Mass graves reveal ideal human sacrifice in Maya civilisation

El Chultun, underground water reservoir
Remains were found in the chultun, a repurposed water cistern which was connected to a small cave - Witold Skrypczak / Alamy Stock Photo

Twin boys were the preferred human sacrifices in ancient Maya civilisation, a study has found.

The Maya often performed rituals including the killing of people at the El Castillo pyramid in the city of Chichen Itza in what is now modern-day Mexico.

It has long been a mystery as to where the sacrificed people came from, the preferred age, and ideal gender but stories of the last century have often suggested girls were the most sought after sacrifices.

But analysis of 64 human bodies buried at a mass grave in the centre of Chichen Itza revealed this to be wrong as all remains were male.

Further study revealed this grave contained two pairs of identical twins and a quarter of the people were buried alongside a close relative.

Evidence in the bones also indicates the interred individuals were all from the local area and were not travellers from further afield.

Sacrifices to appease twin deities

Chichen Itza is one of the seven modern wonders of the world and was central in Maya society for around 500 years between 700AD and 1200AD.

El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulcan, was the site of many sacrifices and remains were often thrown into a limestone sinkhole filled with water known at the Sacred Cenote, which is where it was thought that the god Chac lived.

But at excavations at a different site around 150 metres away from the Cenote is the chultun, a repurposed water cistern which was connected to a small cave. Here, the 64 male remains were buried.

Scientists believe the related boys killed and buried here were sacrifices to appease the Twin Hero deities Hunahpu and Xbalanque who were in an eternal battle of wits with the gods of the underworld.

“Early 20th century accounts falsely popularised lurid tales of young women and girls being sacrificed at the site,” says study author Dr Christina Warinner, an anthropologist at Harvard.

“This study, conducted as a close international collaboration, 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.”

Site used as grave for over 500 years

The majority of the boys at the site were buried at the peak of Maya society between 800 and 1000AD but the site was used as a grave for more than 500 years, the scientists found.

Dr Kathrin Nägele, co-author and group leader at the Max Planck Institutes for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, said the most surprising finding was that two pairs of identical twin boys were found.

“Twins occur spontaneously in only 0.4 per cent of the general population, the presence of two sets of identical twins in the chultún is much higher than would be expected by chance,” the authors write in their paper, published in Nature.

“The closely related children seem to have consumed a similar diet and died at a similar age [which] suggests that they have been sacrificed during the same ritual event as a pair or twin sacrifice.”

Human sacrifice was vital to Maya society, but twins also played an auspicious role in myth and legend.

Twin sacrifice is a central theme in ancient scripture and the scientists think the twins and other sacrifices were buried in the cave as it was viewed as an entrance to the underworld and therefore these people likely were part of a ritual involving the Hero Twins of lore.

“The discovery of two sets of identical twins, as well as other close relatives, in a ritual mass burial of male children suggests that young boys may have been selected for sacrifice because of their biological kinship and the importance of twins in Maya mythology,” the authors write.