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Blue fibers found in teeth of ancient Mayans suggest sacrificial victims were gagged before being killed

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A team of researchers from California State University, Los Angeles, and the PaleoResearch Institute in Colorado discovered evidence of possible gagging of Mayan sacrificial victims prior to death. Amy Chan, James Brady, and Linda Scott Cummings describe their study of dental calculus from teeth found in Belize’s Midnight Terror Cave in their paper published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

In 2006, a robber attempting to flee a crowd of locals near Belmopan, Belize’s capital, fell through a hole into a previously unknown cave. While searching for the robber, the locals discovered a large number of human bones. An investigation revealed that the bones belonged to ancient Mayans who had been sacrificed in the Midnight Terror Cave.

The researchers wanted to learn more about the diets of the people who had been sacrificed in the cave by analyzing the dental calculus on the outside of their teeth in this new effort. Previous research has shown that calculus can hold minute amounts of material consumed by the person.

Example of dental calculus on maxillary incisor (VIII 14B 188). Credit: Photograph by Amy Chan. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology (2022). DOI: 10.1002/oa.3158

The researchers discovered tiny bits of fibres in the dental calculus, some white and some blue. Blue was considered special to the ancient Mayans, according to the researchers, and was frequently used to decorate ritual items. They also mention that similar fibres have been discovered in Mayan beverages. The fibres discovered, however, are thought to have entered the dental calculus through chomping on gags, according to the researchers.

Cotton cloth was allegedly dyed blue for ritual ceremonies and used as gags to silence the victims. They point out that if this were the case, the gags would have remained in place for an extended period of time. According to prior research, Mayan sacrificial victims were frequently held captive for long periods of time or transported long distances, both of which could have involved the use of gags for extended periods of time.

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