More than 15 years after its discovery, Belize’s Midnight Terror Cave still leaves clues to the more than 100 people who sacrificed to the Mayan rain god there more than a millennium ago.
Used for burial during the Classic Maya period (250 to 925 CE), the cave was named after locals who were called to rescue an injured looter in 2006.
A three-year excavation project by California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA) faculty and students concluded that the more than 10,000 bones discovered in the cave represented at least 118 individuals, many of whom had evidence of trauma inflicted around from the time of death.
To dive deeper into the victims’ final moments, the latest research looked not at the bones but at their mouths, investigating the calcified plaque from their teeth known as dental calculus. The study, published Sept. 20 in International Journal of Osteoarchaeologydescribes strange blue fibers adhering to the teeth of at least two of the victims.
Lead study author Amy Chan, who is now an archaeologist working in cultural resource management, began her analysis of the Midnight Terror Cave teeth as a graduate student at Cal State LA, where she was interested in learning more about the victims’ dental health. . he told Live Science via email.
“Since I found few cases of dental pathology, I was interested in determining what foods the victims were eating,” he said.
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Tartar can preserve tiny pieces of food that someone ate—such as pollen grains, starches and phytoliths, which are inorganic parts of plants—so Chan scraped off six teeth and sent them to study co-author Linda Scott Cummings, president and CEO of the PaleoResearch Institute in Golden, Colorado. Scott Cummings discovered that the samples contained mostly cotton fibers and that several of them were dyed a bright blue.
“Finding blue cotton fibers in both samples was a surprise,” Chan said, because “blue is important in Mayan ritual.”
A unique “Maya blue” pigment has been found at other sites in Mesoamerica, where it appears to have been used in ceremonies — particularly to paint the bodies of sacrificial victims, Chan and his colleagues wrote in their research paper.
These blue fibers were also found in an agave-based alcoholic drink in burials at Teotihuacan, an archaeological site in present-day Mexico.
But Chan and her team offered another explanation for the fibers found in the teeth: Perhaps the victims had cotton cloths in their mouths, possibly from the use of gags leading up to their sacrifice.
If the victims were in custody for extended periods of time, their dental calculus could have incorporated the blue fibers.
“It’s interesting that they found colored fibers in dental calculus,” Gabriel Wrobel, a bioarchaeologist at Michigan State University who was not involved in the study, told Live Science via email.
“Many researchers think calculus only reflects diet, but this study is a great example of how much more information can be learned.”
Claire Ebert, an environmental archaeologist at the University of Pittsburgh who was not involved in the study, told Live Science via email that she is “skeptical” that the blue fibers came from gagging.
However, he noted that dental calculus studies are important because “they can be used to look at other aspects of Maya life, ranging from ceremonial to domestic.”
An extended study including both elite and non-elite individuals would be worthwhile “to see if the pattern can also be detected” or if “other explanations for the presence of fibers might make more sense,” Ebert said.
Chan and her team agree that their study, while providing the first evidence of blue fibers in the dental calculus of Maya individuals, has some limitations.
First, the rate at which plaque forms and hardens varies depending on the type of food eaten and a person’s physiology, so researchers can’t know for sure when the fibers became trapped.
In addition, very few teeth of Midnight Terror Cave victims originally had dental calculus, limiting the team’s analysis.
“Future studies will provide a more abundant framework for interpreting these data,” the researchers wrote in their study.
This article was originally published by Live Science. Read the original article here.