Mayan Child Sacrifices with ‘Divine’ Obsidian and Jade Discovered in Guatemala

Mayan Child Sacrifices with ‘Divine’ Obsidian and Jade Discovered in Guatemala

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The bodies of nine sacrificed children have been found at the Maya site of Ceibal in Guatemala. Some of the children were buried with obsidian tools, a fact which research suggests shows the enhanced significance of the sacrifices in the Maya Middle Preclassic period.

IBTimes UK reports that although Ceibal was first investigated in the 1960s, Archaeologists from the Ceibal-Petexbatun Archaeological Project decided it was time to revisit the archaeological site with more advanced technology . They excavated the site from 2005 to 2017 and their initiative led them to some significant ritual findings.

Excavations at Ceibal. ( University of Arizona )

Five of the sacrificed children were found in a multiple burial. Four of them were infants and one was between 3-4 years old upon death. Four of the children were aligned with the cardinal points (important in the Maya cosmos) and the fifth was placed between the southern and western individuals – although there were no artifacts buried with this individual. This was one of the infant burials.

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Five of the sacrificed children were found in a multiple burial. ( Flory Pinzón )

Five obsidian artifacts were placed in this multiple burial – one with each of the children at the cardinal points and one in the center. A fragment of a greenstone celt and a jute snail with a hole on one side were buried with the northern child, a jade bead was buried with each of the other three children at the cardinal points, and a blue polishing stone was placed in the center of their combined grave.

Five obsidian artifacts were placed in a multiple burial of five children – one with each of the children at the cardinal points and one in the center. ( Takeshi Inomata )

Two other sacrificed children were unearthed in flexed positions with their heads oriented to the north. They were buried facing each other and two obsidian pieces were buried alongside their bodies. These children were between the ages of two to four years old when they died. A ceramic bead and 11 shell beads were also used as grave goods in this burial.

A ceramic bead, shell beads, and two obsidian artifacts found in one of the burials. ( Takeshi Inomata )

The researchers report that two more children, between two and four years of age, were buried with “Four exhausted polyhedral obsidian cores—one for each of the inter-cardinal directions: northeast, southeast, southwest, and northwest—with their distal ends pointing to the center.” Two ceramic vessels, an unfinished jade bead, a small piece of magnetite, and shell beads made up other grave goods in this burial.

Grave goods, including obsidian, found in a burial of two sacrificed children. ( Takeshi Inomata )

Altogether, the researchers found four caches and four burials – for a total of 42 obsidian artifacts – dating to the Middle Preclassic period (700 -350 BC) at the site. Obsidian is a type of volcanic glass that was a rare commodity for the location then. Trade routes were just beginning to form with the highlands at the time. Obsidian was regarded as an exceptionally sharp incision tool and also held a symbolic importance to the Maya. As the researchers explain in their report :

“[…] in the Mesoamerican tradition obsidian has a divine origin, imbuing the material with supernatural power. Because of its symbolic value, obsidian was used in a multitude of Mesoamerican religious rituals. Aside from its symbolic associations, the transformation of a raw material like obsidian into a utilitarian object is often a ritually charged act. In many societies, quotidian activities undertaken in domestic contexts are closely tied to communal rituals.”

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Obsidian artifacts excavated at Takalik Abaj, Retalhuleu, Guatemala. Prismatic blades and obsidian cores. (Simon Burchell/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

It has been suggested that the leaders of these rituals were likely elite members of society and they completed their ceremonies in public. “The substantial number of these ceremonial deposits in the public plaza, interred at different times, indicates these were recurring public events that would have been important for integrating the community, including those living in and around Ceibal,” the authors write in their report.

The new discovery helps shed light on a time period which is still relatively unknown for Ceibel. The Classic period has been studied quite well, but the Maya practice of repeatedly building on the same site means that times before were often covered over or forgotten as generations built over their predecessors. Thus, the ritual burials discovered at the site can provide new insight on craft production and ceremonial practices in a time that is still largely unknown.

Seibal (Ceibal) temple Plaza Sur (South Plaza). (Sébastian Homberger/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Maya Child Sacrifices Were Buried With Stunning Volcanic Rocks

Along with chocolate, gold, and astronomy, the Maya civilization was also pretty fond of sacrificing kids. Archeologists have recently been scouring the Maya city of Seibal in present-day Guatemala and discovered these sacrificial rituals were even stranger than previously thought.

During their excavation, as reported in the journal Journal of Field Archaeology , researchers from Ibaraki University in Japan found that many of the children sacrificed to the Gods were buried alongside obsidian, a form of glass created when felsic lava from a volcano cools rapidly.

It’s often a glossy black color, extremely hard, and brittle. This means it's an ideal material with which to make sharp tools and weaponry.

The Maya city of Ceibal was first excavated in the 1960s. It remained a settlement for nearly 2,000 years and is one of the biggest sites found in the sweaty lowland Petexbatun region of Guatemala. It now consists of ruined monumental structures, including plazas, pyramids, carved stone monuments, and homes to the elite.

Obsidian stone blade nucleus pointing to the center buried in the grave of the public plaza of the Seibal ruins. Jade, shellfish beads, and magnetite in the center. Takeshi Inomata/Ibaraki University

The four graves date back to the late Middle Preclassic period around 950 BCE and contained a total of 42 obsidian artifacts. One contained the bodies of five children, three of which were younger than one year of age, with each body being placed in the shape of a cross. Alongside them were five pieces of obsidian, one of which was placed centrally in the cross between their bodies. The attention given to this formation suggests it had some kind of ritualistic purpose involving the cosmos. Another grave had two infants, aged between two and four, buried face-to-face with a piece of obsidian placed as an offering, as well jade stones and shellfish beads.

