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Who Did the Maya Sacrifice? (economist.com)
98 points by jkuria 81 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments

It is hard to imagine the horror of exploring a new place and coming across Tzompantli made from children.


To be fair, the people who were the first explorers in these lands were hardly the squeamish type

About human sacrifice, they were extremely squeamish! Bernal Díaz describes with no small amount of horror the Spaniards reaction to the human sacrifice and the ritual use of blood by the priests.

The mayans also had a record of their horror of the way the spaniards freely used pain and torture. It was (bar a few exceptions) not something mayans did. They found it appalling.

Pretty ignorant thing to say. People are more complicated than that, even people who’s main goal is conquest and subjugation.

I meant that these weren't sheltered pacifists. They had seen death and bloodshed before

But they were likely the zealous type for whom this was plenty justification to classify Maya as subhuman and have no trouble killing all of them.

At least for the first conquistadores, this is wildly incorrect. It is true that they saw the Mesoamerican culture as wrong (particularly the human sacrifice bit), and put the conquest of territory for Spain as of high importance, but their understanding of the world was more complex than what you describe. I really recommend reading Bernal Díaz del Castillo‘a firsthand account of the conquest of “New Spain” to get an idea of how these people viewed the world!

This is similar to what happened in some ways: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_conquest_of_Pet%C3%A...

However, the Maya still survive today, so the conquistadores didn't kill all of them; all but one of the Maya cities had fallen before the arrival of the conquistadores (as the article mentions, the sacrifices at the particular site profiled ended in 900, over six centuries before the Spanish conquest); it isn't clear that the conquistadores knew about the Maya history of human sacrifice; it isn't clear that the conquistadores had any qualms about killing people they saw as fully human, or indeed abusing them in a wide variety of creatively sadistic and depraved fashions.

One of the key sources is Bartolomé de las Casas; this translation is readable but the extensive prefaces about how Catholicism is evil may give you some idea of the difficulties in getting an objective account of what really happened. If you can read Spanish, the original may be easier to read, because English has changed a lot more since that time.


Not really the reason they are gone. As stated on wiki

> It is estimated that 90% of the indigenous population had been eliminated by disease within the first century of European contact.

killing them ALL

Lol. That’s definitely false.

Probably, they were the type that had no problem killing. Someone of a different type was in charge of justifications. The latter would’ve also been more the type that wrote, now historical, documents.

Thanks for trying, but neither link worked for me.

https://archive.fo/UvEKU works for me.

Hm. Is it that bad?

The data would seem to at least falsify the warfare hypothesis: if they were mostly prisoners-of-war, you'd expect a few localities & demographics to be overrepresented (as they are from the usual enemy city-states, or a burst of young male sacrifices from a victorious battle with many prisoners).

And a gradual dispersion of victims falling off steadily with distance yet with a long tail of very remote origins sounds to me like what you'd get from a mature long-distance network of slave traders.

I think each culture had different customs about choosing sacrificial victims.

For the Aztecs, they conquered most of their neighbors but left a few unconquered — these were the city-states they would engage in annual ritual battle where the highest honor was to capture an enemy warrior. When the Spanish invaded, many of these “over-fished” neighbors became eager allies.

So the “trade” in that case matured to something kind of ugly, a kind of Hunger Games annual harvest of your best warriors. I can imagine wanting some revenge after decades of enduring that from a hegemonic neighbor.

In our culture we give them honors like political office, a record deal, or a spot in a movie and then symbolically sacrifice them in the media.

I think the idea that they sacrificed slaves (exclusively?) is a bit overhasty of a conclusion, the Spanish reported that when they "freed" many "victims" waiting to be sacrificed by the Aztecs, they were indignant and demanded to be returned and sacrificed.

A different time, and a different culture, but with a huge amount of similarities too.

Perhaps people viewed it as their sacred duty to be sacrificed?

A related finding - a group (not Mayan, but not quite the Aztecs either) imprisoned an entire Conquistador convoy (Spaniards, Africans, and American Indians) for months and gradually sacrificed and cannibalized them. So the "anyone and everyone" at least in its later incarnations also included unusual foreigners.


Or maybe they were e.g. sacrificed to spare their loved ones. --> if they were freed then maybe their family would have to provide someone else?

The Spanish might be unreliable narrators. Perhaps we cant trust their assessment of situation and even less their reports. They could have been wrong in many ways.

At Chichen Itza, tour guides there will tell you that people there actually competed in pelota (ball) games for the honor of being sacrificed. According to them, it was something the competitors actively sought out. Unsurprisingly, it seems as though this is false. The losers of the game were the ones sacrificed during certain periods in Mayan history. [0]

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesoamerican_ballgame#Human_sa...

The list of cookie using parties on the economist.com is longer then the article...(?)


You're in luck: the Economist has an excellent article on their word choice here, subtitled For Whom, The Bell Tolls.


Hwæm, actually, if you really feel a need to attach yourself to obsolete words. Language changes, and the dropping of whom should not bother you anymore than does here having entirely supplanted hither or the near absence of whence in everyday conversation.

Garner's advice, to paraphrase—his entry on who/whom is, unsurprisingly, long—amounts to generally understanding and following the rules, but using whichever reads or sounds better if rule-following results in awkwardness, as it certainly sometimes does (he has examples). In this case I'd judge that either works, though the more formal-register the writing the more this use of "who" would stand out.

