behind the new study concluded that all the remains were those of male children after conducting an “in-depth genetic investigation” of 64 individuals.

Image credits: Johannes Krause

Most of the children were buried during the 200-year period of Chichén Itzá’s political apex between AD 800 and 1,000, according to the study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday (June 12).

Genetic analysis revealed that the sacrificed children had been drawn from local Maya populations, and they were closely related: at least a quarter of them had been a brother or cousin to another boy buried in the cistern.

The young relatives had consumed similar diets, suggesting that the boys had been living in the same household prior to being sacrificed.

Considering these factors, researchers concluded that the boys were “likely being selected in pairs” for the rituals and that the cistern, or chultún, served as a post-sacrificial burial site.

The human remains were found in an underground cistern, or chultún, near the Sacred Cenote, a large natural sinkhole in Chichén Itzá

Image credits: Laura LaBrie/Unsplash (Not the actual image)

Image credits: Mayan Timeline

The team reached another unexpected conclusion after analyzing the human remains: among them were those of two pairs of identical twins.

Twins hold a special place in the origin stories and spiritual life of the ancient Maya, the news release states.

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“They may represent complementary forces, like, for example, the moon and the sun,”  Archaeogeneticist Rodrigo Barquera of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and lead author of the study told Bored Panda.

“These dynamic, antagonist forces are very common in many cultures all over Mesoamerica and beyond. However, other authors note that the twins are often depicted as corn stalks, so they may be related to the maize deities.”

Researchers believe there is a connection between the ritual sacrifices of the boys and the sacred myth of the Hero Twins

Image credits: HJPD/Wikimedia Commons

Stories of twin sacrifices are included in the K’iche’ Mayan Book of Council, known as the Popol Vuh, a colonial-era book whose antecedents can be traced back more than 2,000 years.

In the Popol Vuh, a pair of twin boys descend into the underworld and are sacrificed by the gods following defeat in a ballgame, the study explains. The head of one of the brothers, Hun Hunapu, is then hung in a calabash tree, where it impregnates a maiden who gives birth to a second set of twins, known as the Hero Twins. 

The Hero Twins later avenge their relatives’ deaths by undergoing repeated cycles of sacrifice and resurrection to outwit the gods.

Image credits: Alexis Mora/Unsplash

Why did the Maya perform sacrifices? While these bloody offerings serve multiple purposes in different societies, researchers have identified a few main, recurrent functions, Barquera says. 

“Asking for favors or success, asking for forgiveness, thanking for a positive outcome, or paying tribute to a historical or mythological figure. In this case, we think the latter may be one of the explanations for this specific ritual burial.”

At Chichén Itzá, underground structures like the chultún were viewed as entrances to the underworld. 

This seems to indicate a connection between the sacrifices of twin boys and close relatives in ancient Maya life and the stories of the Hero Twins, two central figures in the sacred Popol Vuh. 

“These dynamic, antagonist forces are very common in many cultures all over Mesoamerica and beyond,” explained the lead author of the study, Rodrigo Barquera

Image credits: Myriam Olmand/Unsplash

Scientists have yet to determine the cause of death of the sacrificed individuals since there are no visible human-made marks on the bones recovered from the cistern.

The Popol Vuh isn’t the only narrative to mention the sacrifice of close relatives. 

“Stories of ritual sacrifices of close relatives are present in many cultures in Mesoamerica, with the most notable accounts coming from the Mexica (the so-called Aztecs) and the killing of Coyolxauhqui and 400 siblings by her brother Huitzilopochtli to protect their mother, Coatlicue,” Barquera notes. 

“Among Maya, bloodletting rituals, often involving close family members, are recorded as part of rituals.”

People reacted to the surprising findings, expressing shock and curiosity

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