At Mayan Site, Only Boys Were Sacrificed

'We kept rerunning the tests because we couldn't believe that all of them were male'
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 13, 2024 10:14 AM CDT
At Mayan Site, Only Boys Were Sacrificed
The Temple of Kukulcan, also known as El Castillo, at Chichen Itza.   (Getty Images/SCStock)

Researchers say they were stunned to discover that, contrary to depictions of the Mayan people sacrificing young girls or "virgin maidens" in religious rituals, sacrifice victims whose remains were found at Chichen Itza were all young boys—and many of them were related to each other. It's impossible to tell the sex of young children from their skeletons, and researchers who tested DNA had expected all or most of the victims found in an underground cistern to be girls. "We kept rerunning the tests because we couldn't believe that all of them were male," lead researcher Rodrigo Barquera tells the New York Times. "It was just so amazing."

  • The team extracted and tested DNA from 64 of around 100 bodies found in the cistern, known as a chultun, CNN reports. All were boys, mostly between the ages of 3 and 6. Researchers say there were two sets of identical twins, and many others were siblings or cousins. The remains were discovered during excavations for an airport at the site in Mexico's Yucatan state in 1967.
  • Researchers believe the bodies were interred at the site over a 500-year period ending around AD1100, with most of the sacrifices occurring from AD800 to AD1000, when the Mayan city was at its peak.

  • "Twins feature prominently in Mayan and broader Mesoamerican mythology, where they embody qualities of duality among deities and heroes," researchers wrote in a study published in the journal Nature. Barquera says it's possible that twins or brothers were selected as sacrifice victims to replicate the story of the "Hero Twins," Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who went through cycles of sacrifice and rebirth, Reuters reports.
  • "There are no cut marks or evidence of trauma, which tells us how they (did) not die. But we have not found a cause of death for them yet," Barquera says.
  • The DNA testing wasn't carried out to investigate sacrifice rituals, the Times reports. Barquera, an immunogeneticist, was researching the genetic legacy of a Salmonella enterica bacterium that killed around 90% of Mexico's Indigenous people in the 16th century. The team sequenced the DNA of the Chichen Itza victims to compare it to that of people born after the outbreak.
  • Barquera tells CNN that the DNA of the sacrifice victims showed that they were genetically related to the modern inhabitants of Tixcacaltuyub, a community a few miles away. He says they were "super happy to learn that they were related to the people that once inhabited Chichen Itza."
(More Chichen Itza stories.)

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