Human Sacrifice in Maya Culture

The Maya civilization prospered in the misty jungles and rain forests of southern Mexico and Central America ca. 300 BC to 1520 AD, until its mysterious and sudden collapse. 

Early scholars believed Maya were pacifist people, and they focused mainly on their outstanding intellectual achievements, such as written language, comprehensive trade routes, high-level mathematics and astronomy, and a remarkably precise calendar. 

However, modern analysis reveals the Maya actually warred among themselves quite frequently, and one of the central elements in their culture was human sacrifice. But do you know what was the purpose and meaning of their ritual killings?  

Rebirth and Creation

One of the passages from the Popol Vuh, the Mayan book of creation, depicts the journey of the hero twins, Hunahpú and Xbalanque, who must first descend into the netherworld (i.e. die) to be reborn into the world above. Another passage tells a story about the god Tohil, who, in exchange for fire, requests a human sacrifice. 

Moreover, several glyphs found and deciphered at the archaeological site, Yaxchilán, connect the notion of beheading to that of “awakening” or creation. Maya human sacrifices often signified the start of a new period – the rise of a new emperor or the start of a new calendar cycle.

Thus, in the Maya culture, sacrifice and death were usually connected to the notions of rebirth and creation. Maya offered sacrifice to gods to prove them they are worthy of a new beginning and their mercy. 

Methods of Sacrifice

The methods of sacrifice mostly depended on who was being offered to the gods and for what reason. Prisoners of war, for example, were most often disemboweled. But if the sacrifice was connected to the ball game, the victim was either pushed down the temple’s steps or decapitated.


At the historical site, Chichen Itza, various reliefs depict human sacrifice by decapitation. These depictions belong to the Classic Period of Maya art (ca. 250-950 AD). Before the ritual killing, the victim was often tortured, scalped, or disemboweled. 

Heart Extraction

Influenced by Aztecs from the Valley of Mexico, Maya human sacrifice also included ritual killings by heart extraction. This method was prevalent in the Postclassical Period (ca. 950-1550 AD). It is believed that they held the extraction of the still-beating heart as the highest religious expression and a great offering to the gods. 

The ritual usually took place on top of the pyramid temple or in the temple’s courtyard. The victim had to be stripped, wearing nothing but a headdress and painted in blue color, which was a symbol of sacrifice. 

The Ball Game

Human sacrifices were also associated with a sporting event called the ball game. In the game, players would knock around a firm rubber ball, mostly with their hips, and the event had symbolic and religious significance. Usually, captives were sacrificed after being forced to play a rigged ball game. 

The association between the ballgame and human sacrifice can mostly be traced back to the Classic Period, and the most graphic depictions of sacrifice are preserved on the ball court panels at Chichen Itza and El Tajín.

Ritual Bloodletting

In Maya culture, blood was also a rather important symbol. It was believed that it contains chu’lel – life force – and thus, offered to deities and gods by bloodletting. Those who practiced bloodletting would pierce or cut themselves with various tools, such as needles, agave thorns (plant species), or obsidian blades (knives made of volcanic rocks). 

They would cut different parts of their body, such as the tongue, arms, legs, ears, and cheeks, and they would smear the blood on cotton, animal feathers, or “banana” paper, which would then be burned and “delivered” to the gods. 

Human sacrifice in Maya Art – Codices

Evidence of ritual killings mostly stems from images in Maya codices, ancient manuscripts made on paper, or similar materials. These codices are a source of valuable information about the various ritualistic and cultural aspects of the Maya culture. 

They also contain glyph-like symbols that pertain to their rituals, deities, sacrifices, moon phases, calendars, and planet movements. The most significant codices preserved today are Madrid, Paris, and Dresden Codices, which feature images of different sacrificial rituals, including decapitations and heart extractions. 

Rock Art

Moreover, rock art from the Chalcatzingo archaeological site portrays Maya practices of ritual killings. One relief features four people, with one sitting and three standing. The seated individual is stripped and tied up, while the standing figures, wearing headdresses and decorative belts, are performing the ritual. 

On this particular relief, one of the standing individuals is holding a club that was associated with agricultural fertility, which was probably the purpose of the ritual.  

As a contemporary society, we might find it hard to distance ourselves from the established notions of religion, authority, and society in general, particularly when trying to yield explanations for something as unusual as a human sacrifice. 

But as unusual as it sounds, our present-day reality would be as strange to them as theirs seems to us. And this is one of the numerous lessons on relativity that we can learn by studying our history.

[1] “Did Ancient Mayans Practice Human Sacrifice?” ThoughtCo [Online] Available at: [Accessed on: 10 July 2020]

[2] “Why Did the Mayans Perform Human Sacrifices?” ThoughtCo [Online] Available at: [Accessed on: 10 July 2020]