Maya: Why they sacrificed people – and how the rituals worked

Old high culture
Researchers are reconstructing why the Maya sacrificed people – and how the cruel rituals took place

The Maya culture reached its peak between 600 and 900 AD

© B. Trapp / Picture Alliance

The Maya are known for their brutal human sacrifices. Thanks to new archaeological findings, it is becoming increasingly clear which mythical traditions they were following.

The Maya were an advanced culture that built impressive buildings and gigantic cities – but the indigenous people of Central America also had brutal customs. Human sacrifices were the order of the day. During the heyday of the Maya culture, in the so-called “classical period” between 400 and 900 AD, people were regularly killed to appease the gods.

For a long time it was unclear in research what these rituals looked like and what exactly the background to them was. But more recent discoveries are helping to paint a clearer picture of what transpired in the Maya Empire. Archaeologists Holley Moyes from the USA and Jaime J Awe from Belize were able to use finds in the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave to reconstruct what happened back then.

The Maya apparently reenacted mythical tales

The cave is located in what is now Belize, which was part of the Mayan Empire thousands of years ago. It was discovered in 1989 and is more than five kilometers long. So far, 21 human skeletons have been discovered there, including some from children under the age of five. Apparently, these people were not buried there, but offered to the gods as human offerings.

From the spatial arrangement of the skeletons and other artefacts found in the cave, the researchers drew conclusions about the rituals of that time. They could use it, for example, to reconstruct where the Maya stood when they offered their sacrifices. How realistic these are is difficult to verify, as no first-hand accounts of sacrifices in the Maya period have survived. However, Moyes and Awe assume that they were elaborately designed plays that took up mythical tales of the Maya.

Human sacrifices to the gods of the underworld

The focus was probably on a story handed down in the Popol Vuh, the holy book of the Quiché-Maya. The twins Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué descend into the underworld and challenge the gods to a ball game. They defeat the gods and then ascend to heaven as the sun and moon. The sacrifices in the caves probably recreate this myth.

People have always understood caves as a kind of gateway to the underworld, while the earth belonged to humans and the sky to the gods. “They represent one of the most sacred places for the Maya,” said Holley Moyes. Apparently, the Maya assumed that the gods of the underworld were responsible for periods of drought. So they made sacrifices to them. According to tradition, the deities in the underworld were only allowed to receive damaged things, which is why broken artefacts are mainly found in the caves – and therefore possibly also the cruel human sacrifices.

Sources: BBC / “National Geographic”


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