Category Archives: BELIZE

Blue Fibers Found in Dental Calculus of Maya Sacrifice Victims

Blue Fibers Found in Dental Calculus of Maya Sacrifice Victims

More than 15 years after its discovery, Belize’s Midnight Terror Cave is still leaving clues about more than 100 people who were sacrificed to the Maya rain god there more than a millennium ago.

Blue Fibers Found in Dental Calculus of Maya Sacrifice Victims
The entrance to the Midnight Terror Cave in Belize.

Used for burial during the Maya Classic period (A.D. 250 to 925), the cave was named by locals who were called to rescue an injured looter in 2006. A three-year excavation project by California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA) professors and students concluded that the more than 10,000 bones uncovered in the cave represented at least 118 people, many of whom had evidence of trauma inflicted on them around the time of death. 

To dive deeper into the victims’ final moments, the latest research didn’t look at bones but instead at their mouths, investigating the calcified plaque from their teeth, known as dental calculus. The study, published Sept. 20 in the  International Journal of Osteoarchaeology(opens in new tab), describes curious blue fibres clinging to the teeth of at least two of the victims.

Study lead author Amy Chan, who’s now an archaeologist working in cultural resource management, started her analysis of the Midnight Terror Cave teeth as a graduate student at Cal State LA, where she was interested in learning more about the dental health of the victims, she told Live Science by email. 

“After finding minimal instances of dental pathology, I became interested in determining what foodstuffs the victims were consuming,” she said.

The blue fiber, likely made of cotton, is from Midnight Terror Cave in Belize.

Dental calculus can preserve microscopic pieces of food that someone ate — such as pollen grains, starches and phytoliths, which are mineralized parts of plants — so Chan scraped the gunk off six teeth and sent it to study co-author Linda Scott Cummings(opens in new tab), president and CEO of the PaleoResearch Institute in Golden, Colorado. Scott Cummings found that the samples contained primarily cotton fibres and that several of those were dyed bright blue.

“The discovery of blue cotton fibres in both samples was a surprise,” Chan said, because “blue is important in Maya ritual.” 

A unique “Maya blue” pigment has been found at other sites in Mesoamerica, where it seems to have been used in ceremonies — particularly to paint the bodies of sacrificial victims, Chan and colleagues wrote in their research paper. These blue fibres were also found in an agave-based alcoholic beverage at burials at Teotihuacan, an archaeological site in what is now Mexico. 

But Chan and her team offered another explanation for the fibres found on the teeth: Perhaps the victims had cotton cloths in their mouths, possibly from the use of gags leading up to their sacrifice. If victims were in custody for extended periods of time, their dental calculus could have incorporated the blue fibres.

The interior of the Midnight Terror Cave in Belize, with a person in blue for scale.

“It is interesting that they found coloured fibre in dental calculus,” Gabriel Wrobel(opens in new tab), a bioarchaeologist at Michigan State University who was not involved in the study, told Live Science by email. “Many researchers think that calculus only reflects diet, but this study is a great example of how much more information can be learned.”

Claire Ebert(opens in new tab), an environmental archaeologist at the University of Pittsburgh who was not involved in the study, told Live Science by email that she is “sceptical” that the blue fibres came from gags. However, she noted that dental calculus studies are important because they “can be used to look at other aspects of Maya life, ranging from ritual to domestic.” 

An expanded study including both elite and non-elite people would be worthwhile “to see if the pattern can also be detected” or if “other explanations for the presence of fibers may be more logical,” Ebert said.

Chan and her team agree that their study, while providing the first evidence of blue fibers in the dental calculus of Maya individuals, has some limitations. First, the rate at which plaque forms and hardens varies based on the type of food eaten and a person’s physiology, so the researchers cannot know for certain when the fibers were trapped. Additionally, very few teeth of Midnight Terror Cave victims had dental calculus, to begin with, limiting the team’s analysis. 

“Future studies will provide a more ample context for interpreting this data,” the researchers wrote in their study.

Archaeologists unearth a 1,000-year-old Maya settlement in central Belize

Archaeologists unearth a 1,000-year-old Maya settlement in central Belize

A site first highlighted by a farming community in Belize is enabling archaeologists to piece together what life was like for Mayans living centuries ago.

Archaeologists unearth a 1,000-year-old Maya settlement in central Belize
Anthropology graduate students Rachel Gill and Yifan Wang study the remains of an ancient Maya neighbourhood in central Belize. This is an aerial photo of the archaeological site facing east. The white smudges are ancestral Maya mounds.

Modern archaeology is less often about finding big monuments and more about understanding how people lived. For anthropology graduate students Rachel Gill and Yifan Wang, that’s exactly what this site means.

