If you’ve watched through the ‘Indiana Jones’ series, you probably have a very distinctive memory of the ‘Kali-Ma’ scene from the ‘Temple of Doom’. After unsuccessfully escaping a gang of Shanghai thugs, Indiana, Willie and Short-Round find themselves stranded in Mayapore, a village in Northern India. Exploring the village’s palace, they find underground tunnels that reveal that an ancient cult to Kali. The high priest Mola Ram removes the heart of a sacrificial victim with his bare hands as a way to pacify the god and gain the power to rule the world. Another good movie example of heart removal is ‘Apocalypto’, where the Mayan elite remove the hearts of the defeated warriors in order to pacify their gods. Or for a less serious version, there is the scene from ‘Dumb and Dumber’ where Jim Carey removes a ninja’s heart and hands it back to him in a doggy bag.
Ritual heart extraction is not just a movie stunt to shock audiences, there is actually ethnohistoric evidence for the practice. During the Maya Classic period there is evidence from historic accounts and inscriptions that ritual heart removal occurred during periods of crisis. The heart would be presented at a temple idol as a way to pacify the gods. Mayan art from this period also depicts removal of the hearts of children at the accession of a new king or beginning of a new calendrical year.
Despite the knowledge that acts like these occurred, archaeological evidence of sacrifice has primarily been based on context rather than physical changes to the skeletal remains. Burial with a lack of grave goods, differences in grave location, and burial of a distinctive demographic group, such as all young males, are thought to be indicative of sacrifice or ritual behavior.
Tiesler and Cucina (2007) argue that ritual removal of the heart should be visible on human remains. Cut marks and fractures should be visible on the rib cage or spine, though these would depend on the time and method of extraction. No specific accounts have been left of how this procedure takes place, therefore it is unknown how the skeleton would reflect this behavior. Potential methods include: the organ removed below the rib cage, cutting through the thorax to open up the chest cavity, or breaking through the rib-cage (Tiesler and Cucina 2007:494). The lack of knowledge of skeletal remains with this type of evidence has been attributed to poor preservation and a lack of communication between disciplines about the manner and appearance of this process.
In this study, Tiesler and Cucina (2007) systematically examine skeletal remains from the Classic period collections from Calakmul, Palenque and Becan. Of these, four individuals show potential trauma that may be related to heart extraction or evisceration. All of the remains under investigation were found at public or palatial (palace) sites within urban centers. Individual one is of a young adult female found in the antechamber of a dynastic tomb at Calakmul. The second individual, a unknown sex 15 to 18 year old, was found at the bottom of a staircase leading to a sealed substructure in Becan. Individual three is an adult female that was placed outside of a sarcophagus in a funeral chamber in Temple Xlllsub at Palenque. The final fourth individual was found in a multiple deposit within the sealed Janaab’ Pakal’s funerary structure.
All the individuals were assessed for trauma in the thorax that may be indicative of ritual heart extraction. In all four cases, there was evidence of cutmarks along the anterior and left side of the thoracic vertebrae, specifically those between 10 and 12. These vertebrae are located at the same level as the diaphragm, a muscular membrane that separates the thorax and abdomen. All cutmarks are regular and straight, indicative of direct violent action rather than slicing. There was no evidence of cutmarks along the rib cage. Due to the location of these marks, Tiesler and Cucina (2007) argue that it would have been indicative of cutting the diaphragm to allow access into the chest cavity. This would allow easiest access to the heart. They argue that this is a strong case for heart removal based on the location of the cutmarks and context of burials.
They conclude their discussion with other potential causes of this damage to the skeleton, and a discussion about ritual. Tiesler and Cucina (2007) finish with a warning that archaeologists and historians should be careful when interpreting rituals of this manner, and distinguishing between normal burial and sacrifice. Investigations like this can be easily sensationalized, so it is important to examine the evidence independently, and assess it carefully against the archaeological context.
Tiesler, V., & Cucina, A. (2006). Procedures in Human Heart Extraction and Ritual Meaning: A Taphonomic Assessment of Anthropogenic Marks in Classic Maya Skeletons Latin American Antiquity, 17 (4) DOI: 10.2307/25063069
Kali-Ma Scene from ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’