Grim Discoveries Point to Child Sacrifice and Human Trafficking in Ancient Maya Civilization

April 25, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Old human skull
Photo credit: Nate/flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Archaeologists go inside the Midnight Terror Cave

Hundreds of human bones lay scattered across the floor of a cave in Belize, fittingly called the Midnight Terror Cave.

Ancient Maya would gather here to make human sacrifices to a rain, water, and lightning god that they called Chaac.

Michael Prout, an archaeologist at California State University, recently described disturbing discoveries about the victims of these sacrifices at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

SEE ALSO: Rare DNA of Boy Sacrificed by the Inca Reveals Lost Lineage

The researchers found 9,566 human bones, bone fragments, and teeth on the cave floor. But most surprising was that a large portion of those remains belonged to young children under the age of 14. Many were youngsters between the ages of 4 to 10 years old.

Bodies were deposited in the cave over a roughly 1,500-year span, starting at the dawn of Maya civilization and ending around 3,000 years ago, based on radiocarbon dating.

At least 114 bodies, mostly those of children, were dropped into the deepest and darkest parts of the cave near an underground stream. The ancient Maya believed caves containing water sources were home to gods that controlled rainfall, so it is likely that the bodies were intentionally placed there as an offering to Chaac.

Researchers working at the site have also revealed unexpected details about who these child sacrifice victims were.

Samantha Lorenz, part of a team of experts studying the chemical composition of the remains, told Collectors Weekly, “No one’s from Belize, so that means we have this population of children that was brought in from somewhere else for the purpose of sacrifice.”

This might indicate that there was a human-trafficking network trading in children, Lorenz explained.

Previously, an underground cave at Chichén Itzá in southern Mexico contained the only known evidence of child sacrifice by the ancient Maya, and this practice was considered uncommon. “Taken together, however, finds at Chichén Itzá and Midnight Terror Cave suggest that about half of all Maya sacrificial victims were children,” said Prout.

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