Archeologists have collected over 12,000 obsidian artifacts from this Maya site and other nearby settlements. Nevertheless, it was still a highly valued and rare commodity in the Maya lowlands during this time. Ritual burials with obsidian are also not particularly well-documented.

These new excavations, the researchers claim, show that obsidian played a significant role in ancient Maya cultural practices, most likely for some divine or supernatural purpose. It also undoubtedly brought a sense of exotic rarity, as it must have been imported from the volcanic highlands many miles away.

Jade had the values of durability, moistness, renewal, rebirth, blow and vital essence

The Maya civilization covered a large part of Central America, including the Southeast Mexico (Yucatan and Campeche specifically), Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica. Mayan jade masks have been found mainly in cities located near the jade deposits in the southern highlands.

Why did the Mayas believe that jade possessed the divine breath? At night, jade was a stone that cooled very quickly. And in the morning, when the sun came to reheat it, it exhaled steam. The Mayans then had the feeling that the stone breathed, lived. It is because of this “magic” breath that the Mayans thought the stone lived. It is also the reason why the Mayans chose this stone for their masks, as this mineral literally lived for them.

The masks prepared the dead for their new condition: to become a God. Often, it was K ‘awiil, the Maize God, who was chosen. Besides, the Maya elite was, since birth, prepared to play this God. That is the reason why infants’ cephalic deformation was practiced in order to give the head an “oblong” shape, like a corncob. The Maya children were then, attired with two boards that compressed their skulls. The consequence was to deform, as well, the orbital cavities creating a convergent and divergent strabismus. That is why still today you can see a large number of Mayan representations with this pronounced strabismus, for them, this was a sign of absolute elite.

Altun Ha: A Brief History

W0767: Plaza A The archaeological site of Altun Ha was discovered in the 1950s. Only a fraction of Altun Ha has been excavated and relatively little is known about the city, which once covered 25 square miles and had an estimated population of 10,000 people.

Excavations have revealed that the earliest settlement was located in an area known as Zone C, which lies just west of Plaza A (beneath the trees behind Structure A1 in fig. W0767 ). Within Plaza C, two round structures known as C13 and C17 were found to contain post-holes and burials that date from between 900 BC and 800 BC . Even at this early stage, findings in Zone C suggest that Altun Ha was a place of wealth and religious activity.

The construction of a large reservoir (directly south of the archaeological site) marks the beginning of Altun Ha’s rise from a small Preclassic settlement to Classic Era city. The reservoir’s provenance is unknown, as it has been used continuously through to modern times, but clearly it was constructed to supply water to a large community who were looking to farm extensively. A temple, known as Structure F8, built next to the reservoir in approximately 200 AD demonstrates that the city had linked the healthy supply of water with religion and indicates that a structured religious society had begun at Altun Ha. A burial found beneath the structure, which has been dated to 250AD, provides evidence that the funerary rites at Altun Ha matched those found in large Mayan religiopolitical centres. The burial, named Tomb F8/1, includes all the hallmarks of divine Mayan kingship, with grave goods of jade and shell necklaces, jade ear-flares, five pottery vessels, fifty-nine valves of spondylus shell and 245 green obsidian pieces, of which 13 were manufactured into bi-facial blades. Jade was an extremely rare, highly prized and deeply religious commodity, whilst spondylus spines were used in the ritual blood-letting auto-sacrifices that Mayan kings had to perform as part of their divine duties. Therefore, it is safe to say this is the burial of a Mayan lord or high-priest. Curiously, the enormous quantities of obsidian are of a distinctive type known as Pachuca obsidian, which is only found near the distant city of Teotihuacan, in the Mexican Highlands. Tomb F8/1 therefore suggests the involvement of Teotihuacan at Altun Ha at a time that coincides with a period of rapid expansion from settlement to city.

W0761: Structure A1 In the period following the burial in Tomb F8/1 in 250 AD , the people of Altun Ha began to construct a new ceremonial centre. Known as Plaza A, the ceremonial space was built adjacent to their existing civic and ceremonial centre in Group C – in fact, Structure A-8 is joined to a series of buildings within Group C and may have been part of the older group before being incorporated in into the new space. Plaza A was classically designed, with a north-south alignment and structures enclosing the plaza on all four sides. This is vastly different to the haphazard buildings of Group C and could be construed as further evidence of an external interest at Altun Ha influencing its construction and design. By 400 AD Plaza began to take shape with the building of Structure A3 and the development of Structure A1 into its present shape. Architecturally, Structures A1 and A3 are similar in style to the temples of nearby Lamanai, with protruding tiers creating space for temple enclosures further down the pyramidal base.
W0007: Teotihuacan – Pyramid on the Moon However, it isn’t just Lamanai that employed this technique the tyrannous pyramids of Teotihuacan could be considered the forerunners of this style. In fact, Temple A1 (fig. W0761 ) and the Pyramid of the Moon (fig. W0007 ) have striking similarities, albeit on a vastly reduced scale, which add credence to the theory that Teotihuacan may have influenced the construction of Altun Ha’s new religious centre.

Teotihuacan’s involvement in the region is widely accepted, and it almost certainly held influence over the nearby Mayan city of Tikal in the late 4 th century and was instrumental in the founding of Copan and Quirigua in the early 5 th century. It would appear that Teotihuacan was extremely interested in jade, which was only found around the Copan area, and wanted to increase its availability along its extensive trade routes, which probably covered the whole of Mesoamerica. Excavations at Altun Ha have revealed a long history of offering jade pieces within its burials, with probably the best example being the 6th century tomb found within Structure A1 of a male interred with over 300 pieces of jade. This huge cache of jade could only have come from the south and is surely evidence that Teotihuacan had managed to increase production through founding Copan, and that jade was being moved by sea to Altun Ha in high quantity.

