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Bloodletting - Ancient Ritual Behavior

What is Bloodletting, and Why Would Anybody Do That?

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

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

Liz Henry
Olmec Spoon at Snite Museum of Art

Spoon/perforator with incised Quincunx design, Early-Middle Preclassic periods, 1500-300 B.C., Guerrero Olmec culture, incised and drilled jade, Snite Museum of Art

Madman2001

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.

Bloodletting Spoons

A so-called "bloodletting spoon" is a type of artifact discovered on many Olmec archaeological sites. Although there is some variety, the spoons generally have a flattened 'tail' or blade, with a thickened end. The thick part has a shallow off-center bowl on one side and a second, smaller bowl on the other side. Spoons usually have a small hole pierced through them, and in Olmec art are often depicted as hanging from people's clothing or ears.

Bloodletting spoons have been recovered from Chalcatzingo, Chacsinkin, and Chichén Itzá; the images are found carved in murals and on stone sculptures at San Lorenzo, Cascajal and Loma del Zapote.

Olmec Spoon Functions

The real function of the Olmec spoon has long been debated. They're called 'bloodletting spoons' because originally scholars believed them to have been for holding blood from auto-sacrifice, the ritual of personal bloodletting. Some scholars still prefer that interpretation, but others have suggested spoons were for holding paints, or for use as snuffing platforms for taking hallucinogens, or even that they were effigies of the Big Dipper constellation. In a recent article in Ancient Mesoamerica, Billie J. A. Follensbee suggests Olmec spoons were part of a hitherto unrecognized tool kit for textile production.

Her argument is in part based on the shape of the tool, which approximates bone weaving battens recognized in several Central American cultures, including some from Olmec sites. Follensbee also identifies several other tools made of elite greenstone or obsidian, such as spindle whorls, picks and plaques, that could have been used in weaving or cord-making techniques.

Sources

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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