Maya Sacrificial Victims Were Painted Blue and Tossed into a Sinkhole

April 4, 2024

In Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula lies a site which was once central to Maya sacrificial rituals—the sacred cenote of Chichen Itza. This natural sinkhole harbors secrets of human sacrifice and religious fervor that continue to intrigue scholars to this day. It also provided the key to understanding the use of what has been described as one of the great technological and artistic achievements of Mesoamerica: Maya blue.

Unraveling the Mystique of Maya Blue

Maya blue is a vibrant turquoise color, reminiscent of the waters of the Caribbean. It has been found on a variety of Maya artifacts, including pottery, murals and sculptures, dating back to between 300 and 1500 AD. An artificial pigment created by fusing indigo and palygorskite—a type of clay—over low heat which renders it remarkably resilient to the passage of time.

First crafted by the Maya civilization, Maya blue has puzzled scientists since its initial discovery in the 1930s. Its synthesis has been hailed as an alchemical marvel, with researchers deciphering its components in the 1960s.

Blue was the sacred hue of sacrifice among the ancient Maya, symbolizing the rain god Chaac. Human offerings, adorned in blue, were made to appease Chaac during droughts, aiming to summon rainfall. 16th-century texts even describe sacrificial scenes at Chichén Itzá where victims were painted blue before their ritual demise.

Maya Sacrificial Victims Were Painted Blue and Tossed into a Sinkhole

An unassuming artifact dredged from the bottom of Chichen Itza’s Sacred Cenote revealed clues as to the connection between sacrificial rituals and Maya blue. (Lukas / Adobe Stock)

Echoes of Sacrifice: Unveiling the Secrets of Maya Blue at Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza’s Sacred Cenote is a 60-meter-diameter (197 ft) sinkhole which was viewed as a gateway to the underworld and used for conducting sacrifices during times of drought in the Maya era. Connected to the city’s iconic stepped pyramid via a 300-meter (980 ft) raised walkway, its grizly purpose was confirmed when Edward Herbert Thomson dredged the sinkhole from 1904.

Thomson uncovered an array of artifacts, including many made of gold, jade, wood, textiles and pottery, as well as dozens of human skeletons. The role of Maya blue in these sacrificial rituals began to emerge when Thompson noted a five-meter (16 ft) layer of blue sediment lining the cenote’s depths, though he didn’t understand the significance at the time.

Several decades later, an unassuming ceramic bowl stored in a museum collection and originally found at the bottom of the cenote was key in revealing where, how and when Maya blue was produced. On spotting that the bowl contained copal incense, the interest of anthropologist Dean Arnold was piqued, and his results published in Antiquity in 2008.

Maya Sacrificial Victims Were Painted Blue and Tossed into a Sinkhole

A Maya tripod bowl from Chichen Itza’s Sacred Cenote containing copal helped uncover the secrets behind Maya blue’s production. (John Weinstein / The Field Museum)

Arnold’s hunch proved that the incense contained both palygroskite and indigo, which would have been heated by the burning of incense to make Maya blue. This meant that Maya blue was produced in ceramic bowls during the performance of rituals which took place by the side of the sinkhole.

Human sacrificial victims and precious objects were painted with Maya blue—a symbolic gesture of their submission to the divine. These sacrifices, adorned with sacred hues, were then cast into the depths of the cenote to appease Chaac’s divine will.