Finger caches—isolated deposits of human phalanges, often in plainware bowls—have been found at a number of sites in the region inhabited by the Ancient Maya. It has been argued that these deposits are associated with punishment, ancestor veneration, or sacrificial ritual. However, the full scope of this phenomenon is not understood, making it difficult to have confidence about its meaning or function. In an effort to address this, I carried out a survey of information relating to Ancient Maya finger caches in the archaeological, iconographic, glyphic, and ethnographic literature. The review suggests that finger amputation practices were surprisingly common. I discovered evidence of such practices at over 60 sites in present-day Belize, Guatemala, México, and Honduras that span from the Late Preclassic to Late Postclassic eras (400 BCE-1520 CE). The available data also suggest that the Ancient Maya had several distinct practices that entailed the removal of fingers or even entire hands. Some of these practices involved unwilling victims; others were engaged in voluntarily by Ancient Maya. Lastly, the evidence yielded by the survey indicates that members of all social classes engaged in the amputation of fingers and hands. These findings have potentially interesting implications for social life among the Ancient Maya because recent research in the field known as the Cognitive Science of Religion has shown that traumatic rites can foster strong bonds between group members and animosity towards members of other groups.
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Thesis advisor: Collard, Mark
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