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What is Bloodletting, and Why Would Anybody Do That?


Bloodletting: Maya Lady Xoc Passing a Spiked Rope through her Tongue

Bloodletting: Maya Lady Xoc Passing a Spiked Rope through her Tongue

Liz Henry

Bloodletting--purposefully cutting the human body to release blood--is an ancient ritual, associated with both healing and sacrifice. Bloodletting was a regular form of medical treatment for ancient Greeks, with its benefits debated by scholars such as Hippocrates and Galen.

Bloodletting in Central America

Bloodletting or autosacrifice was a cultural trait of most of the societies in Mesoamerica, beginning with the Olmec perhaps as early as 1200 AD. This type of religious sacrifice involved a person using a sharp instrument such as an agave spine or shark's tooth to pierce a fleshy part of his own body. The resulting blood would drip onto a lump of copal incense or piece of cloth or bark paper, and then those materials would be burned. According to historic records of the Zapotec, Mixtec and Maya, burning blood was one way to communicate with the sky gods.

Artifacts associated with blood letting include shark's teeth, maguey thorns, stingray spines, and obsidian blades. Specialized elite materials--obsidian eccentrics, greenstone picks, and 'spoons'--are thought to have been used for elite bloodletting sacrifices in Formative period and later cultures.


The PBS website has an essay on the history of bloodletting, part of the Red Gold special on blood.

Follensbee, Billie J. A. 2008 Fiber technology and weaving in formative-period Gulf Coast cultures. Ancient Mesoamerica 19:87-110.

Marcus, Joyce. 2002. Blood and Bloodletting. Pp 81-82 in Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia, Susan Toby Evans and David L. Webster, eds. Garland Publishing, Inc. New York.

Fitzsimmons, James L., Andrew Scherer, Stephen D. Houston, and Hector L. Escobedo 2003 Guardian of the Acropolis: The Sacred Space of a Royal Burial at Piedras Negras, Guatemala. Latin American Antiquity 14(4):449-468.

This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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