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Research debunks colonial myth about Chichén Itzá’s sacrifice preferences

An international research team genetically tested 64 children sacrificed at Chichen Itza, uncovering facts about ritual sacrifices and the modern scars of colonial epidemics.

(CN) — Chichén Itzá is an ancient Maya city famous for its architecture — and, among other things, its reputation for human sacrifice. After Spanish conquistadors dredged the site's sacred cenote, a natural sinkhole with religious significance, 16th century colonial accounts and early 20th century investigations created the widespread belief that the ancient Maya primarily sacrificed young women and girls.

But according to an international research team’s study published Wednesday in Nature, the ancient Maya preferred to sacrifice boys.

The team conducted an in-depth genetic investigation of the remains of 64 children ritually interred within Chichén Itzá’s chultún, or water cistern. The authors said that the Maya used the chultún for mortuary purposes between the 7th and 12th centuries AD. However, genetic testing revealed that the 64 sacrificed children entered the chultún during the 200-year period of Chichén Itzá’s political apex between 800 to 1000 AD.

The researchers identified all 64 children as males from local Mayan populations, and at least one quarter of the children had a close biological relation to at least one other child in the chultún. Interestingly, the researchers found two pairs of identical twins, leading them to wonder if the ancient Mayans wanted to create a link between their sacrifices and the Popol Vuh.

The sacred K’iche’ Mayan Book of Council has twin sacrifices as a central theme. A famous story in the Popol Vuh is that of the Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who avenged their slain father and his twin brother by undergoing repeated cycles of sacrifice and resurrection to outwit the underworld gods.

Study author Christina Warinner believes these findings are a step toward unraveling outdated colonial narratives.

“Early 20th century accounts falsely popularized lurid tales of young women and girls being sacrificed at the site,” said Warinner, John L. Loeb associate professor of social sciences and anthropology at Harvard University and a group leader at the Max Planck Institutes for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA). “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.”

The team extended their collaboration to the residents of the local Maya community of Tixcacaltuyub, who let the team test their DNA to see the long-term consequences of colonial-era epidemics.

Along with wars and famines, epidemics like the 1545 cocoliztli epidemic decimated as much as 90% of 16th century Mexico’s local population. After genetically testing Tixcacaltuyub’s residents, the researchers found evidence of genetic positive selection in immunity-related genes, specifically for genetic variants that protect their host against Salmonella infection. The researchers said that the pathogen Salmonella enterica Paratyphi C started the deadly 1545 cocoliztli epidemic.

Lead author Rodrigo Barquera believes that further genetic testing and community outreach can uncover more information about both ritual sacrifices and epidemic scars beyond Chichén Itzá.

“I wish to see if there are other chultúnes that have the same characteristics, or if they differ to the one in Chichén Itzá,” said Barquera, an immunogeneticist and postdoctoral researcher at the MPI-EVA. “I hope new research in other regions of Mesoamerica and Latin America replicate our findings on the role of Salmonella enterica in the development of the genetic makeup of present-day Maya, Mexicans and Latin Americans in general."

"And I would be so happy to see a collective effort to help answer one of the questions posed by the community: how far away from Chichén Itzá can we still detect the genetic signature of its ancient inhabitants in modern Maya?” he added.

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Categories / History, Science

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