Sacrificial Virgins: Sex, Violence, and Imagination

Posted on August 7, 2013


What is it with men who see sacrificed women and immediately begin to fantasize about their beauty and virginity?

This was the story told about the Maya “Sacred Well”, the Cenote at Chichen Itza, as popularized by an interview Alma Reed conducted with Edward Thompson,  in 1923 in the New York Times, where Reed wrote

prisoners of war and virgins of flawless loveliness were sacrificed at the cenote. From early childhood the maidens had been cared for with physical perfection as a goal. Their spiritual training had martyrdom for the public good as its ideal. (Reprinted in El Palacio)

As the joke I heard went: I understand how the physical anthropologists can tell they are female; but how can they tell they were virgins?

As recently as 2003, the writer of a National Geographic feature about Maya underwater archaeology in Yucatan still felt the need to mention (and debunk) the sacrificial virgin story. The author quoted archaeologist Carmen Rojas:

Until the 1960s many people, including many archaeologists, thought virgins were the only individuals whose stories had ended in the cenotes. “We learned then that they were not all young girls…And now we know that they were not all sacrifices.”

Now add Cahokia to the list of sites where the story of mass sacrifice of young women has been called into question.


The Western Digs blog describes research by Andrew Thompson, published in the July issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, who applied a new approach to identifying the sex of bodies from Mound 72 at Cahokia.

This is a famous (the blog says, infamous, and who am I to disagree?) feature, part of “the largest display of ritual killing found anywhere north of Mexico”, a pit

lined from corner to corner with skeletons — 53 in all — neatly arranged two bodies deep, each layer separated by woven fiber mats. The victims all appeared to be women, mostly in their late teens or early 20s. Evidence suggested they were strangled, or perhaps cut at the throat, at the edge of their shared mass grave, and then interred, meters away from an ornate burial of two men thought to be clan elders, political leaders, spiritual guides, or all three.

A powerful image of systematic, gendered violence, on which much has been built. Western Digs cites nonspecific  “experts” as having described the 53 women imagined buried in Mound 72 as “unblemished”, saying “some speculated that they were virgins”.

University of Illinois archaeologist Tim Pauketat, the most recent archaeologist to conduct sustained research at Cahokia, was clear about this in an interview in 2009: selection of young women of a certain age, yes, but some had clearly given birth.

Coverage of Pauketat’s then-new book on Cahokia in the popular press was a lot less careful. Writing for Salon, Andrew O’Hehir titled his article Sacrificial virgins of the Mississippi, and added that the 53 women in Mound 72 were “quite possibly selected for their beauty”.

Beauty and virginity.

Neither, of course, particularly evident in skeletal remains.

In fact, the majority of the skeletons from Cahokia could not be assigned a biological sex: Thompson says that less than half of the skeletons from Mound 72 could be assigned a sex originally, and less than half of those were assessed to be certainly female. That’s less than a quarter of the buried individuals.

Thompson, a PhD candidate at Indiana University, tried a new idea: using teeth, more durable than bone, to assign sex to the skeletal remains at Cahokia.

Like all such research, his work will no doubt be open to questioning.  He is quoted online as acknowledging that “There is, of course, quite a bit of overlap in tooth size between sexes, and this varies between populations”. He needed to construct a comparative framework for analysis, using other local sites with better preservation.

And even then, he still found a bias toward female victims: in the main burial pit, he identified 8 of the 53 individuals as male, very close to the 17% frequency of males in Mound 72 burials that he found overall.

Does it matter that it isn’t entirely women, if women were disproportionately victims of violence here?

I think it does. If nothing else, it should help counter the easily inflamed imagination that still, in the 21st century, leads popular writers to equate all female with all virgin (and all beautiful).

That might allow us to get beyond a kind of snuff-film moment and ask what factors led to the selection of any person for ritual burial?

For Chichen Itza, that moment has already come. Archaeologist Guillermo de Anda argues that for cultural reasons, the human victims there were more likely male than female. Eighty percent of the sample he analyzed from one cenote were, he said, children between the ages of 3 and 11.

As archaeologist Traci Ardren wrote in an overview of child sacrifice in Mesoamerica, this may reflect the “purity and strength” of children’s connection to the divine. For the Aztecs, I have argued, young children were not completely separated from the gods who gave them to human parents as gifts, until they had lived and been socialized for some time, making them appropriate messengers to the gods.

There is an opportunity now at Cahokia to revisit ideologies and ask similar questions. If a consistent 15-17% of those buried in this way were male, perhaps the selection of victims was based less on their sex than on some other quality shared by both males and females.

If, as Pauketat indicates, some of the women had given birth, and others perhaps had not, are we safe to assume that all those who were biologically female formed a single category? In other Native American societies, age mattered as much as sex, and maturation and especially being a parent was a moment that marked a transition to adulthood. What is the age appropriate for sacrifice at Cahokia?

And– might we revisit the easy application of a two sex/two gender model here, knowing that many Native American peoples recognized more than two genders, and these can be evident archaeologically?

It may not be as sexy. But it would be a whole lot more anthropological.