MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The victims of human sacrifice by Mexico's ancient Mayans, who threw children into water-filled caverns, were likely boys and young men not virgin girls as previously believed, archeologists said on Tuesday.
The Maya built soaring temples and elaborate palaces in the jungles of Central America and southern Mexico before the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s.
Maya priests in the city of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan peninsula sacrificed children to petition the gods for rain and fertile fields by throwing them into sacred sinkhole caves, known as "cenotes."
The caves served as a source of water for the Mayans and were also thought to be an entrance to the underworld.
Archeologist Guillermo de Anda from the University of Yucatan pieced together the bones of 127 bodies discovered at the bottom of one of Chichen Itza's sacred caves and found over 80 percent were likely boys between the ages of 3 and 11.
The other 20 percent were mostly adult men said de Anda, who scuba dives to uncover Mayan jewels and bones.
He said children were often thrown alive to their watery graves to please the Mayan rain god Chaac. Some of the children were ritually skinned or dismembered before being offered to the gods, he said.
"It was thought that the gods preferred small things and especially the rain god had four helpers that were represented as tiny people," said de Anda.
"So the children were offered as a way to directly communicate with Chaac," he said.
Archeologists previously believed young female virgins were sacrificed because the remains, which span from around 850 AD until the Spanish colonization, were often found adorned with jade jewelry.
It is difficult to determine the sex of skeletons before they are fully matured, said de Anda, but he believes cultural evidence from Mayan mythology would suggest the young victims were actually male.
Editing by Todd Eastham