This being a headline in the Economist—and considering that, apparently, at least some found this use of "who" distracting, while "whom" would have been at least as easy to parse and probably wouldn't have bothered anyone—it's probably fair to call it a small error.

Garner also notes that predictions that "whom" is on its way out are, at this point, part of a long tradition, and do seem to capture the trend but do not yet describe current standard usage outside the fairly informal or colloquial. IOW for the best hope of communicating well at higher-formality registers, especially in writing, do continue (mostly) following the standard rules, in this case, avoiding it only when "correct" use is distracting or strange to a modern reader.

In that case using the correct word would render the title unambiguous and comprehensible to everybody. As it is written I read it as "who was responsible for the act known as the Maya Sacrifice?". As a non-native English speaker who learnt the language in a rather formal way, interpreting the word "sacrifice" as a verb is ungrammatical to me.

In this case, it would be "Who did the Mayan Sacrifice?" instead of "Who did the Maya sacrifice?" The lowercase "s" indicates it is not part of a proper noun, and "Maya" is a Native American group, and must be suffixed with an "n" to act as an adjective.

I think "sacrifice" is used as a verb at least as frequently as a noun. To me it's unambiguously a verb here as "Maya" is a noun ("Mayan" is the adjective).

Anybody using English[1] will benefit from a good dictionary. All dictionaries show both noun and verb usage.


[1] I do mean anybody: people with or without English as a first language.

As a native speaker, sacrifice is a verb.

It can be a noun or a verb, depending on the context [0]. In this sentence it seems to be a noun, which is qualified by the adjective "mayan", written simply as a noun in apposition "Maya". If "sacrifice" is a verb, the sentence has no object, thus it is ungrammatical, because "who" cannot be the object, only the subject. Or so I was told when learning this damn language!

[0] https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/sacrifice

Hitherto is certainly used more often than heretofore or hereto (also hither and yon(der))


I was hoping it would dig into how they got all the bones and stuff out of the sinkhole but it glossed over this point.

Anyone know if the source material is better?

"Sate their lust for blood"?

"Bloodlust" is a common phrase that refers to a desire to kill.

Even denuded of its emotive connotations like that, a culture's willingness to commit human sacrifice doesn't logically indicate desire; indeed, the evidence suggests most cultures that practiced sacrifice (in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas) believed they obtained some utility from the act.

Here is the full quote:

> How the priests of Chichén Itzá came by victims remains a mystery. All that can be said for sure is that the gods inhabiting the Sacred Cenote were not choosy. Men, women, adults, children, strangers and locals. All seem to have been equally acceptable to sate their lust for blood.

I think it is pretty clear that "their lust for blood" refers to "the gods inhabiting the Sacred Cenote," not the people doing the sacrifices.

I'm more inclined to think the utility is a pretext.

If you do human sacrifice, it's probably because you want to do human sacrifice. Smart people can always come up with a pretext.

Perhaps they are linked. Perhaps at a certain time there was a need for it; the utility became apparent.

I could imagine a collapse in the food supply necessitating either sacrifice, or cannibalism.

It may have become fashionable to do for various religious and ritualistic reasons, even during good times.

>I could imagine a collapse in the food supply necessitating either sacrifice, or cannibalism.

That's not possible because (as every European famine ever has shown) if you choose "none of the above" then people will starve naturally until the famine is over. Not every hard situation is a trolley problem.

Which may result in more death than necessary. You observe a failed harvest. Your foodstock is sufficient for a thousand days for one person. You expect the next food to be available in 100 days. Your population is 100 people. If you feed all people for just 5 days, 5 people might survive. If you pick 10 at the beginning and sacrifice 90, 10 people can survive.

Whatever you choose makes a difference in how many people die. It’s still kind of a trolley problem.

Such a good point. It IS a trolley problem. Cannibalism would have saved so many European societies during so many famines. I am unironically #TeamCannibal.

That's good point I hadn't thought of!

There might have been utility. Think family planning.

That brings up a question. Obviously a whole civ didn’t wake up one day and realize “huh, we must carry out sacrifice”. It must have grown from some small ritual that snowballed into these ghoulish things though some odd dynamic of accident and then took on a shape its own.

Human sacrifice was widely prevalent in prehistory. It's present in the Bible (Abraham and Isaac), in Homeric legends (Iphigenia at Aulis), and countless other ancient societies. [1] The notion that some must die that others may live is deeply ingrained in human behavior and still exists today.

The interesting question to me at least is why did it stop?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_sacrifice

Because religions that said not to do it took over the world.

That’s a restatement of the change not an explanation of it.

The context when religions say to kill people has changed, why?

It did not stop. Scapegoating remained the same through all of time. All that happened was we stopped killing our scapegoats explicitly and now choose to scapegoat them from afar so we can feel better about ourselves.

>The interesting question to me at least is why did it stop?

And will it make a comeback with the mass society upheavals I expect due to climate change?

Not sure i can agree with using the word “sacrifice” here. This could have been a voluntary trek into “some other world” - we simply don’t know what it was. When i hear sacrifice i think heads rolling.

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