The immolation of the hero twins, known from the Popul Vuh and other narratives, may have been re-enacted in the fifth-century AD Maya city of Tikal. The twins in this image were drawn from an ancient Maya ceramic piece.

Sacrifice of Maya boy and man may have reenacted birth of sun and moon

(Read the article on one page)

About 1,600 years ago in the Maya site of Tikal, a boy and a man were sacrificed in an elaborate ritual. A new study suggests they were sacrificed and burned to re-enact the legend of the twin heroes who immolated themselves to be reborn as the sun and moon. Variations of the myth are still told in Mexico and Central America.

The researchers, who published a paper in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal , say human sacrifice in Mesoamerica was often tied to myth and ritual but it has been hard to associate specific myths with the remains of sacrificed people.

The current study relates to an archaeological finding at Tikal known as Burial PP7TT-01, which contained the remains of a boy aged 10 to 14 years old and a man aged 35 to 40. One of the individuals had a flattened forehead and shortened skullcap, which appears to have been modified through binding, a practice common in Maya lands of that time.  The burial showed obvious signs of sacrificial ritual. They had been thrown in a pit, especially dug for the purpose, and then burned.  The researchers do not know whether they were burned alive, or whether they were killed or wounded first before having their bodies burned.

Artist’s reconstruction of Burial PP7TT-01: (a) outline of cremation pit; (b) Individual 1B; (c) Individual 1A; (d) sherd fragment; (e) obsidian points.

Artist’s reconstruction of Burial PP7TT-01: (a) outline of cremation pit; (b) Individual 1B; (c) Individual 1A; (d) sherd fragment; (e) obsidian points. (Drawing: Belem Ceballos)

“We can only speculate about how and where the two individuals met their death,” write Professor Owaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos and his team. “The presence of obsidian knives and blades in the deposit, and the lesion in the rib of Individual 1A, suggest that they may have been killed right before or during their [placement] on the pyre, by stabbing, heart extraction and/or throat slashing. Full decapitation is unlikely … There is also the possibility they were wounded but still alive when thrown into the pyre.”

The authors noted that the ritual pit was dug near structures related to the solar cycle or calendar, lending support to their theory that the sacrifice and partial cremation was linked with the solar and lunar myth of the divine twins. The structures, called E Group, include a square pyramid and a long rectangular platform arranged along the lines of the rising and setting sun. 

“The axial location of the cremation pit that contained Burial PP7TT-01, on the compound’s eastern side – associated with the sunrise – appears to be an appropriate place for a ritual performance that alluded to and reenacted the immolation of the heroes that became the sun and the moon,” the authors wrote in their paper.

Pyramid of Group E, this western face has been restored.

Pyramid of Group E, this western face has been restored. (Simon Burchell/ Wikimedia Commons )

Explaining the link to Maya myth, the authors wrote, “In Maya communities, the daily path of the sun is a basic ordering principle, related with notions about the shape of the world, the yearly agricultural cycles and the human life cycle. The movements of the sun are not conceived as those of an inert celestial body. Instead they are explained in terms of the life cycle of the sun god as expressed in mythical beliefs and narratives. The origin of the sun and moon are major topics in Maya myths recorded from colonial times to the present. There is a strong possibility that related solar myths were widely known in the Maya Lowlands since ancient times …”

The myths are not recorded in Lowland Maya hieroglyphics of the time. Such writings contain just short mythical passages. But Classic Maya art shows correspondences to the twin heroes who transformed into the moon and sun, as told in the Popol Vuh , the authors said. The Popol Vuh is a 16th century highland Maya text.

All around the world the sun plays a central role in myth. In this folk art modern representation of an ancient Aztec calendar, the solar disk or sun stone is portrayed.

All around the world the sun plays a central role in myth. In this folk art modern representation of an ancient Aztec calendar, the solar disk or sun stone is portrayed. ( Wikimedia Commons )

“In the Popol Vuh, the heroes reached their destiny as luminaries only after they died by throwing themselves in a pit oven provided with heated stones and burning coal. … The fire sacrifice of the Popol Vuh heroes finds parallels in numerous myths about the origin of the sun and moon,” they wrote.

They say the retelling of the story in various iterations in colonial and modern times is “deeply rooted [in] religions traditions that may go back to the origins of settled communities in Mesoamerica.”

An aerial view of some of Tikal’s structures

An aerial view of some of Tikal’s structures (Dennis Jarvis/ Wikimedia Commons )


Moonsong's picture

This is strange. I did not know that the Mayans had two twin male-heroes representing the sun and moon, usually the sun is identified as a male god and the moon with the female aspect, as in for example Roman mythology, Greek mythology, Celtic mythology etc.


- Moonsong
A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world ~ Oscar Wilde

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

Last auction of Stonehenge, 1915.
Stonehenge is arguably the best known prehistoric monument in England, and perhaps even in the world. Today, this ancient monument is under the care of English Heritage, a registered charity that manages over 400 of England’s historic buildings, monuments, and sites.

Myths & Legends

Pagan Origins of Easter
Easter Sunday is a festival and holiday celebrated by millions of people around the world who honour the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, described in the New Testament as having occurred three...

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article