Ancient Mayan children
It began with screams of terror in the middle of the night.
By the time rescuers traced the wailing to its origin, they found themselves at the jagged mouth of an ancient cave deep in the Belizean countryside. Sixty feet below, down a sheer rockface, an injured looter lay crumpled on the limestone floor.Researchers must descend about 60 feet on ladders from the entrance of the cave to the bottom. (Courtesy of James Brady/California State University, Los Angeles)
Surrounding him, rescuers would discover after descending by rope, were thousands upon thousands of human bones.
The looter would be eventually pulled to safety and taken to a local hospital on that fateful night in 2006, but his misfortune would result in a discovery that may fundamentally rewrite historians’ understanding of Mayan culture.
“What we found was a huge collection of human skeleton material, around 9, 000 bones, ” James Brady, a professor of anthropology at California State University at Los Angeles who has spent decades studying Mayan cave sites, told The Washington Post. “It’s probably the largest collection that has ever been found in a Mayan cave.”A large group of human remains in Midnight Terror Cave is located in a low, muddy area known as “Bone Soup.” (Courtesy of James Brady/California State University, Los Angeles)
Located to the south of Belmopan near the Mennonite community of Springfield in the Cayo District of Belize, the cave quickly came to be known as “Midnight Terror Cave” due the nature of its latest discovery. It didn’t take long for researchers like Brady to descend upon the cave and begin analyzing the trove of bones, structural modifications and exquisite pottery shards that littered portions of the cave floor and dated from as far back as the 9th century.
When Brady began exploring Mayan caves in the early 1980s, most people thought they were used for habitation. Brady was one of the first Mayan experts to postulate that caves — often refashioned with trails and plazas that allowed groups of people to congregate inside — were far more than rocky dwellings. Instead, he argued, caves were sacred spaces as fundamental to Mayan cosmology as their massive stone temples, which still rise from the jungle floor throughout Latin America. Caves were places for rituals, Brady believed, including human sacrifice.
Bones found in Midnight Terror Cave “contain numerous indications of sacrifice including perimortem cut marks and blunt force trauma, and the use of blue pigment, ” Crystal L. Kieffer, a PhD student in archaeology at the University of New Mexico, wrote in a 2010 paper, “Determining Status of Ancient Maya from Looted and Sacrificial Contexts.”A human skull found inside Midnight Terror Cave. Researchers found about 9, 000 human bones in total. (Courtesy of James Brady/California State University, Los Angeles)
What was the purpose of sacrifice? As Jaime Awe, the former director of the Institute of Archaeology in Belize, told Collectors Weekly:
“The ancient Maya and even the recorded Maya (the Colonial Spanish priests reported this) believed humans were made from corn, ” says Awe. “And so, when you offered a human, you were essentially feeding corn to the gods.” Since maize was the most important staple of the Maya, human sacrifice was not seen as taking the principle of reciprocity too far. Indeed, it may well have been viewed as the least a grateful populace could do to ensure its survival.
With a team of researchers from the Institute of Archaeology and Cal State, Brady began analyzing more than 100 human teeth — molars, bicuspids, canines, and incisors — discovered among the bones in 2008. The team discovered a significant portion of teeth — about a quarter of the total — had less wear and tear, suggesting they came from the mouths of children.A significant number of children’s bones were found. Researchers believe they were brought to the cave from as far as 200 miles away. (Courtesy of James Brady/California State University, Los Angeles)
By analyzing tooth enamel in the lab, researchers learned that the children found in Midnight Terror Cave came from as far as 200 miles away, in an area across the border of modern-day Belize. That might not sound so far by modern standards, but it would have been considered an enormous distance in the 9th century, especially if they were brought to the location specifically for human sacrifice.