A Surprise Discovery: The Ancient Mayans Sacrificed Young Boys

Every year, millions of tourists flock to Chichen Itza to marvel at the ancient architecture and learn about the Mayan culture. Sacrificial rituals were common at the famous site. Over the years, archaeologists have found hundreds of bones from ritual killings in its temples. Until recently, researchers believed that young women and girls were the main victims. It turns out that this is not the case.

Archaeologists discovered the bodies of over 100 young children at Chichen Itza in 1967. All were in a chultun — a bottle-shaped underground storage chamber. For the new study, researchers analyzed the genomes of 64 of the skeletons. They were looking specifically for a genetic legacy of the Salmonella enterica pandemic that swept across Mexico in 1545.

To their surprise, all the victims were boys. They re-ran the tests to be sure. Myths depicted young maidens as the main sacrifice to the gods.

There is no indication of how the boys were killed, but their bodies lay in an underground chamber. The Mayans believed that blood was their gods’ ultimate source of nourishment. The subterranean chambers acted as links to the underworld.

A sinkhole, or cenote, at Chichen Itza. Photo: Shutterstock


Targeting twins

The 64 boys included two sets of twins. Over a quarter of the children were closely related to another child. The Mayans may have believed that offering the gods closely related individuals would bring good fortune. Twins are particularly lucky in Mayan mythology, which is likely the reason for their ritual slaughter.

“Twins occur spontaneously in only 0.4 percent of the general population,” the authors commented. “The presence of two sets of identical twins…is much higher than would be expected by chance.”

Twins are central to the “Popol Vuh,” a sacred Mayan text. The myth speaks of twins Hun and Vucub Hunahpu, sacrificed to the gods after defeat in a ball game. After the killing, Hun Hunahpu’s head hung from a tree and impregnated a woman who gave birth to another set of twins. These twins went to the underworld to avenge their father and uncle.

Researchers think the boys were sacrificed in pairs to mimic the story of the hero twins.

“I think we have to remember that death, and everything that these rituals imply, were completely different to us because we have a very different view of the world than the one that they had,” lead author Rodrigo Barquera told CNN.

“For them, it was not losing a child…but an opportunity given by whatever forces to be part of this special burial.”

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.