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The Midnight Terror Cave: Blue fibers found in plaque from possible Maya sacrificial victims

Posted: Tuesday, October 11, 2022. 3:10 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: A study of dental remains of several teeth removed from the Midnight Terror Cave near Springfield, Cayo District, suggests that blue cotton fiber found in their dental calculus (plaque and similar residue) may have been from gags used while they were kept in custody before being sacrificed to the Maya rain god.

According to the blog LiveScience, 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. The cave was first discovered and named in 2006 who were called to rescue an injured looter; research has shown that it was used for burials during the Maya Classic period (A.D. 250 to 925).

Lead study author Amy Chan says that as a graduate student she was interested in determining what foodstuffs the victims were consuming, after finding minimal instances of dental pathology. The research, published on September 20 in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, investigated the calcified plaque from their teeth, known as dental calculus, which can preserve microscopic pieces of food that someone ate.

Chan scraped the gunk off six teeth and sent it to study co-author Linda Scott Cummings, president and CEO of the PaleoResearch Institute in Golden, Colorado. Scott Cummings found that the samples contained primarily cotton fibers and that several of those were dyed bright blue. According to Chan, blue is an important color in Maya ritual, with a unique “Maya blue” pigment found at other sites, for instance at Teotihuacan in Mexico, and apparently used in ceremonies, particularly to paint the bodies of sacrificial victims.

But Chan and her team offered another explanation for the fibers 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 fibers.

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.


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