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Blue Fibers Found in the Teeth of Maya Sacrifices May Offer Clues About Their Deaths

Rosemary Giles
Photo Credit: Steve Russell/ Toronto Star/  Getty Images/ Cropped
Photo Credit: Steve Russell/ Toronto Star/ Getty Images/ Cropped

In 2006, researchers discovered a previously unknown cave in Belize. It was full of the remnants of human sacrifices made by the Maya thousands of years ago. With continued research on the caves and skeletons, they also discovered fragments of blue fibers in the victims’ teeth. This surprising find gives scientists more answers about what exactly might have happened during these gruesome deaths.

Human sacrifice in Maya culture

Human sacrifice is a well-documented part of Maya culture, with evidence that these practices were in place from at least around 250 AD until the Spanish conquest in the 1600s. We know this because the practice is referenced in classical art and documented in early pictographic texts. We’ve also discovered many examples of the practice in archaeological human remains.

Mayan archaeological site in Belize, towering above trees.
Mayan archaeological site, Xunantunich, in Belize. (Photo Credit: Michel Troncy/ Gamma-Rapho/ Getty Images)

The Maya believed that human sacrifice was a way of offering nourishment to their gods. It was literally a matter of life and death, as without the sacrifice of human blood the sun would disappear and the world would end. The people who were sacrificed to the gods were usually those captured in battle and who maintained a high social standing.

Those sacrificed were also given a special place in the afterlife where they would be honored until the end of days. Animals were commonly used, however, they were not seen to be as powerful of an offering as human life or human blood. The Maya also made sacrifices of children, something that is apparent from the contents of the Midnight Terror Cave.

Midnight Terror Cave

The cave was discovered in 2006 after a local farmer heard a looter scream after falling 60 feet to the floor. Inside, he found thousands of human bones and teeth, most of which were so destroyed that it was impossible to tell just how many bodies there were. Researchers were able to determine that the cave had been a place of sacrifice to the rain god Chaac (Chaak).

Sculpture carved into stone in Chichen Itza, Mexico.
Sculpture in the Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza depicting human sacrifice, an important part of Mayan culture, much like in the Midnight Terror Cave. (Photo Credit: HJPD/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

They also discovered that the sacrifices made there were all children no older than 14 years. In fact, the vast majority of the remains were from those between the ages of four and 10. Based on the number of bones present, as well as through radiocarbon dating, the researchers were also able to determine that the sacrifices were made over a period of roughly 1,500 years starting as early as the beginning of the Maya people.

What do the fibers mean?

Research conducted in 2022 discovered blue fibers on the teeth of the sacrifices. This discovery was made after scrapings from around 120 victims’ teeth were analyzed. This was an unexpected finding, but it has given researchers more understanding of what may have happened in the lead-up to the sacrificial deaths.

They identified that blue was an important color for Maya rituals, so whatever the fibers came from was used as part of the sacrificial process. Some hypothesize that the fibers could have come from gags used on the victims. The sacrifices might have been paraded through town after being gagged.

Terracotta statue of Chaac, the Mayan rain god.
Terra cotta effigy of Mayan rain god Chaac (Chaak), who the sacrifices at the Midnight Terror Cave were killed for. (Photo Credit: Leonard G./Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

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The researchers have also suggested that the fibers could have come from an alcoholic beverage that was dyed blue and used to help ease the suffering of victims. Another theory entirely unrelated to sacrifice is that the fibers were somehow introduced to the teeth through some early form of dentistry.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.