BELIZE Be. (The Conversation) – Archaeologists in the jungles of Belize recently discovered two “trophy skulls”. This significant event may help shed light on the very little-understood collapse of the once mighty and powerful Maya civilization.

The human skulls were defleshed, painted and ornamented, meant to be worn around the neck as pendants. This was found in a burial ground more than a thousand years old at the Maya city of Pacbitun, where a warrior was buried with it. The article has multiple symbols apparently of military might: war trophies made from the heads of defeated foes.

Both skulls are similar to depictions of trophy skulls worn by victorious soldiers in stone carvings and on painted ceramic vessels from other Maya sites.

Fragment of the Pacbitun trophy skull. Drawings by Christophe Helmke; Laserscan model by Jesse Pruitt, CC BY-ND

 

A carving from the Maya city of Yaxchilan depicts the local ruler forcing a subdued captive to kiss the shield of his captor. At the small of his back, the victorious king wears a decorated trophy skull. Drawing by Ian Graham, CC BY-ND

Specks of what seems to have been a red pigmentation decorate one of the jaws. It’s carved with glyphic writing that includes what Christophe Helmke, an expert on Maya writing, believes is the first known instance of the Maya term for “trophy skull.”

The drilled holes, most likely held feathers, leather straps or both. Other holes served to anchor the jaws in place and suspend the cranium around the warrior’s neck, while the backs were sawed off to make the skulls lie flat on the wearer’s chest.

So… What does these skulls tell investigators about the end of one of the world’s most majestic, powerful and advanced civilizations that flourished for centuries and ruled over southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and portions of Honduras and El Salvador?

The end of a millenary culture
The Maya first major cities appearing between the 750 and 500 B.C. in the southern lowlands of Guatemala, Belize and Honduras in the eighth century A.D., people abandoned major Maya cities throughout the region.

Archaeologists to this day, are captivated by the mystery of “the collapse” of this once mighty civilization. Previous studies have focused on identifying the single cause or multiple causes of the collapse. Amongst the theories investigators have develop throughout the years we can find hypothesis such as environmental degradation, overpopulation, droughts, disease and warfare.

Research has found that actually all of those took place, but none on its own fully explains the collapse that gradually swept through, over the course of a century and a half. That is why today, archaeologists recognize the complexity of what happened.

Trophy skulls, together with a growing list of scattered finds from other sites in Belize, Honduras and Mexico, provide intriguing evidence that the conflict may have been civil in nature, pitting rising powers in the north against the established dynasties in the south.

Ceramic vessels found alongside the Pacbitun warrior and his trophy skull date to the eighth or ninth century, just prior to the site’s abandonment.

During this period, Pacbitun and other Maya cities in the southern lowlands were beginning their decline, while Maya political centers in the north, in what is now Mexico´s Yucatan Península, rose to dominance. But the exact timing and nature of this power transition remains uncertain.

In many of these northern cities, art from this period is notoriously militaristic, abounding with skulls and bones and often showing war captives being killed and decapitated.

Portions of the Pakal Na trophy skull, found in the south with a northern warrior. Patricia A. McAnany, CC BY-ND

At Pakal Na, another southern site in Belize, a similar trophy skull was discovered, but this one had inscribed with fire and animal imagery resembling northern military symbolism, suggesting a northern origin of the warrior it was buried with. The presence of northern military paraphernalia in the form of these skulls may point to a loss of control by local leaders.

Archaeologist Patricia McAnany has claimed that the presence of northerners in the valleys of central Belize may be related to the cacao trade, the plant from which chocolate is made. Cacao was an important ingredient in rituals, and a symbol of wealth and power of Maya elites. However, the geology of the northern Yucatan makes it difficult to grow cacao on a large scale, necessitating the establishment of a reliable supply source from elsewhere.

Other evidence at a number of sites in the southern highlands seems to mark a sudden and violent end for the community’s ruling order. Archaeologists have found evidence for the execution of one ruling family and desecration of sacred sites and elite tombs.

At the regional capital site of Tipan Chen Uitz, approximately 30 kilometers east of Pacbitun, researchers found remains of several carved stone monuments that seem to have been intentionally smashed and strewn across the front of the main ceremonial pyramid.

Another portion of the Pacbitun trophy skull. Drawing by Shawn Morton, CC BY-ND

Archaeologists are not only interested in identifying the timing and the social and environmental factors associated with collapse, which vary in different regions, but they are also also trying to figure out how specific communities and their leaders responded to the unique combinations of these stresses they faced.

While the evidence from just a handful of trophy skulls does not conclusively show that sites in parts of the southern lowlands were being overrun by northern warriors, it does at least point to the role of violence and, potentially, warfare as contributing to the end of the established political order in central Belize.

These gruesome artifacts lend an intriguing element to the sweep of events that resulted in the end of one of the most scientifically advanced cultures of its time.

 

Author.- Gabriel D. WrobelThe Conversation
Associate Professor of Anthropology, Michigan State University

 

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