Examining heart extractions in ancient Mesoamerica

Related Articles

Related Articles

Sacrificial rituals featuring human heart extraction were a prevalent religious practice throughout ancient Mesoamerican societies.

Intended as a means of appeasing and honoring certain deities, sacrifices served as acts of power and intimidation as well as demonstrations of devotion and gratitude. Human sacrifices were highly structured, complex rituals performed by elite members of society, and the ceremonies included a myriad of procedures imbued with symbolic significance.

The specific techniques performed, the instrumentation utilized, and the underlying mythology motivating sacrifices varied across civilizations. Given the diversity of sacrificial rituals throughout Mesoamerica, Vera Tiesler and Guilhem Olivier assert an interdisciplinary approach incorporating scientific and humanistic evidence is needed in order to gain more nuanced insights into the procedural elements and the religious implications of human sacrifice during the Classic and Postclassic periods.

 

In the study, “Open Chests and Broken Hearts: Ritual Sequences and Meanings of Human Heart Sacrifice in Mesoamerica,” published in Current Anthropology, Tiesler and Olivier conduct an anatomical analysis of skeletal evidence and compare it with systematically checked historical sources and over 200 instances of ceremonial heart extraction in codices. Focusing on the location of openings created in the chest to allow for the removal of a victim’s heart and blood, the authors examine the resulting fractures and marks in articulated skeletons to infer about the nature of the entry wound and the potential instrumentation used.

The breadth of source material and the multitude of disciplinary approaches has led to debate among scholars. While the archaeological record provides evidence of these ceremonies, less tangible elements of the rituals–such as the symbolism of these processes–may be harder to discern. Descriptions of human sacrifice and heart extraction can likewise be found in written witness testimonies and in Mesoamerican iconography. However, witness accounts were often inconsistent, especially concerning the position of the extraction site.

Utilizing forensic data in conjunction with an analysis of ethnohistorical accounts, the authors detail three distinct heart extraction methods: cutting directly under the ribs (subdiaphragmatic thoracotomy); making an incision between two ribs (intercostal thoracotomy); or by horizontally severing the sternum in order to access the heart (transverse bilateral thoracotomy). While previous research indicates subdiaphragmatic thoracotomy was a common practice, Tiesler and Olivier expand upon the existing literature by providing reconstructions of intercostal thoracotomy and transverse bilateral thoracotomy.

In addition to providing a more comprehensive understanding of extraction techniques and devices, the study reveals new interpretations of the relationship between thoracotomy procedures and conceptualizations of the human body as a source of “vitalizing matter,” or food for the gods. Hearts and blood were offered as sustenance to deities representing the sun and the earth in recognition of their sacrifices during the creation of the universe. Data–including linguistic analysis of ancient Mesoamerican terminology–reinforce suggestions that these rites served as acts of obligation, reciprocation, and re-enactment.

The interdisciplinary nature of the study enables future research by offering a framework for analyzing sacrificial rituals in other ancient societies, including ancient civilizations in the Andes and India.

UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS JOURNALS

Header Image – Public Domain

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic

LATEST NEWS

Camulodunum – The First Capital of Britannia

Camulodunum was a Roman city and the first capital of the Roman province of Britannia, in what is now the present-day city of Colchester in Essex, England.

African Crocodiles Lived in Spain Six Million Years Ago

Millions of years ago, several species of crocodiles of different genera and characteristics inhabited Europe and sometimes even coexisted.

Bat-Winged Dinosaurs That Could Glide

Despite having bat-like wings, two small dinosaurs, Yi and Ambopteryx, struggled to fly, only managing to glide clumsily between the trees where they lived, according to a new study led by an international team of researchers, including McGill University Professor Hans Larsson.

Ancient Maya Built Sophisticated Water Filters

Ancient Maya in the once-bustling city of Tikal built sophisticated water filters using natural materials they imported from miles away, according to the University of Cincinnati.

New Clues Revealed About Clovis People

There is much debate surrounding the age of the Clovis - a prehistoric culture named for stone tools found near Clovis, New Mexico in the early 1930s - who once occupied North America during the end of the last Ice Age.

Cognitive Elements of Language Have Existed for 40 Million Years

Humans are not the only beings that can identify rules in complex language-like constructions - monkeys and great apes can do so, too, a study at the University of Zurich has shown.

Bronze Age Herders Were Less Mobile Than Previously Thought

Bronze Age pastoralists in what is now southern Russia apparently covered shorter distances than previously thought.

Legio IX Hispana – The Lost Roman Legion

One of the most debated mysteries from the Roman period involves the disappearance of the Legio IX Hispana, a legion of the Imperial Roman Army that supposedly vanished sometime after AD 120.

Popular stories

Legio IX Hispana – The Lost Roman Legion

One of the most debated mysteries from the Roman period involves the disappearance of the Legio IX Hispana, a legion of the Imperial Roman Army that supposedly vanished sometime after AD 120.

The Secret Hellfire Club and the Hellfire Caves

The Hellfire Club was an exclusive membership-based organisation for high-society rakes, that was first founded in London in 1718, by Philip, Duke of Wharton, and several of society's elites.

Port Royal – The Sodom of the New World

Port Royal, originally named Cagway was an English harbour town and base of operations for buccaneers and privateers (pirates) until the great earthquake of 1692.

Matthew Hopkins – The Real Witch-Hunter

Matthew Hopkins was an infamous witch-hunter during the 17th century, who published “The Discovery of Witches” in 1647, and whose witch-hunting methods were applied during the notorious Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts.