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Mass Grave Uncovered in Maya City Reveals Practice of Brutal Dismemberment

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Sep 10, 2013 04:06 PM EDT
Scattering of bones
Researchers discovered a 1,400 year-old mass grave containing a scattering of dismembered bones in artificial cave in the historical Maya city of Uxul in Mexico. (Photo : Nicolaus Seefeld/University of Bonn)

Researchers discovered a 1,400 year-old mass grave containing a scattering of dismembered bones in artificial cave in the historical Maya city of Uxul in Mexico.

In all, the bones represent 24 individuals who appear to have been of a high social status, as indicated by the jade tooth inserts discovered in a number of the skulls. However, whether the ill-fated group were prisoners of war from another Maya city offered up as sacrifices by the locals, or came from the city itself, researchers say they are not sure.

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What is clear is that all succumbed to a highly violent death.

"Aside from the large number of interred individuals, it already became apparent during the excavation that the skeletons were no longer in their original anatomical articulation," said Nicolaus Seefield, an archaeologist from the University of Bonn and the one who discovered the gravesite. Skulls lay scattered around the interior of the cave with no relation to particular bodies; in some cases, the lower jaws had become separated from the heads.

"The observed hatchet marks on the cervical vertebra are a clear indication of decapitation," Seefeld explained.

Other signs of violence included an unhealed skull fracture on one skull and several others that showed signs of cutting with sharp objects, possibly from stone hatchets.

Because the bones were covered by clay, they were well enough preserved for the researchers to determine the age and sex of 15 of the individuals, 13 of whom were men and two who were women. Ages at the time of death ranged between 18 to 42.

Teeth analyses, meanwhile, revealed several of the deceased suffered from malnutrition and tooth decay.

In order to determine where the group originated from, the scientists must first conduct an isotope analysis

However, explained project lead Nikolai Grube, "the discovery of the mass grave proves that the dismemberment of prisoners of war and opponents often represented in Maya art was in fact practiced."

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