“We stand in the open fields of Spanish Lookout, a modernized Mennonite farming community in Central Belize, looking at what remains of ancestral Maya homes after years of ploughing,” the two archaeologists write for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“White mounds, the remnants of these houses, pock the landscape as far as the eye can see, a stark reminder of what existed more than 1,000 years ago. The collapsed buildings look like smudges on an aerial photograph, but as archaeologists, we get to see them up close. With enough excavation and interpretation, we can eventually make sense of how these dwellings functioned in the deep human past,” they add.

Of course, analyzing an archaeological site first starts with finding it. These days, this is rarely done by going out and digging and hoping for the best — archaeologists have an array of remote sensing tools at their disposal that allow them to peer through the thick jungle and sometimes, even catch a glimpse of what might lie underneath the surface.

But when you have the site in your sights, you still have to analyze it, and this is what Gill and Wang are working on.

Oftentimes, us laypeople at least, focus too much on the imposing structures and cool artefacts found at archaeological sites. But if you want to truly understand a culture like the Maya, you have to look deeper.

Incised ceramic sherds were excavated from an ancestral Maya building.

The mundane realities of many Mayans aren’t captured in the imposing Maya pyramids or their worshipping complex, but they can be captured in things like pots and tools.

At the Maya site, the two archaeologists are looking at a collection of domestic vessels found for cooking, serving, and storage. The shapes and styles of this pottery enable the archaeologists to date it — one particular neighbourhood was dated to 250-600 AD. In addition, they found several agricultural tools made from chert — an uncrystallized rock with similar chemistry to quartz.

The houses in this neighbourhood would have had walls and plastered floors, as well as several vessels they would have used regularly. Regular Mayans would have used the chert tools to grind maize into flour. They complimented their diets by hunting animals in the forest.

Grinding tools typical of ancestral Maya farmsteads include, from left, a metate fragment, a round stone and a mano fragment. Metates and manos were used to grind maize.

But not everything is clear. For instance, one Maya building uses uniform stones and a different type of plaster than the others, and it’s not exactly clear why.

This building also has fewer artefacts and seems to be “cleaner” than the others. This suggests it would have been not a residential, but a community building. What type of community building, however, is not clear. It could have been a meeting place, a ritual site, or maybe even a recreation centre, but it’s not clear yet.

“We also partially exposed a substantial platform mound that had four structures at its summit. The structures surrounded a plaza or courtyard. It is clear that an elite family lived here. This mound would have been secluded, sectioned off from the rest of the neighbourhood, like the large house at the end of a cul-de-sac where, if you were lucky, you got invited for a pool party, much different from the community building,” the archaeologists explain.

Unfortunately, agriculture is also affecting some of the findings. As local farmers worked the land generation after generation, they dislodged and damaged some of the artefacts and structures. But nevertheless, the signs of the local community are still there. After over a thousand years, their houses, their streets, and the places where they would gather can still tell us stories if we know how to read them.

“The ghosts of those who lived on the land before walk between us, using what remains of their homes to whisper, ‘Remember me.’,” the archaeologists concluded.

Ancient Mayan pyramid destroyed in Belize by the construction company

Ancient Mayan pyramid destroyed in Belize by the construction company

A construction company in Belize destroyed one of the oldest and most famous Mayan pyramids while digging for crushed rock for a road they were constructing.

Authorities reported that the company was carrying out the work with bulldozers and backhoes, chipping away at the pyramid’s sides until there was barely anything left.

The Belize Institute of Archaeology’s director, Jaime Awe, said the building had been discovered the previous week. The ceremonial center at the Nohmul complex is thought to be at least 2,300 years old, and it is considered the most significant historical site in northern Belize, near the Mexican border.

The pyramid, which stood 65 feet tall, was built around 250 B.C. with hand-cut limestone bricks. The pyramid probably contained living quarters as well as tombs for local residents.
Ancient Mayan pyramid destroyed in Belize by the construction company
The limestone from which the pyramid is made is prized by local contractors for building and repairing.

“It’s a feeling of Incredible disbelief because of the ignorance and the insensitivity … they were using this for road fill,” Awe told AP. “It’s like being punched in the stomach, it’s just so horrendous.”

Nohmul is located in the middle of a privately owned sugar cane field and its structures lacked the tell-tale signs of a restored cultural site – like the evenly trimmed stone borders at the sides.

Yet, Awe said this could not possibly have been an explanation for how the workers had managed not to take note of what they were doing.

The pyramid is 100 feet (30 meters) tall, while the land around it is flat, so making that kind of mistake is difficult to imagine. 

“These guys knew that this was an ancient structure. It’s just bloody laziness”, Awe continued. “Just to realize that the ancient Maya acquired all this building material to erect these buildings, using nothing more than stone tools and quarried the stone, and carried this material on their heads, using tump lines,” he said. 

