This article first appeared in washingtonpost.com and is written by Peter Holley
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.
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.”
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 researche
rs 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.”
“Sacrificial humans,” the Daily Mail noted, “were often painted blue to symbolize that they were being killed for the gods and not killed for another purpose.”
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 t
he mouths of children.
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.
If that turns out to be true, Brady said, it only raises more complicated questions.
Until recently, he noted, experts had a limited understanding of where Mayan sacrificial victims originated and how they arrived at the locations where they’ve been found. Tantalizing clues from Spanish sources and inscriptions on Mayan pottery and monuments discussing kings being sacrificed have provided little backstory.
The children’s teeth, Brady believes, may change that.
“If our data show that there is a trade in people and they’re moving great distances, this would be a very significant change in our understanding of human sacrifice among the Maya,” he said.
Like many Mayan experts, Brady has long believed there was no such thing as a Mayan empire, but instead semi-autonomous city states, none of which would have had the overarching political authority to trade people across large distances. Because the children’s teeth all originate in the same region, researchers are forced to consider not only whether there was unknown political authority in place, but perhaps more shockingly, a human trafficking network that specialized in children.
“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,” Samantha Lorenz, one of Brady’s students who’s writing her master’s thesis on the teeth, told Collectors Weekly. “Were these children taken? Were they sold? Were they voluntarily given up? Were they orphans? There are a lot of different things we need to look into. And because there are so many of them all coming from the same region, then you have to look at whether there was a trade network, essentially a human-trafficking network, in children.”
But not everyone, including Brady, is comfortable with labeling a potential sacrificial trade as “human trafficking.”
“I would hesitate to apply modern terms, such as ‘human trafficking,’ to these ancient rituals,” James Doyle, an assistant curator in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, told Collector’s Weekly. “It is a vastly different context and we can only hazard a guess as to the motivations for ancient peoples moving on the landscape.’
If they can come to a better understand of the children’s story, Brady said, researchers may be able to unravel larger questions that remain about Mayan culture.
“This could upset our sense of economics and how connected the Maya were,” Brady added. “This is not an idea that has really emerged before and people are so surprised they don’t quite know how to treat it. It’s radical.”
Peter Holley is a general assignment reporter at The Washington Post.