ATLANTA — Grim discoveries in Belize’s aptly named Midnight Terror Cave shed light on a long tradition of child sacrifices in ancient Maya society.
A large portion of 9,566 human bones, bone fragments and teeth found on the cave floor from 2008 to 2010 belonged to individuals no older than 14 years, bioarchaeologist Michael Prout reported April 15 at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Many of the human remains came from 4- to 10-year-olds. Because these bones are so fragmented, it’s difficult to estimate precisely how many individuals lay in the cave.
Prout, of California State University, Los Angeles, and colleagues suspect these children were sacrificed to a rain, water and lightning god that the ancient Maya called Chaac.
Radiocarbon dating of the bones indicates that the Maya deposited one or a few bodies at a time in the cave over about a 1,500-year-period, starting at the dawn of Maya civilization around 3,000 years ago, Prout said. At least 114 bodies were dropped in the deepest, darkest part of the cave, near an underground stream. Youngsters up to age 14 accounted for a minimum of 60 of those bodies. Ancient Maya considered inner cave areas with water sources to be sacred spaces, suggesting bodies were placed there intentionally as offerings to Chaac.
The researchers found no evidence that individuals in the cave had died of natural causes or had been buried.
Until now, an underground cave at Chichén Itzá in southern Mexico contained the only instance of large-scale child sacrifices by the ancient Maya, Prout said. Other researchers have estimated that 51 of at least 101 individuals whose bones lay scattered in Chichén Itzá’s “sacred well” were children or teens.
Researchers have often emphasized that human sacrifices in ancient Central American and Mexican civilizations targeted adults. “Taken together, however, finds at Chichén Itzá and Midnight Terror Cave suggest that about half of all Maya sacrificial victims were children,” Prout said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated April 20, 2016, to correct Michael Prout’s affiliation.