A mass grave in an artificial cave in the Maya city of Uxul indicates the individuals buried there were decapitated and dismembered some 1,400 years ago. Researchers from the Department of Anthropology of the Americas at the University of Bonn in Germany assume the victims were either prisoners of war or nobles from Uxul, according to a press release.
Uxul is in Campeche, Mexico and archaeologists have been excavating there for the last five years.
“Aside from the large number of interred individuals, it already became apparent during the excavation that the skeletons were no longer in their original anatomical articulation,” said Nicolaus Seefeld, one of the archaeologists excavating the area. Seefeld studied the sophisticated water supply system of Uxul for his doctoral thesis and discovered the mass grave. The dismembered skulls were found scattered around the cave, in no relation to the rest of the bodies. Researchers even found the jaws had been separated from the heads.
Upon inspection, they discovered that in some cases, legs and hands had been completely preserved. “This observation excluded the possibility that this mass grave was a so-called secondary burial, in which the bones of the deceased are placed at a new location,” Seefeld said.
The scientists said in the release that it was the spatial pattern of the bones that told them the individuals had been decapitated and dismembered. “The observed hatchet marks on the cervical vertebra are a clear indication of decapitation,” Seefeld said. He went on to report that a number of the skulls showed signs of cutting with sharp objects, possibly stone hatchets.
The researchers were able to identify 13 men and two women aged 18 to 42 from the 24 sets of remains. Some of the deceased also had jade tooth inserts—a sign of high social status.
Researchers aren’t sure if they were prisoners of war from another Maya city that were sacrificed in Uxul or nobles from Uxul. Further testing will determine that.
“The discovery of the mass grave proves that the dismemberment of prisoners of war and opponents often represented in Maya art was in fact practiced,” Dr. Nikolai Grube said in the release.