W0766: Structure B4 Around the same time that the cache of jade was being entombed within Structure A1, work was beginning on Structure B4, Altun Ha’s most prominent building (fig. W0766 ). Structure B4 is the dominating structure of Plaza B and was probably a late addition to a principally residential zone. Plaza B is also aligned, from east to west, with the western and southern sides featuring palatial structures with the exception of B6, which is a small temple. Structure B4 also incorporated a low terrace for a temple enclosure, which again could be associated with nearby Lamanai (in particular Structure N10-43). Although it is very similar to N10-43 at Lamanai, the elongated temple on Structure B-4 featured nine doors (the ruined doorways are still visible – see fig. W0766 ). This style of temple was very popular at Tikal, where nine sets of “Twin Pyramids” have been uncovered, each of which are built around a small plaza with a nine-doored temple, identical to that built on Structure B4, on the southern flank. However, a far more striking reference to Tikal can be found on Structure B4 in the form of giant carved masks (fig. W0765 ).

W0765: Mask on Structure B4 The masks on Structure B4 have been associated variously with the Sun God and the “Jester God”. The association with the Sun God comes from their likeness to a huge jade head that was found buried within Structure B4 and was thought to resemble the Sun God. The “Jester God”, on the other hand, appears to be the God of Kingship in the eastern Maya region and takes its name from the pointy jester-like hat it is normally pictured wearing (see Lamanai Stela 9). This hat appears to feature on the masks of Structure B4.

W0846: Mask from 5D-33 at Tikal
However, the closest likeness to the masks of Structure B4 are found on Structure 5D-33 at Tikal (fig. W0846 ). The masks of Structure B-4 at Altun Ha and 5D-33 at Tikal are virtually identical in their appearance and in their carved stone construction. The two buildings also share similar brickwork (as seen in surrounding the masks in figs W0765 & W0846 ). Structure 5D-33 was erected between 425 AD and 450 AD , during the period which it is believed that Teotihuacan held sway over Tikal and the exact time that a lord from the Tikal region, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, arrived at Copan dressed in the lordly regalia of Teotihuacan to take command of the jade trade at source. The hat on the mask at Tikal is also very similar with a rounded crest on top. It seems likely that the pointedness of the hat on the mask of Structure B4 is the result exposure to the elements, and it would have actually been the same as that of Structure 5D-33, which was preserved under subsequent constructions of the temple.

W0766J: Jade Head The prominent nose on the mask at Tikal can also be seen in the mask of Structure B4 – and again it is likely that the mask at Altun Ha was once the same as that of Tikal. This nose is very similar to the beak that the the Jade Head exhibits (see fig W0766J ). The mouth shape of the Jade Head, the Tikal mask and the Structure B4 Mask are all very similar too, suggesting that all three are all representative of the same unknown deity. The Jade Head was found buried in a tomb within the 7th phase of Structure B4’s construction, which is thought to date between 600-650 AD . However, the only fragmentary remains of a male skeleton were found in the burial, designated Tomb B-4/7, suggesting that the skeleton and the head were relics interred within the temple to add supernatural power – therefore, they could be much older. The Jade Head is the largest single piece of carved jade ever found in Mesoamerica, which alone designates its importance – as well as that of Temple B4, the man who was buried there and of Altun Ha as a whole. Exactly which god the Jade Head or the masks symbolise is unknown, but it was clearly a very important deity to Tikal and the people of Altun Ha. The composition of the head, in jade, brings Altun Ha’s history full circle and confirms its importance in the trade in jade.

The wealth of the people at Altun Ha from its very beginnings as a settlement and the relatively low population it maintained upon becoming a city, both seem to suggest that Altun Ha was making a lot of money doing very little. The fertility of the land around the city was also meagre, suggesting the city was never built around the abundance produced by farming. One prominent suggestion is that Altun Ha was a centre for the manufacture of carved jade, and this ability is certainly evidenced by the Jade Head. This theory would also explain the incredible volumes jade fragments that were buried with their elite, as these could have been the chippings left over from their carvings. The people of Altun Ha also, somewhat unusually, burned jade and copal during rituals around the masonry altars of Structure B4, which further emphasises that jade was not a rare commodity, although it was still considered deeply religious. A Late Classic vase found in Tomb 2 at Copan, which dates to 700 AD , has been chemically proven to have come from the workshops of Altun Ha, which confirms that trade between the jade mining region of Copan was taking place, and that Altun Ha was a centre for the production of artistic artefacts.

In summary, the evidence suggests that Altun Ha rose to prominence as a centre for the production of carved jade and traded with the super-power Teotihuacan very early on. Then, with the assistance of Teotihuacan’s trading might, or possibly following them taking control, the city of Altun Ha was planned and built. Later, Tikal became Teotihuacan’s regional centre of commerce and the relationship between the three cities grew. Later still, the Teotihuacan-Tikal alliance founded Copan and moved huge quantities of jade around to Altun Ha to be carved, which lead to the city’s rapid growth and development in the 5 th and 6 th centuries, and its continued wealth and success into the 9th century when Tikal collapsed. As stated at the beginning of this article, much is still to be uncovered at Altun Ha and a lot has yet to be learned, but this does seem to be the core of Altun Ha’s history.


