Ancient Maya Ritual Plants Discovered in 2000-Year-Old Site

Jenn Hoskins
29th April, 2024

Ancient Maya Ritual Plants Discovered in 2000-Year-Old Site

Image Source: Natural Science News, 2024

Key Findings

  • In Yaxnohcah, researchers found plant remains used in ancient Maya rituals using eDNA analysis
  • Identified plants include hallucinogenic xtabentun and medicinal jool and chilcahuite, some first-time finds
  • The discovery suggests these plants had significant roles in Maya ceremonies, possibly in ballcourt rituals
The ancient Maya civilization, known for its sophisticated culture and advanced knowledge in various domains, has long intrigued scholars and laypeople alike. One area of interest is the Maya's use of plants in rituals and medicine. However, despite extensive research, many aspects of the Maya ceremonial life have remained a mystery. A recent study by the University of Cincinnati[1] has shed new light on this topic, revealing the presence of various plants used in Maya rituals, some for the first time in archaeological contexts. The discovery took place at the Maya city of Yaxnohcah, beneath a ballcourt in the Helena complex, dating back to the Late Preclassic period. Researchers uncovered a special ritual deposit, likely a bundle, which contained the remains of several plants. Environmental DNA (eDNA) technology was key to identifying these plants, which included Ipomoea corymbosa (xtabentun), Capsicum sp. (chili pepper), Hampea trilobata (jool), and Oxandra lanceolata (chilcahuite). eDNA analysis involves extracting and identifying DNA from environmental samples, such as soil, water, or, in this case, sediment from an archaeological site. It's a powerful tool that allows scientists to detect and identify species present in a particular environment, even long after those species have disappeared. This technology has been previously utilized to characterize the vegetation surrounding the artificial reservoirs of Tikal, another major Maya city[2]. The success of eDNA in both studies underscores its potential to revolutionize our understanding of ancient environments and cultural practices. The plants identified in the Yaxnohcah deposit are known for their medicinal properties. Jool and chilcahuite have been linked to artifact manufacture with ceremonial significance. In contrast, chili peppers and xtabentun are associated with divination rituals. Xtabentun, in particular, is noteworthy because it contains hallucinogenic compounds and has never before been reported from Maya archaeological contexts. The presence of these plants in a ceremonial deposit suggests that they were of considerable importance to the Maya, possibly used in rituals performed on the ballcourt. This finding aligns with earlier research indicating that the ancient Maya had access to a variety of plants for various uses. For instance, the identification of cacao in ceramics from El Pilar[3] suggests that cacao was widely available to Maya residents, not just the elite. Similarly, the discovery at Yaxnohcah indicates that ritual plants were part of broader Maya cultural practices. Moreover, the study at Tikal provided insights into the Maya's sophisticated water management systems, revealing their ability to sustain urban complexes through engineered landscapes[4]. This context of ingenuity and adaptation may also extend to their use of plants, suggesting a deep knowledge of the natural resources available to them and their applications in daily and ceremonial life. The findings at Yaxnohcah contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the Maya's use of plants in rituals. It also exemplifies how modern scientific methods like eDNA analysis can peel back layers of history, revealing the complex web of relationships between the Maya and their environment. The research by the University of Cincinnati not only adds a new dimension to our knowledge of Maya cultural practices but also demonstrates the potential of eDNA to uncover the secrets of ancient civilizations.

BiochemPlant Science


Main Study

1) Psychoactive and other ceremonial plants from a 2,000-year-old Maya ritual deposit at Yaxnohcah, Mexico.

Published 26th April, 2024

Related Studies

2) Environmental DNA reveals arboreal cityscapes at the Ancient Maya Center of Tikal.

3) New light on the use of Theobroma cacao by Late Classic Maya.

4) Water and sustainable land use at the ancient tropical city of Tikal, Guatemala.

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