DNA reveals mystery of Maya human sacrifice

The popular imagination holds that the ancient Maya sacrificed only young women and girls at their temples in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. That's a myth, according to a new study of ancient DNA from 64 individuals who were sacrificed and interred in an underground cavern in the Maya city of Chichén Itzá's more than 1,000 years ago. Those unlucky individuals were all young boys, aged 3 to 6.

"There were two big moments of surprise here," said Rodrigo Barquera of the department of archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

"We were thinking, influenced by traditional archaeology that we would find, a non-sex-biased burial or mostly girls," he told CNN. "And the second one (was) when we found out that some of them were related and there were two sets of twins."

According to archaeologist Rubén Mendoza, author of Ritual Human Sacrifice in Mesoamerica, the belief that the sacrifices exclusively involved in women and girl is based on early tales about Chichén Itzá's sacred sinkhole where countless skeletons have been found.

"This characterization of Maya sacrifice was catapulted to the forefront through media depictions of young maidens (aka virgins) being hurled to their deaths at the Sacred Well," said Mendoza who was not involved in the recent discovery.

It's extremely difficult to determine the sex of a child exclusively from bones so the key to the latest discovery were the biotech tools that enabled genetic analysis. According to researchers, the Maya had a sophisticated ritual calendar that probably called for different sacrificial victims depending on the timing and specifics of the religious ceremony.

"I think we have to remember that death, and everything that these rituals imply, were completely different to us, because we have a very different view of the world than the one that they had," Max Planck Institute researcher Rodrigo Barquera said. "For them, it was not losing a child, not losing one of their kids, but an opportunity given by whatever forces to be part of this special burial."

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