A variety of methods were used by the ancient Maya to perform human sacrifice, such as:

Decapitation Edit

Important rituals such as the dedication of major building projects or the enthronement of a new ruler required a human sacrificial offering. The sacrifice of an enemy king was the most prized offering, and such a sacrifice involved decapitation of the captive ruler in a ritual reenactment of the decapitation of the Maya maize god by the Maya death gods. [1] In AD 738, the vassal king Kʼakʼ Tiliw Chan Yopaat of Quiriguá captured his overlord, Uaxaclajuun Ubʼaah Kʼawiil of Copán and a few days later he ritually decapitated him [2] such royal sacrifices were often recorded in Maya script with the "ax event" glyph. The decapitation of an enemy king may have been performed as part of a ritual ballgame reenacting the victory of the Maya Hero Twins over the gods of the underworld. [1]

Sacrifice by decapitation is depicted in Classic period Maya art, and sometimes took place after the victim was tortured, being variously beaten, scalped, burnt or disembowelled. [3] Sacrifice by decapitation is depicted on reliefs at Chichen Itza in two of the ballcourts (the Great Ballcourt and the Monjas Ballcourt). [4] The Hero Twins myth recounted in the Popol Vuh relates how one of each pair of twins (the Hero Twins themselves and their father and uncle) was decapitated by their ballgame opponents. [5]

Decapitation has appeared using various mannerisms in pictorial codices. Some representations are depicted as heads with flowing blood, ahead of being held by the hair, heads hung in an upside-down position or with cords passing through cheeks or nostrils, heads on poles or worn as adornment, bodies with no head and serpents or blood flowing upwards, the action of decapitation in progress or completed, or skull burials where the mandible is articulated and a few vertebrae remain. The importance of heads as a symbol may have been influenced as early as the Formative Olmec period and was used as a way to represent and honor Gods or rulers. On hieroglyphs found in Monte Alban, the evidence is seen with depictions of severed heads hanging upside under a place glyph. These are believed to record or denote the conquering of villages by the Monte Alban rulers [6] or in an astrological context, the place glyph can be interpreted as the Earth, and the upside-down head as planets or constellations passing by in their rotations. [7] During the Classic period, heads were also found in between two bowls, which demonstrates continuity and further development of practices, as well as implying efforts of veneration by use of bowls. Heads were also used for adornment. At Yaxchilan, there is evidence of necklaces made with headsets (shrunken heads) hanging upside down on an important figure. This method of the display was most likely useful for war imagery, or as trophies to threaten enemies. [8] During the Late Classic periods we also see heads used on headdresses and belts, depicted on murals at Bonampak and Yaxchilan. Severed heads are also believed to be associated with rituals involving agriculture, birth, fertility, and death. This is seen in the Florentine Codex with the Tlacaxipehualiztli rituals, where Xilonen, the goddess of tender maize, was sacrificed. Her head was struck off, and her heart torn out of her chest and then offered to the sun. [ citation needed ] The Codex Borgia depicts the greatest number of decapitations, at 33 counted. [9]

Heart removal Edit

Heart extractions and sacrifice have been viewed as a “supreme religious expression among the ancient Maya". [10] The removal of the still-beating heart , or sometimes self-immolation, [ clarify ] was considered a great offering and meal for the gods. Like any modern religious ritual, it is believed the extraction had multiple steps for preparation and proper respect for the gods. [ citation needed ] It began with a dispersal of blood extracted either [ clarify ] from the mouth, nose, ears, fingers, or penis, typically with a sharp tool made from animal bone, such as a stingray spine. [11] They then positioned the victim on a stone or wooden altar. Next, access to the heart would be achieved with a variety of procedures and techniques. Most of these techniques were proved by examination of the post-mortem injuries on bones surrounding the heart, such as the sternum, and ribs. Methods include vertical axial sternotomy, left transverse thoracotomy, transverse bilateral sternothoracotamy, or transdiaphragmatic access. Most probably access would be accessible from below the diaphragm, as this allowed for easy access and not much blockage from bones. Nicks, segmenting, and fracturing of the sternum and ribs all defended this. Following access, the heart was exposed to retrieval. If accessed through the sternum, the ribs would be pulled apart, or tissue would be cut through if accessed through the diaphragm. The actual removal of the heart would then be continued by cutting any attaching ligaments with a bifacial tool. Finally, offering of the heart would take place with either special positioning or through burning. At this time, blood would also be collected from the victim. The ritual will end with mutilation of the body, usually through dismemberment, or burned. They would then dispose of the body or reutilize it for other purposes. [12]

During the Postclassic period (c. 900 – 1524), the most common form of human sacrifice was heart extraction, influenced by the method used by the Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico [1] this usually took place in the courtyard of a temple, or upon the summit of the pyramid-temple. [13] The sacrifice was stripped and painted blue, which was the colour representing sacrifice, and was made to wear a peaked headdress. [14]

Four blue-painted attendants representing the four Chaacs of the cardinal directions stretched the sacrifice out over a convex stone that pushed the victim's chest upwards [14] An official referred to as a nacom in Landa's Relación de las cosas de Yucatán used a sacrificial knife made from flint to cut into the ribs just below the victim's left breast and pull out the still-beating heart. [15] The nacom then passed the heart to the officiating priest, or chilan, who smeared blood upon the image of the temple's deity.

Depending upon the exact ritual, sometimes the four Chaacs would throw the corpse down the pyramid steps to the courtyard below, where it would be skinned by assistant priests, except for the hands and feet. The chilan would then remove his ritual attire and dress in the skin of the sacrificial victim before performing a ritual dance that symbolised the rebirth of life. If it was a notably courageous warrior who had been sacrificed, then the corpse would be cut into portions and parts would be eaten by attending warriors and other bystanders. The hands and feet were given to the chilan who, if they had belonged to a war captive, wore the bones as a trophy. [13] Archaeological investigations indicate that heart sacrifice was practised as early as the Classic period. [16]

Arrow sacrifice Edit

Some rituals involved the sacrifice being killed with bow and arrows. The sacrificial victim was stripped and painted blue and made to wear a peaked cap, in a similar manner to the preparation for heart sacrifice. The victim was bound to a stake during a ritual dance and blood was drawn from the genitals and smeared onto the image of the presiding deity. A white symbol was painted over the victim's heart, which served as a target for the archers. The dancers then passed in front of the sacrificial victim, shooting arrows in turn at the target until the whole chest was filled with arrows.

