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El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulcan

Beliefs on Chichén Itzá's Sacrificial Past Overturned by Ancient DNA

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Recent genetic research has revolutionized our understanding of the ritual practices at Chichén Itzá, one of Mesoamerica's most iconic archaeological sites. Contrary to the long-held belief that young girls were the primary victims of human sacrifices, groundbreaking studies have revealed that these victims were, in fact, young boys. 

This discovery, facilitated by advanced DNA analysis, also uncovered close kin relationships among the sacrificed, including pairs of identical twins. These findings not only challenge previous narratives but also provide profound insights into the cultural and mythological significance of these sacrifices, linking them to the legendary tales of the Maya Hero Twins. 

Sacrifice at Chichén Itzá 

Chichén Itzá, one of the most iconic archaeological sites in Mesoamerica, continues to captivate historians and archaeologists with its monumental architecture and mysterious past. Located in the heart of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, this ancient Maya city was a major political and ceremonial center from AD 600 to 1000. Known for its grand temples, such as El Castillo, and its complex network of ceremonial spaces, Chichén Itzá has long been associated with human sacrifices, a practice that has fueled much speculation and myth.  

Recent studies using advanced genetic analysis of ancient DNA have shed new light on the nature of these sacrifices. 

Contrary to the long-held belief that young girls were the primary victims, these studies reveal that the sacrificial victims were all young boys, many of whom were closely related, including pairs of identical twins. 

Moreover, the genetic data uncovered traces of significant adaptations in response to colonial-era epidemics, highlighting the enduring genetic legacy of these catastrophic events. This groundbreaking research not only provides a deeper understanding of the ritual life at Chichén Itzá but also connects the ancient inhabitants to present-day Maya communities in the region. 

Portion of reconstructed stone tzompantli, or skull rack, at Chichén Itzá 

Portion of reconstructed stone tzompantli, or skull rack, at Chichén Itzá. (© Johannes Krause/Nature) 

Chichén Itzá’s Secrets Revealed   

The city is renowned for its monumental architecture, including iconic structures such as the Temple of Kukulkán (El Castillo), a massive pyramid adorned with serpent carvings, and the Great Ball Court, the largest in Mesoamerica. 

For decades, the narrative surrounding human sacrifice at Chichén Itzá was shaped by early 20th-century explorations and dramatic accounts that emphasized the sacrifice of young women, often described as virgins, to the gods. This perception was largely fueled by the discovery of numerous human remains in the Sacred Cenote, a natural sinkhole believed to be a portal to the underworld. 

Early excavations, combined with sensationalized media reports, painted a lurid picture of Maya rituals. However, recent osteological analyses have challenged these long-held misconceptions, revealing a more complex and less gender-biased practice. It has become clear that both males and females, including children, were victims of these ritual sacrifices. 

Despite these findings, the myth of female sacrifice has persisted in popular imagination, illustrating the enduring impact of those early interpretations on modern perceptions of Maya culture. 

Detail from the reconstructed stone tzompantli, or skull rack, at Chichén Itzá 

Detail from the reconstructed stone tzompantli, or skull rack, at Chichén Itzá. (Christina Warinner/Nature) 

New Genetic Insights and Cultural Significance  

The recent genetic analyses have provided groundbreaking insights into the ritual practices at Chichén Itzá, particularly focusing on the remains found in a chultún near the Sacred Cenote. 

Researchers from institutions such as the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology conducted an extensive study on the ancient DNA of 64 individuals. Contrary to previous assumptions, the analysis revealed that all the individuals were young boys, aged between 3 and 6 years old. 

Additionally, the study identified close kin relationships among the victims, including two pairs of identical twins. 

“We were thinking, influenced by traditional archaeology, that we would find a non-sex-biased burial or mostly girls,” said Rodrigo Barquera, lead study author and researcher at the Max Planck Institute. He also added, “And the second surprise was discovering that some of them were related and there were two sets of twins.”  

These findings have profound cultural and mythological implications. The presence of twins and closely related individuals among the sacrificed children suggests a strong connection to Maya mythology, particularly the Popol Vuh. 

