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

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

Photograph courtesy Nicolaus Seefeld, University of Bonn

A mass grave filled with bones.

Human remains litter the floor of a cave at the site of Uxul. Photograph courtesy Nicolaus Seefeld, University of Bonn

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published September 11, 2013

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.

(Related: "Maya Prince's Tomb Found With Rare Drinking Vessel.")

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.

25 comments
Bayron Jakael Reyes Membreño
Bayron Jakael Reyes Membreño

es impresionante lo mucho que se ha avanzado en la investigación de esta civilización, son estos pequeños detalles los que permiten reconstruir de una manera mas fiel la vida de los mayas en sus ultimos años...


Cynthia C.
Cynthia C.

We know from Conquistador accounts that this type of sacrifice was going on in the Aztec world.  The idea had to come from somewhere, and even in Europe during the time period 500-800 deposed and rival rulers were summarily executed.  I am thinking the Maya traditions got perpetuated into Aztec customs.  Same basic peoples I think.  They just moved out of their original neighborhoods when conditions made the settlements and cities untenable.

Søren Henriksen
Søren Henriksen

I think that scientist are focusing to much on sacrifice, They seem to see sacrifices everywhere in the maya world. Sins there is absolutely no written source telling about sacrifices I think that the maya made only a very few sacrifices of human beings. In this case according to the above information there seems to be no evidence at all that its a sacrifice.

It looks much more like a plain execution. And thats another thing completely. And I wood not be surprised if it happens to be soldiers from Uxul. And therefore there own soldiers. That wood give sense. Because thats what powerful nations does to there own soldiers all over the world when they are deserting from the military. So my gees is thats its deserters who has been decapitated as simple criminals.

Baay Tafa
Baay Tafa

Shouldn't you say INTERNATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC?

It's really WORLD WIDE..........!!!!!!!!!!???????

Corey Siwiec
Corey Siwiec

Travelling to  Belize in November and staying on Ambergris Caye.  Has anyone been to Mayan sites down there and have any recommendations?

Jeanne Jussila
Jeanne Jussila

I think James Mitchener wrote about this type of scenario in "Carribean".  Great book and Mr. Mitchener a great historian.  I met him writing "Alaska" in Fairbanks in the early '80s.  Many great conversations while he sat out in front of the Rassmussen Library at UAF.

Gangadharan Pulingat
Gangadharan Pulingat

Human civilization in different times and places are very interesting to read and Mayan civilization and history also so much interesting which gives us an insight of human history and its movement to this century .

Søren Henriksen
Søren Henriksen

@Cynthia C. 

First. Can u come with an example of scraficel evedence. All sorces about Aztec masssacrifice has a lack af credebility. So let me here one example - and I will pin it down. 

Second. The maya people did not migrate to the mexican valley and mix with the Aztecs. There is evedence that the maya people have lived in the Youcatan  for at least 13.000 years. They speak a complete different languis and the Nahuatles wich the Aztecs belong to comes from north america. 

But basically I think that the story about sacrfices among the ameindiens is very much overdirven. I really havent found any sorces that was truth worthy. Exept from a few oferings of young girls and some children. So I am not saying that sacrifice never happened. But I do not belive that it happened very often. 

Patrick Walker
Patrick Walker

@Corey Siwiec 

I prefer Caye Caulker myself, it's less commercialised. If visiting mayan sites in Belize, boat trips to Lamanai and Altun Ha were advertised at the hotels last time I was there. If possible, try to get to Xunantunich near San Ignacio on the Belize side of the Border with Guatemala. A good "guide" book is "Maya Cities and Sacred Caves: a Guide to the Maya sites of Belize" by Jaime Awe. Before going to Caracol, take local advice as it is pretty remote and close to the Guatemalan Border there used to be a sporadic problem with Bandidos but that may have been solved by now

Jerry McEwen
Jerry McEwen

@Corey Siwiec Not familiar with Ambergris Caye.  If you are near Belize City, a nice, close site is Altun Ha, about 30 minutes away. Also check out the Jade museum in Belize City.  If you can get to Tikal in Guatemala, it is a World Heritage Site, know as the Paris of the Mayan Empire.  It is spectacular.

Kevin Cothren
Kevin Cothren

@Corey Siwiec If you'll be staying on Ambergris for your whole trip, I recommend a trip to Lamanai.  The boat ride to the mainland and the boat ride up the New River is excellent. The ruins are well preserved and the site has a great museum.  It's an all-day affair, but well worth the time and money.  Most other Belizean ruins are more accesssible from Belize City on the mainland.   

Kevin Cothren
Kevin Cothren

@Corey Siwiec If you're spending all your time on Ambergris, I recommend the day trip up the New River to Lamanai.  It's a well preserved site with a great museum, and the ride to the mainland and up the river to the site is great.   Most of the other Maya sites in Belize are more accessible from Belize and the mainland.  On Ambergris, don't miss the Jambel Jerk Restaurant.

Nina Phillips
Nina Phillips

@Corey Siwiec Yes! I lived there for 3 months while in college. If possible, go to Cha Chen Ha & Lamanai (get there by boat) INCREDIBLE RUINS - ENJOY!

Frederick Armayor
Frederick Armayor

Research Tikal near Lake Miraflores. It is in the Peten area of Guatemala fairly close to Belize.

The wife and I were there in the late 60's. Very impressive. Look for the book "Popo Vuh, Titles of the Lords of Totonicopan" btw my spelling may be incorrect.

Have fun and take plenty of photos. Look for the butterflies and birds.

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