Mass Graves Reveal Massacre of Maya Royalty

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
November 17, 2005
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 executions—along with the discovery of unfinished defensive walls and houses—suggest 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.

Ancient CSI

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.

Because of the scale of the discovery, the archaeology team enlisted the help of the Forensic Anthropological Foundation of Guatemala.

The scientists found bones of 31 bodies in the grave. Forensic analysis determined that victims had been killed with spears and axes. Many of the bodies had been dismembered. The bones were dated to A.D. 800.

"The deposit was sealed in wet mud, and the preservation is extraordinary," Demarest said. "These are the best-looking bones I have ever seen. We could tell that these were not war wounds but that the people had been executed."

Precious jewelry found in the grave—including jades, jaguar fang necklaces, and coast shells—indicates that the victims were nobles, possibly from the royal palace.

In a shallow grave 80 yards (73 meters) away, the researchers made another spectacular discovery: two people who appear to be the king and queen of Cancuén buried in full regalia.

Demarest says a necklace found on the king has an inscription that says in part, "Kan Maax. Holy Lord of Cancuén."

Failed Defense

In the years preceding the massacre, warfare had spread across the western region of the ancient Maya world. The unrest seems to have reached Cancuén in A.D. 800.

Unfinished construction around the city, including a system of hastily built stone and wooden palisade walls, suggests that the residents may have known that they were going to come under attack.

"The defense obviously failed," Demarest said.

While commoners may have run away or been taken captive, nobles—men, women, and children—were lined up and executed. The bodies were then deposited with some ceremony in the sacred cistern at the palace entrance, the researchers speculate.

There is no evidence that the city was conquered. Instead the assailants seem to have abandoned it after their attack.

"The massacre is an exceptionally dramatic example of the violence marking the end of royal court life and divine kingship in classic Maya civilzation," said David Freidel, a Maya expert at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

At least one Maya expert declined to comment on the discovery, citing that the findings had not yet been published in an academic journal and had not been peer reviewed.

Experts have fiercely debated the cause of the quick demise of Maya society, which once ranged from Mexico's Yucatán peninsula to Honduras.

Some of the theories about the collapse include such factors as overpopulation, drought, political conflict, and loss of the royal court.

While the massacre discovery seems to suggest that warfare played an important role, Demarest believes there is no one "silver bullet" to explain the decline of the Maya culture.

"What we are seeing [with massacres like these] is the beginning of the end," he said. "That doesn't mean they caused the collapse. We're moving away from this idea that it had to be this one dramatic reason for the collapse."

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