Sacrifice with bow and arrow is recorded as far back as the Classic Period (c. 250 – 900) and was depicted with graffiti upon the walls of Tikal Temple II. [13] The Songs of Dzitbalche are a collection of Yucatec Maya poems written down in the mid-18th century two poems deal with arrow sacrifice and they are believed to be copies of poems dating to the 15th century, during the Postclassic period. [17] The first, called Little Arrow, is a song calling upon the sacrifice to be brave and take comfort. [18] The second is entitled Dance of the Archer and is a ritual dedicated to the rising sun it includes instructions to the archer the archer is instructed upon how to prepare his arrows and to dance three times around the sacrifice. The archer is instructed not to shoot until the second circuit, and to be careful to make sure that the sacrifice dies slowly. On the third circuit, whilst still dancing, the archer is instructed to shoot twice. [19] A similar scene is described in the Annals of the Kaqchikels, where an important prisoner is bound to a scaffold the Kaqchikel warriors begin a ritual "blood dance" and proceed to shoot him full of arrows. [20] In the Late Postclassic Kʼicheʼ language drama Rabinal Achi, an important war captive is tied to a stake representing the mythological Maize Tree and is sacrificed by being shot with arrows the text compares the archers to hunters and the sacrifice to game. [21]

Bloodletting Edit

Blood served a very important purpose in Maya culture. It was believed to contain a “life-force” or chu ‘lel that was required by supernatural forces. [22] Blood was offered to the Gods or deities by auto-sacrificial bloodletting. Practitioners would cut or pierce themselves with a variety of tools such as bone awls and needles, obsidian blades, or maguey thorns. Blood would be obtained from areas such as ears, cheeks, lips, nostrils, tongue, arms, legs, and the penis. [23] Taking blood from areas such as the penis was symbolic of reproduction and fertility. Once bleeding, the blood would be caught on an item such as bark paper, cotton, animal feathers, and then burned as to deliver it to the Gods. [24]

Animal sacrificing Edit

Animals were also frequently sacrificed. Animals such as quail, turkeys, deer, and dogs were commonly used. Quail were considered “clean and pure” to the Zapotec, because they drank water from dew drops, and not “dirty water” sources. Species used include the Montezuma quail (Cyrtonyx montezumae) and the Bob-white quail (Colinus virginianus). [25] There is also evidence of jaguar sacrifice at Copán and Teotihuacan. Their remains have led researchers to believe they were used for funerary rites of great leaders or other occasions. They were seen as the “alter ego” to their powerful shaman kings. [26]

Other methods Edit

Late Classic graffiti from a structure buried under Group G in Tikal depicts a sacrifice bound to a stake with his hands tied behind his head the victim was disembowelled. [27] At the Classic period city of Palenque, a woman in her twenties was entombed alive to accompany a deceased nobleman as a funerary offering. [28]

At the Sacred Cenote in Chichen Itza, people were hurled into the cenote during times of drought, famine or disease. The Sacred Cenote is a naturally occurring sinkhole eroded from the local limestone it is approximately 50 metres (160 ft) wide and drops 20 metres (66 ft) to the water surface, with the water another 20 metres (66 ft) deep. The sides of the cenote are sheer. Human sacrifice was practiced right up until the Spanish conquest of Yucatán, well after the decline of the city. [27]

At times sacrifices were tightly bound into a ball and were bounced in a ritual reenactment of the ballgame. [28]

Some other sacrifice related practices include burning victims alive, dancing in the skin of a skinned victim, taking head trophies, cannibalism, drinking a deceased relative's bathwater, and sprinkling sacrificial blood around sanctuaries. [29]

Classic period (250–900) Edit

Human sacrifice is depicted in Late Classic artwork and sometimes involved torture sacrifice was generally via decapitation. At times the sacrificial victim was dressed as a deer. The intended sacrifice may have been publicly displayed and paraded before the act of sacrifice itself. Images of human sacrifice were often sculpted into the steps of Maya architecture and such stairways may have been the site of periodic sacrifice. [3] Ritual decapitation is well attested from Maya hieroglyphic texts throughout the Classic period. [30] Evidence of mass sacrifice during the Classic period has not been recovered archaeologically. [31] Archaeological excavations at a number of sites, including Palenque, Calakmul and Becan, have uncovered skeletons that bear marks to the vertebrae and ribs consistent with heart extraction at the time of death using a long-bladed flint knife. [32] During the Classic period, the sacrifice of companions to accompany high-ranking burials is likely to have been widespread and performed using the heart extraction method, leaving little evidence on skeletal remains. Analysis of those remains that do bear marks suggestive of heart sacrifice indicates that during the Classic period the Maya used a method involving cutting across the diaphragm immediately below the ribcage and cutting the heart free. [33]

During the Late Classical period (600-900), a feature of ritualistic practices that rose into prevalence were skull racks, or tzompantli. The skulls placed here were typically from sacrificial rituals and victims. Chichen Itza had one of the largest, most elaborate skull racks during the Late Classical period. It was four levels high, and featured representational skulls carved into stone. These skull racks were strongly associated with ballgames, and sacrificial decapitations. [34] In El Tajin, there is a rise in ball-court associated rituals. This site had dozens of ballcourts, and many were associated with ritualistic decapitations due to paraphernalia used in ritual practices. These large ball courts were sites of not only the ballgame, but also for ritualistic practices related to fertility. Many religious and political aspects were incorporated into ballcourts and games, making them have diverse purposes. These ballcourts were a major part in Maya dramatic display, and were used by rulers to demonstrate power and impress societies and followers. [34]

