A Mass Grave of Maya Boys May Shed Light on Human Sacrifice in Chichén Itzá

Researchers have genetically tested the bones and made determinations of gender and family relations

The skull rack at Chichén Itzá was created to honor the Maya's dead. Christina Warinner

The ancient Maya city Chichén Itzá is famous for its ball courts and temples, including the massive, pyramid-like El Castillo. And as both the Maya civilization’s political and spiritual hub, the city is filled with evidence of Maya rituals, including those related to death. Tombs, ossuaries, a skull rack and the Sacred Cenote, a water-filled sinkhole where Maya deposited both bodies and valuable objects, are found at the site.

Now, researchers know more about another of Chichén Itzá’s mortuary curiosities: An underground chamber filled with the remains of at least 100 children, who were buried over a 500-year period lasting from the seventh to 12th centuries.

Ancient Maya deposited sacrifice victims and ritualistic objects in Chichén Itzá's Sacred Cenote. No machine-readable author provided. Andre m assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimed

The chamber was originally discovered in 1967, and while its occupants’ ages could be estimated based on the skeletons’ stature, researchers knew nothing else about the deceased. But recently, a team of scientists genetically tested the remains. According to the study they published in the journal Nature, not only are most of the deceased boys, but many of them are related, and four are even twins.

“Most of them were between 3 and 6 years old,” lead author of the study Rodrigo Barquera, a researcher at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, tells Live Science’s Jennifer Nalewicki. “Since many of the individuals were related to each other to some extent, that tells us that it’s probable that only specific families would have had access to this burial and that not just anyone could put their kids in there—it was a big honor.”

skull rack
The stone tzompantli, or skull rack, is one of Chichén Itzá's monuments to human sacrifice. Johannes Krause

The chamber was once a chultún, or an underground cistern, which had been enlarged and connected to a small cave, according to a statement by the Max Planck Institute. The Maya viewed such subterranean features and water holes—like the nearby Sacred Cenote—as connections to the underworld. It seems this particular chultún became a tomb for children, but exactly why these boys were buried here remains unclear, with their cause of death yet undetermined.

“As we studied the bones, we didn’t find any signs of trauma, so they weren’t thrown into the chamber,” Barquera tells Live Science.

Most of the children in the chultún died during Chichén Itzá’s apex of power, between 800 and 1000 C.E., per the statement. Genetic testing revealed that the children came from local Maya populations, and that a quarter of them were closely related to at least one other child in the chultún. As study coauthor Patxi Pérez-Ramallo, an archaeology researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology Museum, says in the statement, “remarkably similar dietary patterns” among the group of children suggest first- or second-degree familial connections.

“Most surprisingly, we identified two pairs of identical twins,” says coauthor Kathrin Nägele of the Max Planck Institute in the statement. Twins appear frequently in Maya spiritual traditions and stories: The sacrifice of twins is a theme of the sacred Maya Book of Community, also known as the Popol Vuh, which is “considered by many Maya as their equivalent of the Christian Bible,” per the Library of Congress.

The buried boys’ familial connections—especially the presence of identical twins—have led the researchers to a hypothesis: that the kids were victims of human sacrifice.

El Castillo is one Chichén Itzá's largest structures. Johannes Krause

“The similar ages and diets of the male children, their close genetic relatedness and the fact that they were interred in the same place for more than 200 years point to the chultún as a post-sacrificial burial site, with the sacrificed individuals having been selected for a specific reason,” says coauthor Oana Del Castillo-Chávez, a researcher with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, in the statement.

As Barquera tells Live Science, we may “never know” how the boys in the chultún died or why they were buried there. If they were sacrificed, it would contradict researchers’ previous assumptions that the Maya preferred to sacrifice girls and women, reports Newsweek’s Robyn White.

“Early 20th-century accounts falsely popularized lurid tales of young women and girls being sacrificed at the site,” says Christina Warinner, an anthropologist at Harvard University and one of the study’s authors, in the statement. But 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.”

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