“To think that today we have modern equipment, that you can go and excavate in a quarry anywhere, but that this company would completely disregard that and completely destroyed this building.

Why can’t these people just go and quarry somewhere that has no cultural significance? It’s mind-boggling.”

An investigation is underway by Belizean police, with criminal charges looking like a possibility. Although the Nohmul complex is situated on private land, the law says that any ruins or monuments of pre-Hispanic origin are exempt from it and are under government protection.

A community organization calling itself the Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action has condemned the demolition of the site as “an obscene example of disrespect for the environment and history.”

Hundreds of Mayan ruins remain in Belize, which is largely covered with jungles and counts around 350,000 people among its population. Although this is not the first case that such lack of regard was employed in Belize, Nohmul is among the largest pyramids ruined by such activities.

Archeologists in the area are outraged and hope to salvage artifacts from the rubble.

Many scientists spoke out against what happened. Arlen Chase, chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Central Florida, told AP that “Archaeologists are disturbed when such things occur, but there is only a very limited infrastructure in Belize that can be applied to cultural heritage management.”

The ’70s and 80’s saw much exploration take place around the Nohmul area, but it is important to understand that more knowledge could still be gained, as scientists say.

And such instances of lazy negligence and destruction of Mayan cultural heritage aren’t limited only to Belize. The remnants of the great Mayan nation are under threat in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras as well.   

Francisco Estrada-Belli, a professor of anthropology at Tulane University, said “I don’t think I am exaggerating if I say that every day a Maya mound is being destroyed for construction in one of the countries where the Maya lived.”

Jadeite tool discovered in ancient underwater salt works

Jadeite tool discovered in ancient underwater salt works

In the enigmatic culture of the Maya people, Jade took up a special place, crafted into elaborate trinkets rich with ancient meaning and lore.

But this precious stone was not meant for decorative or ornamental finery. Jade – in the form of its mineral variety, jadeite – also seems to have had its uses in the toil of manual labour, even among the grinding backdrop of long-ago salt works.

Such an unbelievably well-preserved jadeite gouge tool and its handle were discovered by scientists from the Louisiana State University on the grounds of what was once an ancient Mayan salt work in Belize.

Jadeite tool.

This rare find – preserved among the underwater remains of a salt works called Ek Way Nal – represents the first time such a jadeite object has been discovered with its associated handle (in this case made from Honduras rosewood).

But the fact it was found at a salt works at all is both unexpected and noteworthy, the researchers say.

“High-quality translucent jadeite is normally associated with ritual or ceremonial contexts in the Maya area,” the researchers, led by archaeologist and anthropologist Heather McKillop, explain in a new paper.

“The Ek Way Nal tool is made of exceptionally high-quality jadeite, which is surprising given its utilitarian context.”

Ek Way Nal is one of 110 sites comprising the Paynes Creek Salt Works: the submerged remnants of an ancient salt industry in southern Belize, where salt was produced by evaporating brine in boiling pots over fires.

Dozens of thatched wooden kitchens made up the salt works, built during the Classic Maya period (300–900 CE), but later abandoned when sea level rise flooded the coastal lagoon region.

Producing salt wouldn’t have been easy work, which is why it seems strange that such a high-quality jadeite object was found here, the researchers say.

“During the Classic Period, the use of high-quality translucent jadeite was typically reserved for unique and elaborate jadeite plaques, figurines, and earplugs (earrings) for royalty and other elites,” the team explains.

“Highly crafted jadeite objects were destined for use in dynastic Maya ceremonies, as gifts to other leaders to solidify alliances, or as burial offerings to accompany dynastic and other elites.”

Or, it appears, sometimes rare and valuable jadeite was shaped into chisels, forming the glittering green blade of a salt worker’s tool. While the mineral might seem out of place in this steamy, briny context, McKillop says it shows how the ancient Maya salt trade was going places – until it was washed under the waves.

The tool’s wooden handle.

“The salt workers were successful entrepreneurs who were able to obtain high-quality tools for their craft through the production and distribution of a basic biological necessity: salt,” says McKillop.

“Salt was in demand for the Maya diet. We have discovered that it was also a storable form of wealth and an important preservative for fish and meat.”

While we can’t be sure how the jadeite gouge would have been used, the researchers say it was probably not used on very hard materials, like stone or wood, although an analysis of its worn appearance suggests it was employed as a working tool.

“The use of jadeite as a utilitarian tool in a salt works indicates that even exotic materials, which often require expertise to fashion into tools, were selected for their hardness,” the authors write.

“Although the gouge was probably not employed in working wood or hard materials, it may have been used in other activities at the salt works, such as scraping salt, cutting and scraping fish or meat, or cleaning calabash gourds.”

Not exactly glamorous pursuits then, but it makes for yet another ancient relic that can help us discover the world of the ancient Maya, and learn their story through the objects that once defined them.