New Study Reveals Fresh Insight Into Mayan Sacrifices

A series of recent DNA tests suggest twin boys were selected to become child sacrifices during ancient Mayan rituals at Chichen Itza.

Jun 14, 2024By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

mayan twin gods


Researchers have unearthed some surprising new evidence from the remains of sacrificial Mayan victims in the ancient city of Chichen Itza more than 1,000 years ago. A recent study led by Rodrigo Barquera from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Athropology (MPI-EVA) in Germany reveals that identical twin boys were frequently selected as human sacrifices. The data was gathered from 64 bodies dating back to 500-900 CE that were found in an underground burial site called the chultun, near the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza.


Twins in Mayan Mythology

Depiction of the so-called Mesoamerican ballgame, as illustrated on a Mayan vase. Photograph by Justin Kerr. Source: Mayavase Database, University of Oregon


Twins were a recurring theme in Mayan mythology, and featured frequently in the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the indigenous K’iche people. They were seen to embody qualities of duality amongst the Mayan’s revered deities and heroes. In one story from the Popol Vuh, the twins Hun Hunahpah and Vucub Hunahpu enter the underworld, where they are sacrificed by the gods. One of the boy’s heads is hung in a tree, from where it is able to impregnate a young woman, who in turn gives birth to twin boys Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who become known as the Hero Twins. With supernatural powers, they are able to undergo a series of sacrifices and resurrections in order to outsmart the Mayan gods of the underworld to avenge their father.


The Mayan Afterlife

The Sacred Xtoloc Cenote in Chichen Itza


Subterranean sites such as the chultun, a former underground water storage chamber, were thought to be entrances into the Mayan underworld, which would explain why the Mayan people would have buried their dead here. Human sacrifice was an important part of their culture, and researchers believe the children sacrificed in this particular location were made as offerings to the Mayan rain god Chaac, or to encourage maize-growing cycles.


Selected Individuals

Tzompantli (skull wall) at Chichen Itza, photograph by D.J. Angus, 1934. Source: Grand Valley State University

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Similarities found within the dietary patterns of the children buried in the site suggests many of them would have been closely related to one another, not just the ones revealed to be identical twins. Barquera says only a select group would have been chosen for this particular location: “Since many of the individuals were related to each other to some extent, that tells us that its probable that only specific families would have had access to this burial and that not just anyone could put their kids in there – it was a big honor.”


The First Study of Its Kind

Temple of Kukulkan. Source: Wikimedia Commons


This study is the first of its kind to look into the biological relationships between Mayan sacrificial victims, and it reveals greater insight into the religious beliefs of the Mayan people. Barquera says, “We think that the people from Chichen Itza were trying to symbolically replicate the Maya mythological stories and the representation of the twin heroes in this ritual burial.” He adds, “This is the first time we are able to confidently identify identical twins in the archaeological record.”


The research team gathered DNA from the temporal bone of the inner ear, known for preserving ancient remnants of DNA. MPI-EVA archaogeneticist Kathrin Nagele says, “We sampled only the left portion because that would make sure we sampled every individual only once. It was not preserved for every individual in the chultun, therefore we sampled only a subset.”

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.