The tomb of a headless man adorned with jade has been discovered beneath an ancient Mexican chamber famously painted with scenes of torture.
Found under the Temple of Murals at the Maya site of Bonampak, the man was either a captive warrior who was sacrificed—perhaps one of the victims in the mural—or a relative of the city's ruler, scientists speculate (interactive map of the Maya Empire).
Whoever he was, "the place of the burial tells us that the person buried there was special," said anthropologist Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta via e-mail.
At the time of the murals' creation, about A.D. 790, Bonampak was a city of thousands. Today its most prominent vestige is a long-overgrown, partially excavated acropolis in the middle of a vast tropical rain forest in the southern state of Chiapas (map).
Perched midway up the stepped acropolis, the Temple of Murals holds three elaborately painted rooms.
Room One depicts the presentation of a young heir. Room Two, above the newfound tomb, is ringed with scenes of the torture of captive warriors—broken fingers, torn-out fingernails, heads without bodies. Room Three includes paintings of an elite bloodletting ritual.
(Read about Maya rituals of sacrifice and worship.)
Discovered by the outside world in 1946, the Bonampak murals eviscerated scholars' long-held belief in an ancient Maya Empire ruled by kindly astronomer-priests. The new tomb find may only add to the aura of violence.
Radar Revealed Surprise Burial
After a series of earthquakes from 2005 through 2007, archaeologists began a restoration and conservation project at Bonampak. During a radar survey they detected a cavity beneath the torture mural.
Burials under Maya temples and pyramids are commonplace, said Gallaga, director of the Chiapas campus of Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, which announced the discovery on January 8.
"Here the question would be, What type of context will we find? What offerings will be there? Or who may be buried there?"
Riddle of the Missing Maya Skull
The tomb itself is "simple"—just large enough to hold a body and covered with a slab of plain, white plaster, Gallaga said.
Preliminary analysis of the skeleton indicates it belonged to a 35- to 42-year-old man with a type of arthritis. His skull, though not his lower jaw, is missing.
The victim may have been beheaded—a common practice in ancient Maya warfare—Gallaga said. But "our money goes to disintegration by humidity and natural erosion," he said, noting that "head bones are relatively less hard than the rest."
Also, jade earrings were on the ground, positioned as if they'd fallen from long-gone ears—another clue the skull may have disintegrated in place.
Gallaga rules out the idea that tomb raiders might have stolen the skull.
For one thing, the valuable jade earrings, along with a jade necklace and bracelets, remain in place. The deceased also wore a pendant made from the shell of a Spondylus, or spiny oyster—"a highly appreciated shell among the high-class during pre-Hispanic times for its orange-purple color," Gallaga said.
Another reason to rule out tomb raiding: "The evidence shows that the burial was a single event." Bonampak's rulers sealed the tomb and placed the whole building on top, "so we do not think anybody opened the tomb in pre-Hispanic times."
Two multicolored ceramic plates, an alabaster vase with a hole in the base, and a stone knife also accompanied the body. The perforated vase and knife are indicative of Maya sacrifice, though not necessarily beheading, the team noted.
Was Mystery Maya Family or Foe?
Scientists are currently carbon-dating a sample of the man's remains to verify when he lived, and a DNA test should help clarify the man's relationship to the Bonampak community, Gallaga said.
For now, though, the tomb artifacts suggest he's an elite—but who's side was he on?
"The paraphernalia found in this burial could lead us to think that [he] is a high-class warrior" from an opposing group who was sacrificed at a ceremony dedicating the temple, Gallaga said.
"The only thing is that this skeleton does not have the hand tied on the back like those found at the Quetzalcóatl temple in Teotihuacán," an ancient Maya metropolis in what is now Mexico City. The Quetzalcóatl corpses are considered to be sacrificed war captives.
Alternatively, the man could be a relative of Chaan Muan II, who ruled Bonampak at the time the murals were painted.
The skeleton's jade and Spondylus-shell jewelry, for example, matches that of the Bonampak nobles depicted in Room One of the Temple of Murals.
Even if the man is found to have been a Bonampak insider, it won't rule out the possibility he was sacrificed to the gods, though he could also have been "killed in a battle or died of natural causes," Gallaga said. "Further analysis will tell us which is the correct" cause-of-death theory.
Whichever hypothesis is right, Gallaga noted, "the tomb could be material evidence of the images portrayed on the murals."
(For the story of the Maya Empire, read the National Geograhpic magazine article "The Maya: Glory and Ruin.")