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Researcher of ancient Mayan human remains uncovers site used in male, twin sacrifices

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

It may be hard to imagine now, but human sacrifice was an important part of ancient Mayan culture. And for a long time, the sacrifice victims were thought to be mostly young women. A new study published in the journal Nature suggests that was not always true. DNA research on the remains of 64 victims found at a mass grave near the city of Chichen Itza in southern Mexico found all of them were boys and a number were twins. What should we make of that unexpected finding? Let's ask Rodrigo Barquera. He's a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, and he's one of the study's lead authors. Thank you very much for making time for us.

RODRIGO BARQUERA: Hello. Thanks for having me.

PFEIFFER: This is very interesting research, also very heavy research. Would you tell us first what you thought when you made this discovery?

BARQUERA: One of the things that was more surprising for all of us was the fact that, first of all, they were all males. Now we're not dealing only with the traditional idea of only women and young females being sacrificed and offered to the deities. But in this case, it is a ritual burial, but this is not a sacrifice itself. It's more like kind of a memorial.

PFEIFFER: You said a memorial rather than a sacrifice?

BARQUERA: Yes. Because before these results arrived, archaeologists would have thought that this burial was just asking for, for example, a favor for a good agricultural season or something more commonly part of their lifestyles. One of the main differences is that the individuals buried there span 500 years, and we found only around a hundred individuals, which means that this was opened not every year, but more like in cycles. So we think that this is not something that was related to agricultural cycles because then we would see a pattern that could relate to every year happening, and this is not the case.

PFEIFFER: So in terms of agricultural cycles, the ancient Mayans may have said, we're going to give you these twin boys, and we hope in return, the gods will give us a good crop. Is that the idea?

BARQUERA: Exactly. What we think is that they were just honoring the idea of the hero twins, and this is not for asking anything to these hero twins because they did not play a role in these cycles or the rain or the sun. They are not related to any of these. We think it's only a way to remember these hero twins from their mythology.

PFEIFFER: When you say hero twins, what do you mean by that?

BARQUERA: There is this story from the Maya cosmogony in which two hero twins went to the underworld and defeated the underworld lord as a way to avenge their father who was killed by this deity. And what they were trying to represent in this burial could have been just this idea of the hero twins going to the underworld, and this is why this burial is so special.

PFEIFFER: I understand that you located living descendants of the victims using DNA of people living in a nearby community. Did you tell them about your findings?

BARQUERA: Yes. We went back to this community, and we communicated our findings to them. And they were very happy to know that they were descendants of these people who once lived in Chichen Itza and that they were the ones who were building these incredible sites and that they are happy that they are linked somehow to the past through their genomes. And of course, they don't want to do these sacrifices anymore, but they don't judge them today.

PFEIFFER: That is Rodrigo Barquera. He's a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. Thank you.

BARQUERA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.