Chilling Maya Murder Tools Unearthed Near Kulubá Sacrificial Altar
Mexican archaeologists excavating in the central square of the ancient Maya city of Kulubá identified a curious cubic stone with all the hallmarks of having served as a sacrificial altar. Cementing their suspicions, the researchers then discovered 16 unused sacrificial stone knives, with 13 having been made from imported obsidian. The items together graphically revealed the site was one of tortuous bloodshed in the distant past.
Researchers with the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have completed their excavation season at the pre-Hispanic settlement of Kulubá, in the southern state of Yucatán. Among the discoveries were three flint and 13 obsidian knives that were ritually deposited as an offering to the gods, beside what is believed to have been a human sacrificial altar.
Archaeologists have excavated the remains of a sacrificial altar and obsidian knives at the Maya city of Kulubá in Mexico. Representational image of human sacrifice. (Archivist / Adobe Stock)
The Ways of Human Sacrifice Depicted at Kulubá
The Kulubá Maya site is an archaeological treasure chest providing researchers with evidence pertaining to human sacrifice, which was a central component of ancient Maya culture and religion. The sacrifice of animals and people, especially prisoners, volunteers and children, was conducted by high priests often using sacrificial altars like the one discovered at Kulubá. Wielding obsidian knives, they performed bloodletting rituals and extracted beating hearts as offerings to the gods.
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Maya priests were highly trained in both animal and human anatomy, which allowed them to perform very precise cuts and to control the speed by which their victims died. While the idea of human sacrifice is shocking by today’s standards, within the Maya world view the act was practiced to appease drought and flood controlling deities, as well as maintaining cosmic harmony.
Artifacts of Death Buried Beside a Stone Sacrificial Altar at Kulubá
The Maya civilization extended from southeastern Mexico across Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras. According to INAH, the Kulubá site thrived between 600 and 1050 AD, before finally collapsing in the 16th century with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. The city comprised residences, a central community plaza and a grand palace measuring 6.1 meters (20 ft) high by 54.9 meters (180 ft) long and 14.9 meters (49 ft) wide.
Alfredo Barrera Rubio, a researcher with INAH, told EFE that the 16 sacrificial knives were unearthed at the southwest portion of Kulubá's central square, beside a stone slab that probably served as a sacrificial altar. Archaeologist Cristian Hernández González, who is also a researcher at the Kulubá site, told EFE that the importance of the offering “is its ritual character,” however, the 16 knives had never been used.
Arqueólogos mexicanos descubren una ofrenda de 16 cuchillos de sílex y obsidiana en la ciudad prehispánica de Kulubá, en el sureño estado de Yucatán, cerca de un altar de sacrificios. https://t.co/ChisK5TdLa
— EFE Noticias (@EFEnoticias) July 8, 2023
Kulubá Reveals the Glory of Obsidian
The 16 knives had not been used to cut open the chest of victims, or to pierce their arteries so that they slowly bled to death, but they were manufactured as offerings to the gods. However, the three flint and 13 obsidian knives were not crafted with materials available in the Yucatán peninsula, but González said they had all been imported from central Mexico and Guatemala.
Obsidian, or volcanic glass, was highly-valued for its sharpness and durability. It also held deep cultural and historical significance in the Maya world. Guatemala is renowned for its abundant obsidian deposits, which were traded with many distant civilizations for thousands of years. Guatemalan obsidian also played a crucial role in the Maya civilization's artistic, religious and everyday lives.
The sharpness of obsidian blades served Mayas for day-to-day tasks such as cutting, carving and crafting intricate designs on jade. Throughout history, skilled craftsmen shaped obsidian into intricate tools, weapons and ceremonial artifacts, like obsidian knives and mirrors, that were used for divination and spiritual ceremonies.
Maya obsidian sacrificial knives discovered at Kulubá provide a glimpse into the horrors of Maya human sacrifice. (Kai Grim / Adobe Stock)
The Maya’s Obsidian Obsession Reaches Europe
It is through the analysis of obsidian sources that researchers have traced ancient trade networks and exchange routes that connected distant Maya territories, highlighting its economic and spiritual significance. So revered were the perceived spiritual powers of obsidian, that it became a prized belonging in Europe shortly after the conquest of Central and South America in the mid-16th century.
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John Dee, the prominent Elizabethan era psychonaut, was an English mathematician, astronomer and occultist who studied science, astrology and alchemy. John Dee famously possessed a black obsidian scrying mirror which he believed allowed him to communicate with celestial beings. He argued that this helped him to gain esoteric knowledge from angels in the spiritual realm.
Historians generally agree that John Dee obtained his mirror, along with other mystical artifacts, during his interactions with explorers and collectors who had ventured to Central America. The specific details of how and where he obtained the obsidian mirror are not extensively documented, but it was probably through trade with indigenous Maya cultures in Mexico or Guatemala.
Top image: Restoration work at Kulubà in Mexico, the Maya site where a sacrificial altar has now been uncovered. Source: Mauricio Marat / INAH
By Ashley Cowie