Twin brothers as sacrifices to the gods

The Castle

El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulcán, is one of the largest buildings in Chichén Itzá. Not far from this pyramid is the underground cistern in which the bones of the child sacrifices were found. © Johannes Krause

Archaeologists have often found evidence of human sacrifices by the Maya in the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá. These include the bones of around 100 children who were killed and buried in an underground cistern not far from the Kukulcan temple. DNA analyses of 64 of these child sacrifices have now revealed that all of them were male and some were closely related to each other. Two pairs of identical twins were also among those ritually killed. This suggests a connection to the Mayan creation myth.

The ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itzá in the heart of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the New World. The ruined city, known for its monumental architecture, includes numerous temples, including the great step pyramid of Kukulcán, but also ball courts, colonnades and large, brick platforms. Chichén Itzá grew during the late classic period of the Maya and then reached its heyday between 800 and 1000. During this period it was the dominant political center of the lowland Maya culture.

Cranial framework
Part of a reconstructed stone tzompantli, a skull scaffold, in Chichén Itzá.
© Johannes Krause

Children as sacrifices to the gods

The Mayan culture in Chichén Itzá also included bloody rituals and human sacrifices, as evidenced by the remains of the sacrificed and stone depictions. Further evidence of human sacrifices was discovered not far from the pyramid of Kukulcán in the early 20th century: in a cenote – a water-filled sinkhole in the limestone subsoil – which the Mayans probably viewed as a sanctuary and access to the underworld, archaeologists found the bones of more than 200 human sacrifices, mainly children. In 1967, an underground water cistern (Chultún) with the scattered remains of more than a hundred other children was discovered near the sacred cenote.

But although these sites have been researched for almost 100 years, the purpose, process and ritual context of child sacrifice among the Maya are still largely unclear. This is why a team led by Rodrigo Barquera from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig has now examined the remains of the dead children found in the Chultún in more detail. To do this, they extracted DNA from the bones of 64 victims and compared them with each other and with a comparison group of Maya descendants living today. They also dated the bones and analyzed the isotope values ​​in the bones and teeth to obtain clues about the origin and diet of the sacrificed children.

Brothers, cousins ​​and even twins

The dating revealed that the sacrificed children were buried in the underground cavern for more than 500 years, from the 7th to the 12th century. However, most of the victims came from Chichén Itzá’s heyday between the years 800 and 1000. The results of the genetic analyses were much more surprising: contrary to expectations, all 64 child victims were male. “Reports from the early 20th century spread sensational stories about the sacrifice of young women and girls at this site that do not correspond to the facts,” says co-author Christina Warinner of Harvard University. “Our study, which was carried out in close international cooperation, turns this interpretation on its head.”

The analyses also showed that many of these boys killed as part of Mayan rituals were closely related to one another. The research team identified nine pairs of first or second degree relatives – probably brothers and cousins. “Surprisingly, we also identified two pairs of identical twins,” reports co-author Kathrin Nägele from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Since identical twins are comparatively rare, the discovery of two such pairs suggests that these children were deliberately chosen as victims. The Mayan priests evidently specifically chose twins and pairs of brothers for their sacrificial rituals.

Reference to the Mayan creation myth

This reveals profound connections between ritual sacrifice and Mayan creation myths. For example, twins and twin sacrifice are a central theme in the Quiché Maya’s sacred “Book of Counsel,” the Popol Vuh. In it, the twins Hun Hunahpú and Vucub Hunahpú descend into the underworld and are sacrificed by the gods after losing a ball game. The sons of one of the brothers – also twins – then set out to avenge their father and uncle. To outwit the gods, they undergo repeated cycles of sacrifice and rebirth. These hero brothers and their adventures are omnipresent in classical Mayan art.

According to Barquera and his colleagues, the burial of ritually sacrificed twins and pairs of brothers or cousins ​​in the Chultún of Chichén Itzá could therefore be linked to the myth of the hero brothers. “The study of ancient DNA makes it possible to answer increasingly complex questions about the past in ever more detail. “With the help of new information from ancient DNA, we were not only able to refute previous hypotheses and findings, but also gain new insights. They provide us with fascinating insights into the cultural life of the ancient Maya,” says study leader Johannes Krause from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Source: Max Planck Society; Scientific article: Nature, doi: 10.1038/s41586-024-07509-7

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