Postclassic period (900–1524) Edit

A Postclassic mass burial in Champotón in Campeche, Mexico, included skeletons bearing evidence of violent blows to the sternum that have been interpreted as evidence of heart sacrifice. [35] The Madrid Codex, a Postclassic hieroglyphic Maya book, has an illustration of sacrifice by heart extraction, with the victim stretched over an arched stone. [36]

Among the Kʼicheʼ of highland Guatemala, human sacrifice was performed to the Kʼicheʼ gods. Writing at the end of the 17th century, Francisco Ximénez described the tradition that upon the temple of Tohil, human sacrifices were tied before the representation of the deity, where the priest would open the victim's chest and cut out his heart. [37] After sacrifice, the victim's body was probably hurled down the front stairway of the temple where his head would be severed to be placed on a skull rack that was located in front of the temple. [38] In the Kʼicheʼ epic Popol Vuh, the god Tohil demands his right to suckle from his people, as an infant to its mother, but Tohil suckled upon human blood from the chest of the sacrificial victim. [39] The Popol Vuh also describes how the Hero Twin Hunahpu was sacrificed with both the removal of his heart and his head. [5] Human sacrifice was probably also performed to the Kʼicheʼ mountain god Jacawitz. [40] Human sacrifice is also mentioned in the Kʼicheʼ document Título de Totonicapán ("Title of Totonicapán"). A long passage describing human sacrifice is difficult to interpret but features heart and arrow sacrifice, the flaying of the victim and wearing of his skin in a manner similar to the Aztec rituals associated with their god Xipe Totec, and mention of the sacrificial knife of Tohil. [41]

The Kaqchikel Maya, neighbours of the Kʼicheʼ, also practised human sacrifice. Ample evidence of human sacrifice has been excavated at Iximche, their capital. Human sacrifice is evidenced at the site by the altar upon Structure 2, of a type used in heart sacrifice, and by a cylindrical cache of skulls taken from decapitated victims accompanied by obsidian knives. [42] A pentatonic flute crafted from a child's femur was recovered from one of the temples and is also indicative of human sacrifice. [43] A sacrificial flint knife was also recovered from Structure 3, [42] and a circular altar at the site is very similar to those used for so-called "gladiatorial sacrifice" by the Aztecs and it may have served this purpose. [44] The Annals of the Kaqchikels record that around 1491 the rulers of Iximche captured the rulers of the Kʼicheʼ, as well as the image of Tohil. The captured king and his co-ruler were sacrificed together with the son and grandson of the king, other noblemen and high-ranking warriors. [45] The same text describes how the Kaqchikel captured a powerful lord, called Tolkʼom, who was tied to a scaffold and was shot with arrows during a ritual dance. [20]

Human sacrifice during the Spanish conquest (1511–1697) Edit

In 1511 the Spanish caravel Santa María de la Barca set sail along the Central American coast to Santo Domingo from Darien under the command of Pedro de Valdivia. [46] The ship was wrecked upon a reef somewhere off Jamaica. [46] There were just twenty survivors from the wreck, including Captain Valdivia, Gerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero. [47] The survivors set themselves adrift in one of the ship's boats, with bad oars and no sail after thirteen days during which half of the survivors died, they made landfall upon the coast of Yucatán. [46] There they were seized by the Maya Lord Halach Uinik. [nb 1] Captain Valdivia was sacrificed with four of his companions, and their flesh was served at a feast. The other prisoners were fattened for killing, although Aguilar and Guerrero managed to escape. [48]

After the disastrous Spanish-led assault on Uspantán in 1529, captives taken by the Uspanteks were sacrificed to Exbalamquen, one of the Hero Twins. [49] In 1555 the Acala and their Lacandon allies killed the Spanish friar Domingo de Vico. [50] De Vico, who had established a small missionary church in San Marcos (in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala), had offended a local Maya ruler [51] the indigenous leader shot the friar through the throat with an arrow the angry natives then sacrificed him by cutting open his chest and extracting his heart. His corpse was then decapitated [52] the natives carried off his head as a trophy, which was never recovered by the Spanish. [53] In the early 1620s a Spanish party received permission to visit the still independent Itza capital at Nojpetén, headed by friar Diego Delgado who was accompanied by 13 Spanish soldiers and 80 Christianised Maya guides from Tipu, now in Belize. The party was seized when they arrived at Nojpetén and sacrificed with their hearts cut out. They were then decapitated and their heads displayed on stakes around the city Delgado was dismembered. [54] The main Spanish party was ambushed at Sakalum in January 1624 and slaughtered. The Spanish Captain Francisco de Mirones and a Franciscan priest were sacrificed using the heart extraction method after being bound to the forked posts of the church. [55] The rest of the Spanish party were also sacrificed, and their bodies impaled on stakes at the village entrance. [56]

In 1684 three Franciscan friars were killed, probably by heart sacrifice, at the Manche Chʼol settlement of Paliac on the Caribbean coast of Belize. They included Francisco Custodio, Marcos de Muros, and an unnamed lay brother. [57]

A number of additional Spanish missionaries were sacrificed at Nojpetén. In February 1696 Franciscan friar Juan de San Buenaventura and an unspecified Franciscan companion were taken to Nojpetén during a skirmish between the Yucatec Spanish and the Itza on the west shore of Lake Petén Itzá. The Itza high priest AjKin Kan Ekʼ later related that he had the Franciscans bound in the form of crosses and then cut out their hearts. [58] About a month later a Guatemalan Spanish expedition was ambushed and slaughtered Dominican friars Cristóbal de Prada and Jacinto de Vargas were taken across to the island of Nojpetén and were similarly bound to X-shaped crosses before having their hearts cut out. [59]

