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The Myth of Human Sacrifice


The anthropology of war

Image of the sacred heart

This research project being undertaken by Elizabeth Graham explores the idea that 'human sacrifice' is a Spanish construct and that the Maya rationalised socially sanctioned killing through warfare.

Initial research on Nahuatl terminology, which reveals no word for 'sacrifice'
Burkhardt Izeki Leon Portilla (traditional translation)
. . . thus we bleed ourselves, . . .we bleed ourselves, . . .in their names we bleed ourselves,
thus we make recompense, thus we cast incense, and thus we kill things. we (?), we burn (or put or place) copal, and we kill them (something, not people, maybe animals) our oaths we keep, incense we burn, and sacrifices we offer
They said that it is by the gods that all live. because they, gods, those who live by them It was the doctrine of the elders that there is life because of the gods;
They did penance for us. They (=gods) made us valuable beings with their sacrifice, they gave us life.
When? Where? when it was still the time of darkness. when, where, during the time of darkness. When? Where? When there was still darkness.

Related outputs

  • 2011 Maya Christians and Their Churches in 16th-Century Belize. University Press of Florida, Gainesville. (Chapter 2 is on warfare, ‘sacrifice’ and socially sanctioned killing.)
  • 2010 The Guardian/The Observer, 9 November. The Ancient World Series, Day 4: The Americas, pp. 16-27. At a Maya market, The invention of chocolate, How to read Maya script, Maya match of the day, Lifeblood of the Maya, The Maya gods, A culture in ruins. (One section deconstructs the myth of human sacrifice.)
  • 2009 Close Encounters. In Maya Worldviews at Conquest, ed. by Leslie G. Cecil and Timothy W. Pugh, 17-38. Boulder: University of Colorado Press. (A section is devoted to warfare.)
  • 2006 An Ethnicity to Know. In Maya Ethnicity: The Construction of Ethnic Identity from Preclassic to Modern Times, edited by Frauke Sachse, pp. 109-124. Acta Mesoamerica, Vol. 19. Markt Schwaben: Verlag Anton Saurwein. (Data from Lamanai are used to argue that the motivation for taking captives was related to tribute appropriation in war.)
Film reviews (critiques of human sacrifice)
  • 2007 Aimers, James J. and Elizabeth Graham. Noble Savages and Savage Nobles: Gibson's Apocalyptic View of the Maya. Latin American Antiquity 18(1): 105-106.
  • 2007 Review of Mel Gibson's Apocalypto in The Guardian, originally featured on the 8th of January 2007 in print. Also available on-line at:
  • Guardian Film Feature
Public lectures
  • 2010 Maya Lintel 24 Gallery Talk, Room 3, British Museum, 5 June. Part of the ‘Talking Objects’ project: ‘Blood, smoke & tears—Is blood-letting ‘sacrifice’?’
  • 2009 ‘The Myth of Human Sacrifice. Hertfordshire Archaeological Society. Welwyn Garden City, 12th October.
Papers presented
  • 2010 Status and Power. Belize Archaeological Symposium (BAS), 3-6 July, San Ignacio del Cayo. (On warfare as tribute-driven.)
  • 2009 Warfare and the Faces of Tribute. Moctezuma II Symposium, organised by Elizabeth Baquedano and sponsored by the Institute of Historical Research, UL and the Institute of Archaeology, UCL. 13th-14th March, London.
  • 2008 Socially Sanctioned Killing in America, Then and Now. In the session ‘Socially Embedded Violence in the Ancient Americas: Beyond Sacrifice and Cannibalism,’ organized by Miguel A. Aguilera and Jane E. Buikstra. 73rd Meeting, Society for American Archaeology, Vancouver, BC, 26 to 30 March. (On the myth of human sacrifice.)

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