A team of archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have uncovered a crypt in the Maya city of Toniná, containing cremation burials used for making rubber balls in ritual ball games.
Toniná, meaning “house of stone” in the Tzeltal language was originally called Po’p, Po or Popo in Classic Maya texts. The city is located in the Chiapas highlands of southern Mexico, east of the town of Ocosingo.
The site contains groups of temple-pyramids set on terraces rising some 71 metres above a central plaza, two ballcourts, and over 100 carved monuments that mainly date from the 6th century through to the 9th centuries AD during the Classic period.
The crypt was first identified in 2020 during a study of one of the larger temple-pyramids, revealing a labyrinth containing a series of small vaults and rooms connected by stairways. These lead to an antechamber and the crypt at a depth of 8 metres inside the pyramid and date from the 7th and 8th century AD.
The antechamber and crypt have small niches, where the researchers found more than 400 vessels filled with organic material such as human ashes, charcoal, rubber and roots.
A microscopic analysis of the organic material has revealed that the human ashes (likely the remains of high-ranking people or Maya rulers) was used in the vulcanization process for hardening rubber, used for making balls used in Maya ritual ball games played in the ballcourts at Toniná.
The Maya ball game originated more than 3,000 years ago and was seen not just as an athletic event. It represented the regeneration that was integral to the continued existence of the Maya, by showing their devotion to their gods by playing the game and by ritual killing.
Juan Yadeun Angulo from INAH said: “The discoveries in Toniná provides a more accurate idea of how interesting and complex the Mayan religion was within the Mesoamerican worldview”.
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