Codices Edit

Much of the evidence of Maya sacrificial rituals is taken from images on their codices. A codex is an ancient manuscript made on sheets of paper, or paper-like materials. These records usually contain information pertinent to that era and people and detail many cultural and ritualistic aspects of life. Much of what is known from Maya culture is gathered from these books. Maya codices contain glyph like imagery that is related to deities, sacrifices, rituals, moon phases, planet movements, and calendars. [60] Three codices that are considered legitimate are the Dresden, Madrid, and Paris Codices. These codices all feature depictions of human sacrificial rituals such as heart extractions and decapitations.

Rock Art Edit

Human sacrifices have also been depicted on rock art at Chalcatzingo sites. One depiction includes four people, with three standing and one sitting. The sitting person is tied up, and nude. The standing figures are dressed in a manner that indicated they are the ones carrying out the ritual. They are wearing headdresses, decorative belts, and capes, and holding a club-like weapon. One of the individuals is holding a staff that was linked to agricultural fertility, possible denoting the purpose of the sacrificial ritual. [61] Other tropes include the victims wearing minimal garments, lying in prone positions to demonstrate lack of power, and sometimes are dressed in headdresses, diadems, animal-like masks, or other adornments that indicate a high-status victim. The Chalcatzingo site has also provided evidence for an uncommon type of human sacrifice, being beaten to death with clubs. Animals are also depicted in rock art related to sacrifices. One depiction includes a feline disemboweling a human with its paws.

Lingering Questions

Although dedicated researchers continue to learn more and more about the ancient Maya and their trading patterns and economy, many questions remain. The very nature of their trade is debated. Were the merchants taking their orders from the wealthy elite, going where they were told, and making the deals they were ordered to make — or was there a free market system in effect? What sort of social status did talented artisans enjoy? Did the Maya trade networks collapse along with Maya society in general around 900 A.D.? These questions and more are debated and studied by modern scholars of the ancient Maya.

Bowls of Fingers, Baby Victims, More Found in Maya Tomb

Reeking of decay and packed with bowls of human fingers, a partly burned baby, and gem-studded teeth—among other artifacts—a newfound Maya king's tomb sounds like an overripe episode of Tales From the Crypt.

But the tightly sealed, 1,600-year-old burial chamber, found under a jungle-covered Guatemalan pyramid, is as rich with archaeological gold as it is with oddities, say researchers who announced the discovery Friday.

"This thing was like Fort Knox," said Brown University archaeologist Stephen Houston, who led the excavation in the ancient, overgrown Maya town of El Zotz.

Alternating layers of flat stones and mud preserved human bones, wood carvings, textiles, and other organic material to a surprising degree—offering a rare opportunity to advance Maya archaeology, experts say.

"Since [the artifacts] appear in a royal tomb, they may provide direct insights in the political economy of the divine kings that likely involved tribute and gifts," Vanderbilt University anthropologist Markus Eberl, who was not involved in the project, said via email.

Excavation leader Houston added, "we're looking at a glimpse of lost art forms."

Fingers, Teeth, and a Taste of Things to Come

The researchers found grisly deposits even before they reached the Maya tomb.

Almost every layer of mud above the tomb contained blood-red pottery filled with human fingers and teeth wrapped in decayed organic material—perhaps leaves.

The fingers and teeth were "perhaps a kind of food or symbolic meal offering," Houston speculated. "Sacred breads in [Mexico's] Yucatán are wrapped in such materials today."

In another bowl above the circa A.D. 350 to 400 tomb, the team found a partly burned baby. The bowls closest to the burial chamber were arranged like the Maya cosmos—the four cardinal compass points plus the center of world.

Dancing King and Child Sacrifices

"The chill of the morgue" and "a faint odor of decay" tempered the euphoria of the find when the team finally entered the tomb itself on May 29, Houston said.

Breaking though a side wall of the small tomb, excavators uncovered the remains of six children—a rarity among Maya burials. Nearby was an obsidian blade covered in a red residue that "may be blood," Houston said.

The arrangement suggests the children, some of them infants, may have been ritually sacrificed as the king was laid to rest. (Read about Maya rituals of sacrifice and worship.)

Why the children would have been killed is a mystery, said team member Andrew Scherer, a Brown University anthropologist.

But the youth of the victims hints that their value as sacrifices may have lain in their being, to Maya eyes, on the verge of personhood, Scherer said.

Dig leader Houston added, "[The fact] that at least four appear not to have been able yet fully to speak or walk may put them at that threshold of human existence."

The role of the king in his own burial may be slightly clearer.

The team found bell-like ornaments made of shells and "clappers" made of dog teeth, which were likely placed around the king's waist and legs, Houston said.

The same accessories are seen on performers in a ritual dance depicted in Maya art, suggesting that the king may have been "cast" as a dancer in the ceremony leading to his interment—despite the arthritic joints that give away his apparently advanced age.

Turtle King Tomb a "Gold Mine"

His teeth embedded with jewels, the buried king, Houston suspects, was the founder of a dynasty at El Zotz, in what's now the Petén region (satellite map) of Guatemala.

According to the partially deciphered hieroglyphics on the tomb walls, his name translates to perhaps Red Turtle or Great Turtle. More information about him may be gleaned from further study of hieroglyphics from the tomb, Houston said.

A small state with no more than a few thousand people, El Zotz lay to the west of Tikal, once among the biggest and most powerful Maya centers (interactive map of the Maya Empire).

