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Mayan Sacrifices Were Particularly Gruesome for This Reason

The discovery was made following the analysis of human remains unearthed in the ancient city of Chichén Itzá, utilizing cutting-edge technology by an international team of scientists.

Published in the journal Nature, the findings refute previous theories suggesting that most victims of human sacrifice at the city’s temples were girls or young women. Extensive evidence of ritual killings, including physical remains and depictions in monumental art, has long been documented at Chichén Itzá.

In the early 20th century, excavations of the Sacred Cenote revealed hundreds of sacrificed victims and a large stone tzompantli, or skull rack. Despite the belief that females were predominantly sacrificed, determining the sex of juvenile remains solely through physical examination is challenging.

Recent anatomical analysis indicates that many older juveniles were likely boys. In 1967, a subterranean chamber (chultún) was discovered containing over 100 children’s scattered remains, connected to a small cave—an underworld symbolic in Maya culture.

Genetic investigation of 64 children buried in this chamber revealed all were boys. Dating placed the use of the chamber from the 7th to 12th centuries AD, with a peak during Chichén Itzá’s political apex from 800 to 1000 AD. A quarter of the children were closely related, evidenced by similar diets, suggesting they were raised together.

Dr. Kathrin Nägele of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology noted, “Most surprisingly, we identified two pairs of identical twins, ensuring no duplication in our sampling strategy.”

The findings suggest related male children were selected in pairs for ritual activities. Co-author Oana Del Castillo-Chávez explained, “The similar ages, diets, and genetic relatedness of the male children buried together over 200 years indicate the chultún served as a post-sacrificial burial site.”

The study underscores the cultural significance of twins in Maya origin stories, notably in the Popol Vuh, where twin sacrifice is pivotal. Twin mythology, like that of the Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who navigate the underworld, resonates in Maya art and ritual, likely influencing the interment of twins in Chichén Itzá’s chamber, symbolizing their journey akin to the Hero Twins’ saga.

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