Unraveling the Secrets Beneath the Shadows: The Tale of the Chichén Itzá Child Sacrifices

The Revelation of an Ancient Sacrifice

Hundreds of metres under ground, past the fields and jungle that surround Chichén Itzá’s Sacred Cenote, beneath the dark waters and the white cliffs, is a dimly lit underground chamber. Its ceiling and sides, once carved with scenes of the Maya pantheon, are now overgrown with vegetation. But these walls whisper secrets of the distant past. A team of archaeologists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has uncovered evidence that sacrificial rituals have been carried out here for at least 1,400 years. In the cells of a limestone cavern and in the bones of 64 male children they have found a story that reveals much about Maya rituals and beliefs. Their results, published in Nature this week, have finally laid to rest the mysteries of a shocking discovery at Chichén Itzá.

A Glimpse into the Past

Led by the immunologist Rodrigo Barquera, the research team unravelled a saga that began more than five centuries ago; using genetic analysis and radiocarbon dating, they showed not only that the children – including the mesmerising twins – were victims, but possibly members of elite families, being sacrificed to demonstrate divinity or political power. The chultun was a burial-sacrifice complex in use between the early seventh and mid-12th century.

The Dietary Connection

Through the lives of these children, their bones revealed a great deal about the rituals surrounding their deaths and their place in Maya society. By studying the isotopes of carbon and nitrogen preserved in their bone collagen, the researchers were able to determine what these children ate. ‘Particular families, presumably those in a position of power, were the only ones allowed to “sacrifice” their children to the ritual burial’ Fascinatingly, Barquera revealed that the social hierarchy of the Maya was indexed in these burials.

Dispelling Myths and Uncovering Truths

It also challenges earlier narratives describing the cenote’s victims as a young female group, favouring instead a ritualistic practice that emphasised young males, perhaps in honour of Maya male deities or part of a larger social ritual that still awaits discovery. For the first time, the Maya Ritual Index casts light on rituals at the most advanced part of Maya society that is still hardly known. People had been looking in the wrong places. The findings at Chichén Itzá begin to shift our perspective on Maya rituals away from earlier discoveries that included numerous infants who were sacrificed at the pyramid-temple of Templo Mayor, as well as at Tlatelolco.

The Fascinating Twist of Twins

One of the most striking features of the research, and the one that most interests me, is the prominence of twins in the sacrificial rituals. The Maya have a rich tradition of myths and legends regarding twins, and the discovery suggests that there may have been a cultural or religious significance to twins in Mayan society. The link between the ritual or sacred context, human sacrifice, and twins sheds light on how the storytelling of myths might play back into the social fabric or the other way around.

Tracing Genetic Legacies

Not content to simply decode the past, the researchers compared their matched genome of the sacrificial victims to modern Maya populations. In searching for genetic continuity across millennia, the researchers also identified changes caused by new post-contact diseases and dietary shifts. In this way, they help to reveal the will to survive and capability for evolution among the Maya through many centuries of change.

Reflecting on MAX and the Road Ahead

Over the course of its century-long history, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has proven time and again that it can be counted on to open yet another chapter in the tapestry of human history. At Chichén Itzá, the latest archaeological finds are not only helping us understand more about the rituals of Ancient Maya, but also encourage us to think more deeply about the relationship between the Ancient Maya’s culture, religion and society. Time and time again, Max will surely be at the forefront of such excavations, shedding light on our shadowy past and on the history of humanity as a whole.

The revelations from Chichén Itzá are also a stark reminder of just how complex human societies can become, and just how far they are willing to go to honour their gods and beliefs. With each piece unearthed, the tapestry of the human experience becomes richer in detail. With each bone excavated, the mosaic of some of humankind’s greatest successes and failures takes shape. Through this ongoing process of scientific discovery and cultural remembrance, we remain deeply committed to unravelling the meaning of our ancestral pasts.

Jun 13, 2024
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