A new study explores the ritual practice of child sacrifice at Chichén Itzá, an ancient Maya city. Following the collapse of the classical Maya civilization, Chichén Itzá emerged as a powerful and influential city. Despite its prominence, much about its political connections and ritual life remains a mystery.

The study, published in Nature, reveals that the practice of sacrificing children was exclusively focused on boys, including pairs of identical twins, which may relate to the Maya origin myths found in the Popol Vuh. Additionally, comparisons with contemporary Maya populations show the genetic impact of colonial-era epidemics.

Chichén Itzá is located in the heart of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico and is one of North America’s most iconic archaeological sites. It became a major political center following the decline of the classical Maya and remained influential until the arrival of the Spanish.

The city’s influence spread throughout the Maya region and into central Mexico. Known for its monumental architecture, including ball courts and temples such as the massive El Castillo, adorned with feathered serpent carvings, Chichén Itzá has been the subject of archaeological investigation for over a century.

Portion of reconstructed stone tzompantli, or skull rack, at Chichén Itzá.
Portion of reconstructed stone tzompantli, or skull rack, at Chichén Itzá. Credit: Johannes Krause

Chichén Itzá is also notorious for evidence of ritual killings, both in the form of physical remains and depictions in monumental art. The early 20th-century dredging of the Sacred Cenote uncovered hundreds of individuals’ remains, and a large stone representation of a tzompantli, a rack of skulls, highlights the importance of sacrifice in the city’s rituals. Despite its notoriety, the specifics of these ritual killings are still not well understood.

A significant proportion of those sacrificed were children and adolescents. While there is a common belief that women were the main targets, physical examination of juvenile skeletal remains makes determining sex difficult. Recent anatomical analyses suggest many of the older juveniles were likely boys.

In 1967, an underground chamber near the Sacred Cenote was discovered, containing the scattered remains of over a hundred young children. This chamber, probably a repurposed chultún (water cistern), had been expanded to connect with a small cave. Among the ancient Maya, caves, cenotes, and chultúns were often associated with child sacrifice, seen as connections to the underworld.

To better understand the ritual life and context of child sacrifice at Chichén Itzá, an international team of researchers conducted a genetic study of the remains of 64 children ritually buried in the chultún. The analysis revealed that the chultún was used for burials over 500 years, with most children buried during the city’s political peak between 800 and 1000 AD.

Detail from the reconstructed stone tzompantli, or skull rack, at Chichén Itzá.
Detail from the reconstructed stone tzompantli, or skull rack, at Chichén Itzá. Credit: Christina Warinner

Unexpectedly, all 64 individuals analyzed were boys. Further genetic analysis showed that these children came from local Maya populations, and at least a quarter were closely related to at least one other child in the chultún, suggesting they were raised in the same households.

The discovery of two pairs of identical twins among the remains supports a connection to the Maya origin myths in the Popol Vuh, where twin brothers play a central role in stories of sacrifice and rebirth. The burial of twins and closely related pairs within the chultún likely reflects rituals associated with these myths. This finding challenges earlier stories that falsely claimed women and girls were the main victims of sacrifice at Chichén Itzá.

The detailed genetic data also allowed researchers to examine the long-term impact of colonial-era epidemics on indigenous populations. Working with the local Maya community of Tixcacaltuyub, the researchers found evidence of positive genetic selection in genes related to immunity, particularly against Salmonella. This aligns with historical records of devastating epidemics, such as the cocoliztli epidemic of 1545, caused by Salmonella enterica.

The new information gained from ancient DNA has not only allowed us to dispel outdated hypotheses and assumptions and to gain new insights into the biological consequences of past events, it has given us a glimpse into the cultural lives of the ancient Maya, says senior author Johannes Krause, Director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Such studies also empower Indigenous researchers to shape narratives of the past and set priorities for the future. It is significant to me as a research professor of indigenous origin that I can contribute to the construction of knowledge, says María Ermila Moo-Mezeta, Mayan co-author of the study and researcher at the Autonomous University of Yucatán (UADY). I consider the preservation of the historical memory of the Mayan people to be important.


Sources

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology | Rodrigo Barquera, Oana Del Castillo-Chávez, Kathrin Nägele, Patxi Pérez-Ramallo, et al., Ancient genomes reveal insights into ritual life at Chichén Itzá. Nature, 12 June 2024, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-0000-0


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