Tied to the Gods

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The ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá was a dominant political and cultural center on what is now Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula that peaked between 800 and 1000 CE.

Recently, archaeologists recently uncovered chilling evidence of ritual child sacrifice at the Maya metropolis, where genetic analysis points to a disturbing trend: Young boys, often twins, were the chosen victims to appease the gods.

“The new information … has given us a glimpse into the cultural lives of the ancient Maya,” said Johannes Krause, the senior author of a new study, in a statement.

The accumulation and sifting of the evidence goes back decades.

In 1967, archaeological teams discovered an underground chamber – originally a cistern repurposed for these macabre rituals – dating from around 500 to 900 CE.

The chamber contained the remains of more than 100 individuals, with a recent DNA analysis showing they were predominately male children.

The team wrote in their study in Nature that the 64 children were between the ages of three to six and were closely related, including two sets of identical twins. Chemical analyses of their bones showed that these boys had similar diets, implying they came from the same households, according to the Guardian.

The researchers believe that the sacrifices were connected to agricultural cycles, with the children offered to ensure the growth of maize crops or to invoke the favor of the rain god Chaac during droughts.

But it’s the presence of identical twins that piqued the interests of the research team, who explained that the sacrifices could be tied to Maya myth.

Twin sacrifices are featured prominently in Maya mythology, particularly the ancient text of Popol Vuh, the sacred text of the indigenous Kʼicheʼ, one of the Maya peoples.

According to legend, the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque avenged the death of their father and uncle – also twins – by going through “repeated cycles of sacrifice and resurrection to outwit the gods of the underworld,” the authors wrote.

“This is the first evidence of Maya sacrifices involving twins, which were important for Maya (beliefs about the universe),” archaeogenetics and lead author Rodrigo Barquera told Science News.

Meanwhile, the new findings also align with practices seen at other Mesoamerican sites. For instance, the Aztecs sacrificed young boys to Tlaloc, their rain god. In Belize, preliminary genetic studies revealed young females were sacrificed, reflecting a gendered approach to these rituals.

Despite centuries of Spanish colonization and cultural destruction, the authors found that the genetic legacy of the ancient Maya persists in today’s Indigenous populations. Modern Maya populations exhibit immune system adaptations that developed in response to diseases introduced during European colonization.

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