Archaeologists excavating Belize’s aptly named Midnight Terror Cave believe they may have found pieces of a Mayan gag that once silenced victims of human sacrifice. Searching for the dental remains of those killed in the infamous cave, researchers discovered bright blue fibers embedded between some of the victims’ teeth.
Midnight Terror Cave, first discovered in 2006 and later named by members of a nearby Mennonite community, is filled with bones belonging to at least 118 people who were offered to the gods by the Maya. Trying to learn more about what these poor tributes were eating, the researchers analyzed the calcified plaque – or tartar – on their teeth.
Unable to scrape much of the slate from the ancient chompers, the team eventually mustered enough math to make two samples. “In addition to organic components, both samples were found to contain blue fibers,” they write in their paper.
“Given the time frame required for the fibers to become entrapped in the calculus, the fibers were introduced several days or weeks before death,” they explain.
The color of the thread is particularly interesting because a pigment known as ‘Yeast Blue’ has historically been associated with important ceremonies and rituals. Made from the plant Indigofera guatemalensisthe pigment was sometimes painted on the skin of sacrificial victims, and its possible presence in the fibers may indicate that it was of ritual importance.
“The blue color of the fiber is significant in suggesting that it is associated with ritual,” the study authors explain.
Unfortunately, however, the delicate nature of the threads means they can’t be taken to a lab for chemical analysis, so researchers can’t say for sure if the pigment is actually Maya blue. What they can say, however, is that at least two, but possibly more, victims appear to have the blue fibers between their teeth, indicating they “had similar experiences before their deaths.”
Previously, blue strands have been found in the calculus of sacrificial victims in Aztec temples in Mexico, some of which may be attributed to the consumption of a blue alcoholic beverage called pulque, which is made from the maguey plant. However, the study authors say the Midnight Terror Cave fibers look quite different from those found in pulque.
Therefore, they hypothesize that the fibers may indicate the use of “gagging as the victims were paraded from town to town and then to the place of sacrifice.” Evidence of gagging has previously been discovered at other sacrificial sites in Mesoamerica, while reports from Spanish conquistadors describe tributes being held for long periods as they were danced in several villages before being sent.
“This extended time period would allow gag fibers to be incorporated into the calculation, even if the victims were not continuously gagged,” the researchers write.
The study is published in The International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.