Rare Maya "Death Vase" Discovered

Blake de Pastino
National Geographic News
Updated December 4, 2007

An extremely rare and intricately carved "death vase" has been discovered in the 1,400-year-old grave of an elite figure from the Maya world, scientists say.

The vase is the first of its kind to be found in modern times, and its contents are opening a window onto ancient rituals of ancestor worship that included food offerings, chocolate enemas, and hallucinations induced by vomiting, experts say.

Archaeologists discovered the vase along with parts of a human skeleton while excavating a small "palace" in northwestern Honduras in 2005. (The dig was funded by the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.)

Soil samples taken from in and around the vessel were found to contain pollen from corn, cacao, and false ipecac, a plant that causes severe nausea when eaten.

These traces suggest the vase may have been used in ancient rites the Maya practiced to produce trancelike states through intense physical purging, said Christian Wells, an anthropologist at the University of South Florida who lead the excavation.

"The way to have contact, to communicate, with ancestors is to have visions," Wells said of the Maya rituals.

"And you have a vision either by cutting yourself and bloodletting—which there's really no evidence for in this case—or by having some very powerful chocolate enema, or by drinking your brains out and throwing up.

"We think this beverage [in the vase] may have contained ipecac, which would have made the person who's drinking it throw up—a lot. Then, by throwing up a lot, they could've had visions that would have allowed them to talk with the ancestors."

Mysterious "Palace"

Wells' team believes that the white marble vase contained a corn-based gruel laced with the stomach-churning herb. Cacao, from which chocolate is made, may have been added for flavor.

The new findings could help solve the long-standing mystery of what purpose the ornamental vessels, called Ulúa-style vases, served.

Most of the vases known to scientists were either looted from graves or were unearthed long before modern archaeological methods were available, Wells said.

Continued on Next Page >>


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