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Mexicolore contributor Marta Barber

How bloody were the Maya?

We’re grateful to Marta Barber, a retired journalist “bitten” by the study of the Maya since 1978, and presently Vice President and Program Chair of the Institute of Maya Studies in Miami, for this very useful introduction to a key and controversial aspect of the ancient Maya: just how ‘blood-thirsty’ were they...?

Pic 1: Tenochtitlan, early 16th century
Pic 1: Tenochtitlan, early 16th century

When the Spaniards first arrived in [the Aztec capital city of] Tenochtitlan in 1519 they were amazed by the level of sophistication and technological advances of the city, enough to declare that it was bigger and more sophisticated than Seville, Spain’s largest city in the early 16th Century (pic 1). But soon, they were dismayed at the blood covering many buildings, along with thousands of skulls displayed on racks and sculpted on walls. “The poles were separated from each other,” describes Tapia….. “by a little less than a vara [approximately a yard’s length]...” (pic 2). It didn’t take them much time to watch rituals of decapitation, extraction of beating hearts and, yes, cannibalism.
Their concept of coming as friends dissipated into their religious obligation to convert these people. Soon, they were the enemies to be conquered.

Pic 2: Skull rack, Templo Mayor; cannibalism (Florentine Codex); skull rack, Codex Duran
Pic 2: Skull rack, Templo Mayor; cannibalism (Florentine Codex); skull rack, Codex Duran

About 30 years later, Diego de Landa, a priest and later bishop, was told of rituals among the Maya of the Yucatan that included human sacrifice. “At other times they practised a filthy and grievous sacrifice, whereby they gathered in the temple, in a line, and each made a pierced hole through the member, across from side to side, and then passed through as great a quantity of cord as they could stand; and thus all together fastened and strung together, they annointed the statue of the demon with the collected blood. The one able to endure the most was considered most valiant, and their sons of tender age began to accustom themselves to this suffering; it is frightful to see how much they were dedicated to this practice.”

Pic 3: Map by Ruben Mendoza
Pic 3: Map by Ruben Mendoza

For years, scholars thought that human sacrifice was a custom of Central Mexico – the Aztec or Mexica, the Toltec, and other peoples who spread it to parts of Mesoamerica late in pre-historic times. What Landa saw was a product of the melding of cultures from the north, foreigners, with the Maya. The older Maya were so peaceful.
That was then. Now, we know that human sacrifice, in one form or another, was practiced as early as the Late Pre-Classic and it was widespread. In a paper written by Ruben Mendoza, he marks in this map of Mesoamerica (pic 3) the sites where evidence of human sacrifice has been found, whether a skull rack, burials or caves, in what the author calls, The Technologies of Terror.
We definitely notice in the map the area of Central Mexico that shows a more abundant evidence of such practices, but that doesn’t mean the Maya were exempt.

Pic 4: ‘Describing the Maya World’
Pic 4: ‘Describing the Maya World’

So, how bloody were they? What was the purpose? Was it practiced among all the sites all the time, or just by some of the sites some of the time?
As much as with the rest of Maya studies, research continues to reveal details about this civilization. For example, in the last couple of years, two discoveries show another angle about the Maya. In a Belize cave and in Chichen Itza, multiple skeletons of children have been found that show evidence of human sacrifice.
So let’s take a look at the writing, images and physical evidence left by the Maya in their 3,000 years of history.
This map of the Maya area (pic 4) describes how scholars identify the different places and time periods.

Pic 5: Bishop Diego de Landa; monuments to Cocom leaders
Pic 5: Bishop Diego de Landa; monuments to Cocom leaders

Between 1566 and 1579, Bishop Diego de Landa recorded that the Maya “used to cut off the heads of the old lords of Cocom, when they died, and after cooking them they cleaned off the flesh, and then sawed off half the crown on the back, leaving the front part with the jaws and teeth. Then they replaced the flesh which was gone from these half-skulls by a kind of bitumen, and gave them a perfect appearance characteristic of those whose skulls they were.“ The Cocom or Cocomes were a Maya family or dynasty who controlled the Yucatán Peninsula in the late Postclassic period.
Their capital was at Mayapan. They lived in Sotuta during the time of the Conquest.

