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Ancient Maya obsidian arrowhead

Human Blood Found on Ancient Maya Arrowheads, Bloodletting Rituals to Feed Life Force to the Gods


Five hundred years ago at a remote temple in Guatemala, sacrificial blood was spilled during cutting ceremonies using razor-sharp obsidian arrowheads. Archaeologists say this ritual was done to feed a person’s “life force” to the Mayan gods.

Arrowheads with human blood on them found at a temple at the Zacpeten site in northern Guatemala have revealed to researchers the ancient bloodletting ceremony. A person was cut with a sharp arrowhead made of the black volcanic glass, possibly through the tongue, earlobes or genitals, in order to spill their blood and feed their “life force” to the gods, reports LiveScience.

It is believed by researchers that those chosen to give blood probably did so voluntarily, and survived the ordeal. The Maya believed that spilled blood was a gift to the gods. Co-author of the study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Prudence Rice of Southern Illinois University said, “The general consensus (among scholars) is that bloodletting was ‘feeding’ the gods with the human essential life force.”

Frieze of a Maya mask, circa 250 - 600 AD

Frieze of a Maya mask, circa 250 - 600 AD (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Evidence of this ceremony came from the discovery of 108 arrowheads across five sites in Guatemala’s central Petén region. The weapons were dated to between the 15th and 18th century AD. Analysis of the arrowheads by scientists revealed that the blood of various animals were on 25 of the tips. Human blood was found on two of the obsidian arrowheads.

Sharp arrowheads made of volcanic-glass (obsidian) founds at ancient sites in Guatemala. Two such arrowheads have been found to have traces of human blood.

Sharp arrowheads made of volcanic-glass (obsidian) founds at ancient sites in Guatemala. Two such arrowheads have been found to have traces of human blood. Credit: Nathan Meissner

Human Life Force Channeled to the Gods

In ancient Mesoamerican societies, ritual piercing or bloodletting played a crucial role in religious and cultural functions. Used as a tool by the ruling elites to legitimize political or social position, it also was seen as important to the well-being of a settlement.

It’s believed the bloodied arrowheads were used for both hunting and survival as well as ritual.

Study lead author Nathan Meissner, researcher at the Center for Archaeological Investigations at Southern Illinois University said of the rituals, “We know Mayas also participated in bloodletting as a part of birth or coming-of-age ceremonies. This practice served to ensoul future generations and connect their life force to those of past ancestors."

Olmec-style jadeite "spoon" believed to be a perforator used in bloodletting. 1500-300 BC.

Olmec-style jadeite "spoon" believed to be a perforator used in bloodletting. 1500-300 BC. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

After a soft body part was pierced or cut, the released blood was collected and burned—a ritual that symbolized the blood sacrifice ascending to the gods through the rising smoke. Bloodletting was ubiquitous to ancient Mayan life. Ceremonies would be performed at any major event, including marriages, births, burials or even building dedications.

How do archaeologists know if obsidian blades and other perforating or cutting artifacts were used in human bloodletting rituals? Researchers such as James Stemp, an archaeology professor at Keene State College in New Hampshire, and Jaime Awe from Northern Arizona University, have harnessed the powers of experimental archaeology to gain more insight on the effects cutting through skin have on obsidian blades.

Don’t worry, they opted for soft pig skin over human.

By using powerful microscopes to examine the blades, Smithsonian reports the researchers found “light wear on the blades used for human blood letting separates the tools from other ritualistic uses such as animal sacrifice, which often involved cutting through harder tissue like bone.”

Beyond obsidian arrowheads, other ceremonial tools were used in the bloodletting, such as jade stone spikes, blades, stingray spines, thorns, or shark teeth. In what was probably a painful affair, sometimes a rope embedded with obsidian flakes would be pulled through openings in the tongue or earlobe.

Maya relief at Yaxchilan of a royal blood-letting, depicting Lady Xoc [right] drawing a barbed rope through her tongue.

Maya relief at Yaxchilan of a royal blood-letting, depicting Lady Xoc [right] drawing a barbed rope through her tongue. (Public Domain)

It was such bloodletting ceremonies involving the penis (representing increased human fertility) that led to the European misconception that ancient Mesoamericans practiced ritual circumcision.

A carved human bone used to hold a stingray spine for bloodletting. Museum at Nim Li Punit, Belize.

A carved human bone used to hold a stingray spine for bloodletting. Museum at Nim Li Punit, Belize. (Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Blood Analysis Reveals Many Targets

LiveScience reports that a procedure called counter-immunoelectrophoresis (CIEP) helped identify the animal species from the blood residues. They included large cats, a mix of land animals such as rodents and rabbits, as well as birds.

Meissner told LiveScience that proteins in ancient blood break down over the centuries and make precise identification difficult, so while scientists could tell the blood samples belonged to rodents, they could not determine exactly what types of rodents were killed.

Of the two arrowheads coated in human blood, one was found in an old house near a wall at Zacpeten. Impact damage on the tip suggests it was shot into someone, although the circumstances which brought the arrow into the house are not known.

According to the study abstract, these findings are the first identification of human blood on projectile weapons in ancient Mesoamerica.

Featured Image: Ancient Maya obsidian arrowhead (Credit: Nathan Meissner), Lady Xoc drawing a barbed rope through her tongue in royal bloodletting ritual (Public Domain).

By Liz Leafloor



Been awhile since my Mayan studies at PSU, but I think it is instead of arrow heads you're actually speaking of atlatl points. There just isn't much in the way of evidence (archeological) to support that the Mayans and Aztecs ever developed the bow and arrow. Evidence does exist to support the use of atlatl darts in Central America though.


Liz Leafloor is former Art Director for Ancient Origins Magazine. She has a background as an Editor, Writer, and Graphic Designer. Having worked in news and online media for years, Liz covers exciting and interesting topics like ancient myth, history,... Read More

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