The Maya Hero Twins, known from the Sacred Book of the Maya, the Popol Vuh 

The Maya Hero Twins, known from the Sacred Book of the Maya, the Popol Vuh: Hunahpu and Xbalanque. Painted by Lacambalam. Motif taken from an ancient Maya ceramic. (Lacambalam/CC BY-SA 4.0) 

This sacred text recounts the story of the Hero Twins, Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu, who descended into the underworld and were sacrificed by the gods. Their sons, the Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque, later avenged them through cycles of sacrifice and resurrection. 

“Twins hold a special place in the origin stories and spiritual life of the ancient Maya,” explained Christina Warinner, coauthor and John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences and Anthropology at Harvard University. Amd continues, “This study turns that story on its head and reveals the deep connections between ritual sacrifice and the cycles of human death and rebirth described in sacred Maya texts.” 

The genetic evidence supports the idea that the ritual sacrifices at Chichén Itzá were not random but were deeply rooted in the cultural and religious beliefs of the Maya civilization.  

The Genetic Legacy of Colonial-Era Epidemics  

The genetic study of ancient remains at Chichén Itzá has also shed light on the profound impact of European colonization on the Indigenous populations of the region. One of the most devastating events was the 1545 cocoliztli epidemic, which led to a dramatic population decline due to diseases introduced by the colonizers. The epidemic, recently identified as being caused by the pathogen Salmonella enterica Paratyphi C, had a catastrophic effect on the local Maya communities, with mortality rates as high as 90%.  

Genetic analysis has revealed evidence of adaptation to these diseases. The ancient DNA from Chichén Itzá was compared with that of present-day Maya inhabitants of Tixcacaltuyub, showing a significant genetic continuity. Modern Maya populations carry genetic variants that suggest an evolutionary response to the introduced diseases, particularly in immunity-related genes. “The present-day Maya carry the genetic scars of these colonial-era epidemics,” said Rodrigo Barquera, lead author and immunogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute. These findings illustrate not only the resilience of the Maya people but also the lasting genetic legacy of the epidemics brought by European contact. The adaptations in the immune genes of present-day Maya highlight the ongoing impact of historical events on genetic makeup, underscoring the importance of understanding past epidemics to comprehend current genetic diversity and health.  

The Everlasting Impact of Maya History  

These new genetic insights profoundly deepen our understanding of Maya culture and history, revealing a complex narrative of ritual practices and resilience. The discovery of male child sacrifices and their ties to Maya mythology provides a richer, more nuanced view of Chichén Itzá's ceremonial life. Furthermore, the genetic continuity between ancient and modern Maya populations underscores the enduring legacy of the Maya people despite the catastrophic impacts of colonial-era epidemics.  

Continued research is important for uncovering further aspects of this rich cultural heritage. It is essential to approach such studies with respect for the indigenous populations whose ancestors are being studied. Collaborative efforts with local communities, as demonstrated in this research, ensure that findings are meaningful and respectful, helping to preserve the historical memory and cultural identity of the Maya people for future generations. 

The open access report ‘Ancient genomes reveal insights into ritual life at Chichén Itzá is available from Nature. 

Top image: Caption: El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulcan, is among the largest structures at Chichén Itzá and its architecture reflects its far-flung political connections. Source: © Johannes Krause/Nature 


Rodrigo Barquera, Oana Del Castillo-Chávez, Kathrin Nägele, Patxi Pérez-Ramallo, Diana Iraíz Hernández-Zaragoza, András Szolek, Adam Benjamin Rohrlach, Pablo Librado, Ainash Childebayeva, Raffaela Angelina Bianco, Bridget S. Penman, Victor Acuña-Alonzo, Mary Lucas, Julio César Lara-Riegos, María Ermila Moo-Mezeta, Julio César Torres-Romero, Patrick Roberts, Oliver Kohlbacher, Christina Warinner, Johannes Krause. 2024. ‘ Ancient genomes reveal insights into ritual life at Chichén Itzá’ Nature, 12 June 2024, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-0000-0 

Barquera, Dr. Rodrigo et al.  2024. Ritual sacrifice at Chichén Itzá, June 2024. Max Planck Institute. Available at: 

Theodoros Karasavvas's picture


Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A. has a cum laude degree in Law from the University of Athens, a Masters Degree in Legal History from the University of Pisa, and a First Certificate in English from Cambridge University. When called upon to do... Read More

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