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Blue string found in the teeth of Mayan sacrifice victims

By: April Carson

The Midnight Terror Cave of Belize, which was discovered over 15 years ago, has yet to reveal all of its secrets. More than a hundred people were sacrificed to the Mayan rain god there more than a millennia ago, according on findings from subsequent archaeological research.

The cave was named after a local who helped save an injured looter in 2006, during the Maya Classic period (A.D. 250 to 925). California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA) professors and students completed a three-year excavation project that revealed more than 10,000 bones, indicating at least 118 people, many of whom had signs of injury suffered around the time of death.

The latest study, which looked at the victims' final moments rather than their bones, focused on their mouths and examined dental calculus, or calcified plaque from their teeth. At least two of the individuals in the case had strange blue fibers adhering to them, according to a research published Sept. 20 in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

The blue fibers are a mystery, and it's unclear if they're related to the sacrifice. However, the finding adds to a growing body of evidence that the Maya engaged in elaborate rituals that included both human and animal sacrifice.

Amy Chan, who is now an archaeologist working in cultural resource management and is the lead author of the study, began her research on the Midnight Terror Cave teeth as a graduate student at Cal State LA, where she was drawn to learn more about the dental health of the deceased.

"I became interested in determining what foodstuffs the victims were consuming after I found that there was little dental pathology present," she said.

What she discovered was that the teeth contained traces of a blue pigment, which is thought to have been used in rituals. The presence of the blue pigment in the teeth suggests that the Maya placed a great importance on ceremonial activities that involved body painting.

Chan scraped the gunk off six teeth and sent it to Linda Scott Cummings, president and CEO of the PaleoResearch Institute in Golden, Colorado, for dental calculus to preserve tiny portions of food that someone has eaten — such as pollen grains, starches, and phytoliths, which are mineralized parts of plants. Cotton fibers were found in most samples; several were dyed bright blue.

"The finding of blue cotton fibers in both samples was a surprise," Chan noted, since "blue is important in Maya ritual."

Other sites in Mesoamerica have yielded a "Maya blue" pigment, which was apparently used in rituals - particularly to paint the corpses of sacrificial victims. These cobalt-blue fibers were also discovered at Teotihuacan, an ancient city located in what is now Mexico.

However, Chan and her team provided another plausible explanation for the fibers found on teeth- perhaps victims had cotton cloths in their mouths from being bound with gags prior to sacrifice. If victims were detained for an extensive amount of time, it's possible that dental calculus incorporated the blue fibers over time.

The presence of blue fibers in the teeth of Mayan sacrificial victims is an enigma that may never be solved. However, it provides a glimpse into the fascinating and often brutal rituals of this ancient civilization.

"It's fascinating that they discovered colored fiber in dental calculus," Gabriel Wrobel, a bioarchaeologist at Michigan State University who wasn't part of the research, told Live Science. "Many experts believe that calculus just reflects what you ate; nevertheless, this research is an excellent example of how much more information may be obtained."

According to Live Science, Claire Ebert, an environmental archaeologist at the University of Pittsburgh who was not involved with the research, is "hesitant" that the blue fibers came from gags. However, she says dental calculus research is essential since it may be utilized to examine various aspects of Maya life, including ritual and domestic customs.

"To see if the pattern can also be detected," or if "other explanations for the presence of fibers may be more logical," Ebert suggested. A follow-up study that includes both elite and non-elite people would be advantageous "to determine whether or not the condition might also be observed in other cultures."

Although Dr. Chan and her colleagues praise their research, which is the first proof of blue fibers in Maya dental calculus, it has some limitations. First, the speed with which plaque forms and hardens varies greatly based on a person's diet and physiology; as a result, scientists can't say for sure when the fibers were trapped. Furthermore, since only a few teeth from Midnight Terror Cave victims had dental calculus to begin with, the researchers' analysis was limited.

The researchers wrote in their study that future studies will provide a more ample context for interpreting this data. "It is hoped that future work will expand on the current study to include a greater number of samples from different time periods and geographical locations," they said.

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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