The neighboring settlements, though, probably weren't best of friends. El Zotz was likely "supported by the enemies of Tikal in a way to keep a check on Tikal's territorial ambitions," Houston said.

More details on the nature of that relationship—and on El Zotz and Maya life in general—may await decoding in the turtle king's tomb. The excavation team's next steps include residue analysis as well as continued analysis, and reconstruction, of the tomb's textiles and other artifacts.

"This," Houston said, "could be a veritable gold mine of information."

For the story of the Maya Empire, read the National Geographic magazine article "The Maya: Glory and Ruin" >>


Hundreds of Mayan artefacts have been found in a lake in Guatemala by polish underwater archaeologists. A stone mace head (pictured) was also discovered which could be is related to the final battle that saw Guatemala being colonised by the Spanish, say archaeologists.

A stone mace head was also found which researchers say is related to the final battle that saw Guatemala being colonised by the Spanish. The image above shows a pot found at what is known as the 'sacred spot' in Lake Petén Itzá

Their finds could also indicate activities on the island in the middle of the lake.

Team leader Magdalena Krzemień, of Poland's Jagiellonian University said: 'Water had very special and symbolic meaning in ancient Maya beliefs.

'It was thought to be the door to the underworld, the world of death – Xibalba, where their gods live.

'We planned our dives according to written sources and a little bit of intuition. We wanted to check places that seem to be very important in the history of the Itza Maya group.

The archaeological evidence could place the last battle with the Spaniards on the lake's island Flores, rather than further west, where most written sources say it took place. Among the finds was an obsidian blade (pictured) was found that may have been used for blood sacrifices

Water has special significance in Mayan mythology, and bodies of water are often believed to be the gateway to the underworld. The image shows an incense burner on the lake bed


The Mayan capital of Nojpetén - also known as Tayasal - in Petén is widely cited as where the Spanish finally conquered Petén in 1697.

It was a long and drawn out attempt by the Spanish to conquer the region pf Petén, an lowland area of dense forests the Spanish found hard to penetrate.

The final assault on the capital saw the Mayan city fall after a short and bloody battle that saw many Mayan fighters killed.

The Spanish reportedly only suffered minor casualties.

There were some Mayan survivors who apparently swam away and escaped into the surrounding forests.

After the Spanish finally conquered the region of Petén in 1697 they produced lots of written documentation of the battle.

A stone mace head was also found which researchers say is related to the final battle that saw Guatemala being colonised by the Spanish, on an island in the lake called Flores.

The island was once home to Nojpetén, also known as Tayasal - the capital of the Maya in Guatemala.

Ms Krzemień, said: 'Most of the written sources say that the battle between the Spaniards and the Maya, who lived in Nojpeten, took place on the west side of the island.'

She added: 'It seems we have confirmed the location of the last battle between the Maya and Spaniards, and we probably found the area of the ritual activity of the Itza.

'That is a great beginning to the process of better learning their customs, beliefs and culture.'

One of the artefacts now recovered is an obsidian blade that may have been used to make blood sacrifices.

'Ancient Maya used blades like this during their rituals.

'They could make blood-letting offerings or even kill somebody to offer human blood to the gods.'

A stone mace head was also found which researchers say is related to the final battle that saw Guatemala being colonised by the Spanish. The map shows the location of the finds in a lake in northern Guatemala

However, Ms Krzemień is keen to emphasise that her team have only undertaken reconnaissance of the sites, rather than complete excavations.

Ms Krzemień said: 'Right now we can't be sure about the context of the objects, and whether their location is not the result of water movement or other factors.

'But if we can confirm that, in this area, the ritual objects were found in situ – and we think two ceremonial objects were – at least one part of the lake could be called sacred.'

'We already have the general view of where we should make much more complex excavations in coming years,' she added.


The Maya civilisation thrived in Central America for nearly 3,000 years, reaching its height between AD 250 to 900.

Noted for the only fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, the Mayas also had highly advanced art and architecture as well as mathematical and astronomical systems.

During that time, the ancient people built incredible cities using advanced machinery and gained an understanding of astronomy, as well as developing advanced agricultural methods and accurate calendars.

The Maya believed the cosmos shaped their everyday lives and they used astrological cycles to tell when to plant crops and set their calendars.

This has led to theories that the Maya may have chosen to locate their cities in line with the stars.

It is already known that the pyramid at Chichen Itza was built according to the sun’s location during the spring and autumn equinoxes.

When the sun sets on these two days, the pyramid casts a shadow on itself that aligns with a carving of the head of the Mayan serpent god.

The shadow makes the serpent's body so that as the sun sets, the terrifying god appears to slide towards the earth.

Maya influence can be detected from Honduras, Guatemala, and western El Salvador to as far away as central Mexico, more than 1,000km from the Maya area.

The Maya peoples never disappeared. Today their descendants form sizable populations throughout the Maya area.

They maintain a distinctive set of traditions and beliefs that are the result of the merger of pre-Columbian and post-Conquest ideas and cultures.

Politics and the Decline of the Maya

The Classic Era was the height of the Mayan civilization culturally, politically, and militarily. Between A.D. 700 and 900, however, the Maya civilization began a swift and irreversible decline. The reasons the Mayan society fell are still a mystery, but theories abound. As the Maya civilization grew, warfare between city-states grew as well: entire cities were attacked, defeated, and destroyed. The ruling class grew as well, placing a strain on the working classes, which may have resulted in civil strife. Food became a problem for some Maya cities as the population grew. When trade could no longer make up the differences, hungry citizens may have revolted or fled. The Mayan rulers might have avoided some of these calamities.

Watch the video: Belize and the Maya History (May 2022).