National Geographic News
Remains buried with pottery and jade ornaments.
Skeleton found with vase beneath Bonampak, Mexico's Temple of Murals.

Photograph courtesy Alejandro Tovalín, INAH

A Mayan mural from Bonampak, Mexico.

Detail of mural in Room Two of Bonampak's Temple of Murals. Photograph by Doug Stern, National Geographic Stock.

John Roach

for National Geographic News

Published March 12, 2010

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).

(Pictures: what the Maya Empire looked like.)

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.

(See "Maya Murals May Depict Murder of Royal Scribes.")

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?"

(Related: "Mass Graves Reveal Massacre of Maya Royalty.")

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.

(Take a Maya quiz.)

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.")

Haqi Jamison
Haqi Jamison

The National Geographic of my youth is losing the respect it garnered before I was and adult and knew better than to believe everything I read. 

We have the proof of this "So-called" discovery. So-called because we know you were told about it years ago.

We have know there is an email that proves the correspondence between National Geographic and the author of "When Rock Cry Out", Horace Butler. 

We know who this supposedly headless man is. We know who his people are. We know his story and we know that sometimes the best laid plans are covered by forests for a lot of years before being rediscovered. 

We know the ancient writings that speak of him. We know the artist that name that painted his battles, pictures and stories.


So do the right thing. Restore your scholarship. Restore the confidence in me and the children who will come after me. 

Release the carbon dating and DNA. It's no longer a matter of time IT IS TIME!

Fatisha Hutchins
Fatisha Hutchins

My interest is in your refusal to publish the carbon date of this find it's remarkable...I know it's ancient Delphi,Horace Butler uncovered this and published his truth in his book When Rock Cry Out I suggest you do a story on him in your magazine along with the proper accreditations...

Deandre Reed
Deandre Reed

I am not shocked at NG's refusal to release the Carbon Dating, for it will reveal the truth...That Bonampak was ancient Delphi. Horace Butler, author of When Rocks Cry Out, gave this discovery to National Geographic in 2008. NG lacks the integrity to publish the truth and cannot be trusted.

Luke 19:40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” 

Geb Geb
Geb Geb

What is the real Carbon Dating for this sight at Bonampak? NG promised that they were going to release them but they have not. What exactly are they waiting for and what if anything do they have to hide?

Distinguished One
Distinguished One

Whether a person has a PhD or not, if they have found actual discoveries that are groundbreaking and could change the course of history, shouldn't they be recognized?  Shouldn't the story get published with them receiving the credit.  How many so called academia are just as clueless as some who are regular non-collegiate level degree holders?

I have read, "When Rocks Cry Out", and while I was indeed skeptical at first due to the fact that I was so used to the "standard" history and "modern" versions of the "truth", when I tested the information for myself I was amazed at what Horace Butler uncovered. 

If Pausanias has located ancient Delphi in South America and not modern "Greece" (which was set up around the time of the Ottoman Turks), and has, shouldn't the "truth" get out?  Are we going to continue to push forth "theories" posing as "truth"?

We do hope that you indeed publish the "truth" about this story.  I think we all deserve to know.  No culture, race, background, creed, color, people, deserve to be suppressed regardless of the implications that the "truth" uncovered will reveal about our UGLY past.

Tnt Tha Gift
Tnt Tha Gift

"Leaving the temple and turning to the left you will come to an enclosure in which is the grave of Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles. Every year the Delphians sacrifice to him as to a hero." ( Pausanias' account of  Delphi/Greece)

In understanding the revelation of the truth, It also becomes understood that those who work hard to keep truths hidden prefers a lie. This choice conciously has resulted into not only what can be deemed a denial of truth but is also a denialof a people's history and their humanity. This dehumanization is also what justified slavery. TO continually deny a people's history is to deny  their existence and that they are human. Even worse, to underestimate the intelligence of a people.

Khemet Bey
Khemet Bey

It would be great to see the truth behind whom the true habitants and builders  throughout the Americas are and displayed in mainstream media. I too am curious of the DNA results of the beheaded gentleman, hopefully we will get the results before I lay to rest and please keep  integrity in mind when showcasing such results.

David Rosario
David Rosario

 So are we to understand that the integrity of the NG only applies when it conforms to so called commonly held beliefs. Where are the DNA results? Where is the Carbon dating results? Are you afraid that History will have to be rewritten. Are you afraid that you will discover Africans as Global Travelers and Global Builders. If we can build Monuments and Pyramids; what makes you think we could not traverse the Oceans of the world and build global societies. I thought we were in a post racial society...shouldn't this apply to History as well? Be the Great Integrity Filled Magazine that we hope for you to be and publish the results of the Carbon Dating and the DNA. Then after you do Mr. Horace Butler and get more pieces to the puzzle so that an Honest and Accurate History can replace the guesswork that is currently being pawned off as Truth!

Terry Spikes
Terry Spikes

WHERE IS THE BEEF??? Is this not the tomb that Horace Butler sent you on the path to hoping that NG was a real truth interest group of rational truth seeking scholars? Is this not the son of Achilles? Mr. Butler even gave you his name! Why wont scholars accept the bible truths being established here in the Americas? Why wont the DNA results be told to the public? Is it because you will prove that these are black people and that this is our true black history? Will you continue the lies of the Vatican and deny the destruction of Black Jerusalem in the America`s? I see that NG also reported the discovery of the woman with a head full of snakes! Medussa?? Yep but you have yet to say her name in public! Are you afraid that she will arise and turn these poison fake false truths of NG into stone? Please report the facts, hell the truth may even stop this fake war you guys are starting so that the truths cant be told!  Sorry I lack tact when it comes to liars.

Javon Stone
Javon Stone

Two years and the people are still waiting for those carbon dating test and dna test..  Why the procrastination?  Why publish such an amazing story without any follow ups with those tests?  

Tnt Tha Gift
Tnt Tha Gift

What were the final results? What did the DNA samples establish as far as the relationship? and According to the analysis of the carbon dating, what time period has been identified? Also what scientific journal or publishing journal has featured the final findings as well? And lastly who conducted the testing?

Osafo Omane
Osafo Omane

The Bonampak murals are amazing and the mystery of the man entombed beneath the chamber is intriguing. I also await in anticipation for the release of the carbon dating and DNA test results that scientist initiated more than two years ago. This great history must continue to be uncovered and revealed to the public.

Lupe Skinner
Lupe Skinner

When will the rets of the carbon dating be released?   This article was done in 2010.  Does carbon dating take that long???  What's the hold up????

Michael Wall
Michael Wall

Will the DNA and Carbon Dating results be released simultaneously?

Moorish Brooklyn
Moorish Brooklyn

Yes, where are the results of this test John Roach?: "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."

If the test results were released where are the results so that we may see the time frame? 

Kish D.
Kish D.

I would like to ask, just as Michael Wall did, "When will the DNA results for the man be made public by National Geographic?" Also, it would be great to know what has developed in the three years since the article was written.

Michael Wall
Michael Wall

This is an amazing story.

I read this article about a year ago and there were some interesting comments. One comment in particular was about how this tomb at Bonampak was located by using ancient writings that described the place.

Why were those comments removed? I hope there is someone that thought to keep those posts. The DNA results should be coming soon, as well. This article is dated March 12, 2010.

When will the DNA results for the man be made public by National Geographic?

Osafo Omane
Osafo Omane

@Distinguished One Yes, NatGeo should give Mr. Horace Butler the credit he is due regarding the information he gave NatGeo regarding this tomb.


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