for National Geographic News
Archaeologists have discovered what they believe was the gruesome scene of a royal massacre in the ancient city of Cancuén, once one of the richest cities in the Maya empire.
The bones of 31 executed and dismembered Maya nobles were found in a sacred reservoir at the entrance to the royal palace in Cancuén in the Petén rain forest of Guatemala.
Researchers also found a shallow grave nearby containing the skeletons of two people they believe were the king and queen.
The bones of more than a dozen executed upper-class Maya were found at a third burial site north of the royal palace.
The apparent executionsalong with the discovery of unfinished defensive walls and housessuggest that the city was wiped out by an invading force around A.D. 800, a critical moment at the beginning of the mysterious collapse of the great Maya empire.
Arthur Demarest, who led the research team that made the discovery, has studied the collapse of the Maya civilization for 20 years. He says the massacre site is "by far the most important thing" he has ever found.
"It's like a photograph of a single, very critical moment in time," Demarest, an anthropology professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, said by phone from Guatemala.
The Cancuén excavation was partly funded by the National Geographic Society. The discovery is the subject of Explorer: Last Days of the Maya, which airs on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, November 27 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
The wealthy Cancuén kingdom was strategically located at the start of the Pasión River, the greatest trade route of the ancient Maya world. Its royal palace covered an area equal to more than five football fields.
Demarest began exploring the site in 1996 and has been excavating there since 1999.
In May this year the researchers were studying the area's water system when they made their gruesome discovery: a 90-square-yard (75-square-meter) reservoir near the entrance to the royal palace filled with thousands of human bones and precious artifacts.
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