Pic 6: Examples of human remains preserved as religious icons in European churches
Pic 6: Examples of human remains preserved as religious icons in European churches

That is not human sacrifice but mutilation of bodies. They are human trophies. The Catholic church did the same for centuries. There’s hardly an old church in Italy that doesn’t have the blood, or a finger, or an organ of a saint kept for all faithful to pray to. Those are also human trophies (pic 6). You may say, these were done when the person was dead. Who are we to say that’s not the case in Mesoamerica.
How far back is there evidence of human sacrifice among the Maya?

Pic 7: Depictions of decapitation found in three stelae
Pic 7: Depictions of decapitation found in three stelae

Let’s start with the Olmec. Is there any evidence they practiced human sacrifice? Here in Stela A from the Olmec site of Tres Zapotes (pic 7, left), it is obvious there’s been a decapitation and that the severed head is being taken somewhere. The imagery intensifies in the area of the Pacific where in both Mexico and Guatemala there is a combination of Olmec and early Maya. The Izapa stela 21 clearly shows an individual with a knife who has just cut the head of a person with blood emanating from his neck (pic 7, centre). El Jobo stela shows a man holding a decapitated head on one arm, and a bone in the other (pic 7, right).
At this point, the only evidence of decapitation as a ritual is in the stelae, which of course are always open to interpretation.

Pic 8: Excavations at Burial 78 site, Tikal, Guatemala
Pic 8: Excavations at Burial 78 site, Tikal, Guatemala

At the beginning of the Classic Period, a “curious new custom” begins to appear in headless burials as well as caches of severed heads.
I quote Peter Borgheyi, “The custom of severing heads of both infants and adults and burying them apart from the body between two bowls placed lip to lip may have originated in the Gulf Coast... the trait first appears in the Lowland Maya at Uaxactun.” He goes on to describe how these heads sometimes in bowls were stacked one on top of the other.
William Coe noticed that in Burial 78 of Tikal the main occupant was a male over 50 years old (pic 8).

Pic 9: Maya decapitation, including self-inflicted
Pic 9: Maya decapitation, including self-inflicted (Click on image to enlarge)

His head and extremeties were removed by the survivors. He was found bundled together in a seated position without the skull, hands and femurs. This burial, completely covered with lime, contained the remains of Siyak Chan Kawil, one of the most famous rulers of Tikal and it sat under the now destroyed Temple 33. He was accompanied by two human sacrifices.
Death by decapitation is the most commonly recorded form of sacrifice during the Classic Period. It is mostly seen in pottery scenes (pic 9), with most decapitations performed by deities, and one self-inflicted.
But decapitation is not the only form of human sacrifice practiced by the Maya. There also was heart extraction. Though there are some samples of heart extraction during the Classic period, they are not common. Some appear in the codices; but they are much more prevalent in the Post-Classic.

Pic 10: Detail of Lintel 24 from Yaxchilan; British Museum
Pic 10: Detail of Lintel 24 from Yaxchilan; British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

One type of sacrifice practiced throughout the whole Maya history is personal sacrifice. Perforation of genitals, tongues, scarification in the face and other parts of the body were themes that left some of the most impressive of Maya art and writing.
We’ve all seen the famous lintels of Yaxchilan, stelae from Piedras Negras, murals of Bonampak. There are many scenes where, without captives being shown, rulers and wives are seen conducting personal perforations. Examples include: Lintel 24 of Yaxchilan with Lady Xoc passing rope through her tongue (pic 10)...

Pic 11: Detail from Bonampak Room 1 mural (left); Stela 13, Piedras Negras (right)
Pic 11: Detail from Bonampak Room 1 mural (left); Stela 13, Piedras Negras (right)

... Lintel 17 with both Bird Jaguar and one of his wives performing sacrifice; Bonampak mural from Room 1, with the ladies passing rope with the baby in the scene (pic 11, left), and Stela 13 from Piedras Negras, Ruler 6 with trophy head, scrolls of blood and dressed with sandals and skirt of personal sacrifice (pic 11, right).
In the city of Caracol, in Belize, a very different type of offering was found in the structure called Caana, of Structure B. 20, a great number of caches and burials were found in the different levels of this large pyramid.

