Photograph courtesy Nicolaus Seefeld, University of Bonn

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A piece of jade in a massacre victim's tooth suggests elite status.

Photograph courtesy Nicolaus Seefeld, University of Bonn

Beheaded Maya Massacre Victims Found

Scholars report the discovery of dismembered war captives from seventh century.

Two dozen Maya war captives were beheaded, dismembered, and buried unceremoniously some 1,400 years ago at the site of Uxul, an international team reported on Tuesday.

The victims were likely rulers of nearby towns at war with Uxul, located in southern Mexico, or the dethroned rulers of the town itself, according to the researchers. The discovery of the mass burial in an artificial cave adds to the evidence that the brutal warfare, torture, and sacrifice of captives widely depicted in ancient Maya artwork were real practices, says discovery team archaeologist Nicolaus Seefeld of Germany's University of Bonn.

Of the two dozen skeletons discovered at the site earlier this year, the team was able to determine that at least 13 were men and 2 were women. Their ages at death ranged from 18 to 42. "Some of them had jade inserts in their teeth, which we think means they were high-status members of the ruling class," says Seefeld.

"All of them were decapitated, and the bones were scattered," Seefeld adds. The neck bones of the victims exhibit hatchet cuts, and several of the skulls bear unhealed marks from hatchet and cudgel blows. The skulls were piled some distance away from the skeletons in the burial chamber, a 344-square-foot (32-square-meter) rectangular cave once used to store water.

Bare Bones Burial

The victims were buried without any of the offerings or jewelry typically seen in royal burials, aside from a few potsherds that allowed the researchers to roughly date the time of their massacre. At the time, Uxul was apparently ruled by a local dynasty, though it later came under the control of Calakmul. The latter city was the superpower of the classic Maya era, which ended after A.D. 800 with the widespread abandonment, or collapse, of the pyramid-filled cities of Central America.

(Read about the rise and fall of the Maya in National Geographic magazine.)

"Most likely these were soldiers dispatched after being captured in warfare, or else [were] the local rulers themselves after being usurped," says archaeologist Arthur Demarest of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, who was not part of the discovery team.

Seefeld originally investigated the burial site looking to unearth the water system of the town, which was abandoned before A.D. 800, early in the era of Maya collapse. Instead of a cistern, he found the buried skeletons under 6.6 feet (2 meters) of sand and a layer of clay. "The cave once provided water to nearby elite residences, but we don't know if there is any connection to the people who lived there," he says.

For now, the team hopes that chemical isotope analysis of the bones will reveal whether the beheading victims were local nobles or invaders captured during a war between Maya cities. The results should be known in November, Seefeld says, offering more insight into who won and who lost this one particularly fierce fight.