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Ritual and politics: exploring human sacrifice at Midnight Terror Cave, Belize

  • Author(s): Verdugo, Cristina
  • Advisor(s): Fehren-Schmitz, Lars
  • et al.

My dissertation research explores the relationship between human sacrifice and power by examining the recruitment of sacrificed individuals utilizing the Midnight Terror Cave (MTC) skeletal collection, the largest sacrificial assemblage in the southern Maya lowlands. Early anthropological studies of human sacrifice focus heavily on ritual and beliefs. In contrast, this dissertation is innovative by ignoring the emic rationalization of sacrifice to construct a model utilizing elements from ritual violence and performance theory. This approach explores the complex links between power, politics, and sacrifice. Sacrifice by its very nature is a political act as it asserts the state’s right to take human life. However, it must be played out in relation to differentials of status due to gender, lineage, and age. Ritual is used to deflect possible resistance but with priests or the elite as central actors, it is clearly legitimizing power structures under the guise of reviving or sustaining the existing social order.

This research reconstructs who was sacrificed by combining paleogenomic, osteological, ethnohistoric, and archaeological approaches. The analysis of the MTC material produced demographic data for individuals interred in the cave. Results suggest that females may have been selected more frequently than males and another study of the MTC assemblage shows that nearly half of the individuals are subadults. This clearly contradicts the idea that victims were recruited through warfare as it is usually portrayed. In addition, this dissertation outlined the evidence for human sacrifice as opposed to burial at MTC. In doing so it became evident that osteological remains in Maya caves are most likely associated with human sacrifice.

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