Pic 12: Cache of finger bones, Caracol; Stela 12, Piedras Negras; Room 2, Bonampak
Pic 12: Cache of finger bones, Caracol; Stela 12, Piedras Negras; Room 2, Bonampak

The building had 3 tombs, each with its own “witz” entrance. At the top is Structure B19, which has a date of 634 AD. “A single bundled invidual was buried..., the largest tomb yet identified at Caracol. The individual was female and her teeth were extensively inlaid with jade. A host of ritual deposits or caches placed at the summit both predate and postdate reentry. The latest deposit consisted of a burial of a subadult accompanied by a lidded incensario, which in turn was set above a lip-to-lip ceramic vessel containing human fingers.” (Pic 12, left)

Pic 13: Map from Dumbarton Oaks Journal, article by Jessica Munson.
Pic 13: Map from Dumbarton Oaks Journal, article by Jessica Munson.

Kevin Johnston writes, “Whereas the Piedras Negras monument depicts the display of captive scribes, the Bonampak mural illustrates two additional stages of ceremonial activity.... The breaking of the captive’s fingers represents the second stage – mutilation and bloodletting. The third stage – execution through sacrifice – is represented by the central figure, whose heart has been removed and whose fingers still bleed. Lying as his feet is the decapitated head of the tenth captive.
Take a look at this map (pic 13). It shows 72 cities with monuments that identify bloodletting. The red dots signify, according to their size, the amount of documents where sacrifice is recorded.

Pic 14: Depictions of human sacrifice at Chichen Itza
Pic 14: Depictions of human sacrifice at Chichen Itza

In the Terminal Classic and Post-Classic there is a marked increase of human sacrifice among the Maya.
Let’s start with Chichen Itza. A site from the Terminal Classic, showing a great influence from the Toltecs of Central Mexico. Human sacrifice is here to greet you as you stop by the ball court, the largest in Mesoamerica, and the tzompantli in proximity. Linda Schele, in an article in the Dumbarton Oaks publication Ritual Human Sacrifice in Mesoamerica, talks about Landa’s description of death by projectiles in which the victim was painted blue, tied to a post, cut in the genital area and finally shot by projectiles by dancers. Excising the heart from the victim was done, according to Landa, stretching him across a stone altar, tied to a ladder or first decapitated. Orphan children or adult slaves were usually the victims.

Pic 15: Examples of Maya body piercing practices
Pic 15: Examples of Maya body piercing practices

By this time, commoners were practicing piercing of body parts, passing of rope through openings and scarification (pic 15).
Two recent discoveries shed some light on the apparent tradition of child sacrifice among the Maya. In Belize, in a cave known as Midnight Terror, 9,566 bones, bone fragments and teeth belonged to individuals no older than 14 years (pic 16, left). Many came from 4-to-10 year olds. This was reported by bioarchaeologist Michael Prout from Cal State, LA. Radiocarbon showed that the bodies were deposited during a 1,500-year period. Researchers found no evidence that the individuals died of natural causes or had been buried.

Pic 16: Children’s bones found in caves in Belize and the Yucatan
Pic 16: Children’s bones found in caves in Belize and the Yucatan

In Chichen Itza, a cave contained evidence of large scale child-sacrifices, probably 51 of 101 individuals found in the cave (pic 17, right).
So, how bloody were the Maya? The question is, were they a blood-lusting civilization? They held wars and they were not too kind with those captured. What you read from the chroniclers doesn’t make them look too good. But so were the torture chambers of every civilization past and present.

Pic 17: ‘One thing appears to be false...’
Pic 17: ‘One thing appears to be false...’

One thing appears to be false, not that it would apply to anyone of us ‘mature’ citizens...
They didn’t throw virgins into the cenotes.

Picture sources:-

• All images supplied by Marta Barber, with the exception of -
• Pic 10: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jul 23rd 2016

‘Were the Aztecs as barbaric as described by the Spanish?’

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