The Everlasting Color Of Human Sacrifice

“I found that I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn’t say in any other way.” —Georgia O’Keeffe

In A Nutshell

Maya blue is one of the few dye pigments that has survived almost 15 centuries. The blue color, long a mystery to scientists and chemists, has finally had another piece of its creation decoded: dehydroindigo. The chemical makeup probably mattered little to the people who created it, though, as the color had a major religious significance and was used to paint the naked bodies of human sacrifices before their hearts were torn from their chests.

The Whole Bushel

While other colors have long since faded, Maya blue remains to give us a brightly colored look into one of the most important aspects of Mayan life: religious sacrifice.

What we know about Maya blue has slowly developed over decades, and it started with a rather puzzling discovery that quickly turned gruesome. In 1904, an archaeological excavation was sent to explore a natural well outside of Mexico’s Chichen Itza. The well was called the Sacred Cenote, and it was a spot of supreme religious importance. The excavation found a number of religious artifacts, including pottery, bowls, incense burners, and the bones belonging to 127 skeletons.

At the bottom of the natural well was, as expected, mud. But the top layer of mud, about 4.2 meters (14 ft) of it, was a distinctive blue color. It was the same blue that had been found surviving on other artifacts: Maya blue. The earliest samples of Maya blue were dated to about A.D. 300, and, disturbingly, it’s not just a pretty color.

When the skies turned the same shade as Maya blue, that meant there was no rain in sight. There was no sign of clouds, no relief, no rain for the crops, no lifeblood for the Maya. So, they would need to shed a little of that blood.

Maya blue was also the color that was associated with Chaak, the rain god, and it was Chaak that was honored with many, many human sacrifices. According to European accounts, sacrifices were first painted Maya blue, then put onto an altar where their still-beating hearts were cut out of their living bodies.

Sacrifices were thrown into the Sacred Cenote, and that’s where the 4 meters of blue sludge at the bottom came from: the incredibly durable pigment washed off the bodies of the sacrifices, remaining behind while the unfortunate sacrifices decomposed over the centuries. Sometimes, it was painted pottery offerings that were thrown into the well, but the uncovering of more than 100 human skeletons leaves no doubts that it was the sacrifices described in the journals of European explorers that were thrown in there, too.

Maya blue presented another mystery to those that had found the brightly colored artifacts. Just how was a pigment made that could survive time and weathering, where all others had long faded?

And it wasn’t an easy answer to find.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that chemists finally figured out the components. Indigo dye was somehow combined with a mineral called palygorskite, but that’s all they knew . . . until 50 years later.

Technology finally caught up to the Maya enough to detect another component of the mysterious color. Dehydroindigo is an oxidized form of indigo. Indigo is blue (the same color we use to dye jeans today), and dehydroindigo is yellow, which would combine to give Maya blue its distinctive soft, greenish tinge.

But it’s still a mystery how the Maya actually got the color to adhere so permanently to the pottery and clay that it’s on today. At one point, it was put forth that resin also used in the creation of incense may have been used in creating the color, but that’s up for debate.

It’s also been put forth that the recipe was a trade secret, held by the same priests who would decide when it was time to appease Chaak with a sacrifice, hoping that he would return the rains to the land and bring life to others. What we do know is that this bright, beautiful color meant death for so many.

Show Me The Proof

Maya Blue Paint Recipe Deciphered
NY Times: The Grim Story of Maya Blue
LiveScience: Secret to Mayan Blue Paint Found
Featured photo: Public domain via Wiki Commons

  • inconspicuous detective

    yikes. afraid to say we’re not so far removed from the barberic way of life these people lived. by the by, chichen itza is an awesome place to visit.

    • Joseph

      Last time there was a drought in the US we cut out someone’s heart on national tv as a sacrifice to a rain god…. Yeah, it’s exactly the same now.

      • inconspicuous detective

        what an idiot.

        • Joseph

          Did someone’s mommy forget to feed him his lunch? I think you need a nap.

          • inconspicuous detective

            whatever. get back to me when you can comprehend simple text. we don’t need another back and forth jabfest that, yet again i’d win (proven time and time again, kid). adios.

          • Joseph

            You should really grow up if you’re actually an adult.

          • inconspicuous detective

            ya know what — lemme try something different.

            for a really, really long time now i have been unsure as to whether you’re a troll, or whether you’re just some condescending dude online who acts the way he does because he fears no real repercussions. either way, i think i misinterpreted your first post (the sarcastic response to my OP) and took it way too literally. apologies for that.
            if it was meant in humor, it can be hard to get that translated through a computer, so yea. now, are you a troll or just someone who knows quite a bit and lets it get to him?

    • When were you there? I visited Chitchen Itza in 94. It’s a truly amazing place. I arrived late in the afternoon, just about an hour before the parc closed for the day, and popped in just long enough to get the lay of the land. The next morning I snuck in before dawn, in absolute darkness, and climbed El Castille to watch the dawn. It was absolutely awesome (in the original meaning of the word).

      • inconspicuous detective

        the 90s. don’t remember how old i was but i was young. mum got something off the menu and when she asked what it was it came back “iguana”. hilarious but it was chickeny. what a trip. my dad went up there and i stayed in the fringe of the jungle around it because it creeped me out.

  • Nathaniel A.

    Are there any attempts to use this recipe to make modern-day paint? Considering yellow is a primary color, you could probably mix a small amount of it in every paint recipe and it would not drastically change the color.

  • Check

    As an artist, I don’t recall ever coming across Mayan Blue in my paints. It looks like a good color, though, and, now that I know about what its significance is, I may use it in a future work of sorrow or misery. If I’m feeling it.

    • heli chopter

      I would like to see your painting when it’s done. I wanna see a painting that would interpret the color palette into the story the painting would portray.

      • Check

        Might not be for a while. I haven’t done anything professional in years. I’m a Reading teacher, so I hardly find the time to do anything recreational. If I do paint again on a regular basis it might not be till my retirement. But, you never know. Inspiration could hit any time.

        • heli chopter

          I was trying to put any pressure towards doing it. I was just curious.

  • oouchan

    Pretty color with an ugly side. Didn’t know any of this before. Have to say that the “pit” in which they found the blue and the bones would make a cool movie plot.


  • chairde

    The Mayan ruins in Mexico are awesome. Chichen Itza looks like a movie set. The Mayans were master builders. I was very impressed. But then again there is nothing in the US that can compare to it.

    • The Observatory and the Nunnery are also fantastic!

    • heli chopter

      Depends on who you ask. As for me nothing quite compares to the natural beauty of Yellowstone or historically rich streets and trails of New Orleans, or the man made hoover dam. Or any strip club but, everyone has their own vises and what they feel is beautiful.

  • heli chopter

    Georgia O’keeffe was an American artist, so the quote up top is spelled wrong. “Color”

  • Gagan Kamboj

    I like the painting .. it shows the sacrifice a human make…

    you can also check – Download Blackmart latest version

  • Best painting on Human sacrifice. Thanks for sharing. Whatsapp Dare Messages