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Maya Sacrificial Victims Were Likely Young, Foreign and Skinned Alive

Maya Sacrificial Victims Were Likely Young, Foreign and Skinned Alive

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Scientists in Mexico have been studying tooth enamel from the skulls of 1,000-year-old Maya human sacrificial victims from the gloomy depths of a sacred cenote (sink hole).

The new study was published in July, in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology Magazine, by Dr. T. Douglas Price and his team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who have “isotopically analyzed” tooth enamel to establish the sacrificial victims had come from “across Mexico and far beyond” and determines that the Maya’s sacred network covered thousands of square miles.

A report in the science section of The Economist details that the 197 foot (60 meter) wide limestone sinkhole at Chichén Itzá, on the Yucatan Peninsula, is well known for human sacrifice . This natural hole was “dredged at the turn of the 20th century, surrendering jade, copper, gold, textiles, pottery, weapons, other domestic objects, and the bones of over 200 men, women, and children that had been offered up by the Postclassic Maya occupants of the influential city”.

The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, location of many Maya sacrifices. (Anagoria / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, location of many Maya sacrifices. (Anagoria / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Gateways To The Underworld

Sacred cenotes pepper the entirety of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula and according to an article in the Mexicanist their origins, and the nationwide network of underground rivers, were formed after a meteorite fell on the Earth, 65 million years ago, in the Caribbean Sea near the Yucatan Peninsula.

Classically, Maya people believed that humans, along with serpents, frogs, and lizards emerged from the deepest caves, and making offerings into cenotes might have been a way to symbolically complete the cycle of life. Between 600 and 900 AD the Maya inhabitants of Chichén Itzá believed their cenote to be ‘a gateway to the underworld’ and this is why they filled it with precious offerings to the gods, including people.

The humans skeletons and treasures dredged from the Sacred Cenote are on exhibition at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University and at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. And of the 200 individuals analyzed in this new study; half of the bones were from children (under the age of 18), most often aged between four and six years old; more than half were male and the skulls showed varying degrees of mutilation.

Hyper-Violence At The Cenote’s Edge

Now brace yourselves, for the new paper discusses some of the ways in which the victims had been killed and while the scientific language helps soften the blow, it is still pretty gruesome and graphic violent reading. Evidence of disarticulation was found, which means someone had separated the people’s bones at their joints, either surgically during arthroplasty or common old amputation. What’s more, weathering of these bones informed the scientists that the disfigured corpses has been ‘publicly displayed’.

Maya sacrifice story. The figure on the upper right corner shows the beheaded body. The severed head is shown on the lower left corner with blood still spouting from the neck. (Shubert Ciencia / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Maya sacrifice story. The figure on the upper right corner shows the beheaded body. The severed head is shown on the lower left corner with blood still spouting from the neck. (Shubert Ciencia / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Arguably the most horrific cause of death, some of the victims had been “ flayed and skinned”, and believe it or not, before dying. Furthermore, holes discovered at the temples of both sides of some of the skulls had been “created by a percussive tool”. It is thought these skulls had been displayed on some type of contraption to show them off, but it's still unclear whether the skulls were thought of as war trophies, warnings to invading peoples, or sacrifices to a particular god.

Would You Stand Up?

Remember sitting in third year chemistry class and out of the blue a teacher would ask “who wants to take a note to the headmasters office”. A tidal wave of eager volunteers would surge forward to take the challenge, but this was not the case when a Mayan shaman asked the good people of Chichén Itzá “who wants to be skinned alive and to be tossed into the cenote?” (enters and leaves dust ball with eerie silence.)

Up to now, many archaeologists propose that the victims were picked from the local Chichén Itzá population, but others maintain that it wasn’t good economics to do away with too many of your own young people, so the Mayas, according to the new study, perhaps found their human sacrificial offerings after wars, using captured warriors to appease their gods.

Maya human sacrifice before Tohil, Maya deity. (Rivera / Public Domain)

Maya human sacrifice before Tohil, Maya deity. (Rivera / Public Domain )

In conclusion, Dr. Price and his research team found “three main discernible locations” from where the sacrificed people had originated: “Copan or western Honduras, Cholula or Tula of the Central Highlands in Mexico, just across the Yucatan Peninsula”. What this study essentially proposes is that the influence of the Postclassic Maya was ‘intracontinental’ reaching much farther and wider throughout Mesoamerica than previously believed.

Top image: Maya sacrifice. Source: Efraimstochter / Public Domain .

By Ashley Cowie

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