Ritual economy and ancient Maya bloodletting: Obsidian blades from Actun Uayazba Kab (Handprint Cave), Belize

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Journal of Anthropological Archaeology


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Ancient Maya material culture can be investigated from the perspective of ritual economy as a means to interpret the dynamic interrelationships between economic processes and the use of objects in ritual activities. Such interrelationships include access to raw materials, control of production and consumption, and the legitimate use of objects in various activities, including rites and performances, as constituted through a culture’s worldview. This paper presents an exploration of the relationship between obsidian blades and bloodletting in Maya ritual contexts from the perspective of ritual economy, highlighting the use of blades in Actun Uayazba Kab (Handprint Cave) in Western Belize. The roles of producers, consumers, practitioners, and observers are examined in terms of gender, status, and power by tracing the functional and ideological characteristics of obsidian blades, as both objects used to let blood and as symbols of bloodletting, based on evidence derived from microscopic use-wear analysis and iconography. Ethnographic and ethnohistoric information is employed to assist in contextualizing ancient Maya ritual activity in caves and to provide a cultural lens to reconstruct how bloodletting was connected to resource production and consumption, the creation and maintenance of identity, and the allocation of power among Maya participants through ritual.


Ritual economy, Bloodletting, Obsidian, Caves, Maya, Use-wear analysis

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