The butchered remains of 20 young men at a Maya pyramid in southern Mexico indicate that the site may have been a monument to the forces of death. The sacrificial victims were deposited in two distinct graves that may have been dug up to 1,200 years apart, suggesting that the macabre monument probably served the darker Maya deities for many centuries.
According to researchers from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the way in which the victims were decapitated provides clear evidence that the structure was associated with death and the gods of the underworld. It’s thought that the unfortunate individuals were deprived of their heads as a means of consecrating the pyramid and cementing its relationship with the afterlife.
Located at the Moral-Reforma archaeological site in the Yucatan Peninsula, the terrifying pyramid – known by the disproportionately dreary name Structure 18 – was most likely built in stages, with human offerings required to sanctify each additional completed section. The two mass executions are therefore thought to relate to key events in the temple’s construction.
The first of these is believed to date back to the Late Preclassic period, which lasted from around 300 BCE to 250 CE. Though the exact age of the skeletons has not yet been identified, the presence of 567 accompanying material offerings such as beaded trinkets, projectile points, and bone needles help to place the remains within this general timeframe.
Consisting of seven separate burials, this older cache contains the bones of at least 12 victims, some of which appear to have been arranged in a seated position immediately after death while others were likely relocated to the temple after first being buried elsewhere. As a result, many of these skeletons are not anatomically consistent.
A second series of 13 burials dating to the Late Classic period – which lasted from 600 to 900 CE – was also discovered at the site. “Within these 13 burials we counted eight individuals who must have been decapitated and had parts of their bodies dismembered and placed separately in order to consecrate the temple,” explained research coordinator Francisco Apolinar Cuevas Reyes in a statement.
Both mortuary deposits were made up of young adult males displaying modifications to the shape of their skulls. According to Cuevas Reyes, this “physical characteristic was deliberately achieved via the splinting of the head at a young age because it elevated the status of these individuals in pre-Columbian Maya society. Likewise, in two of the individuals from the Late Classic period we observed dental modifications through filing and jade encrusting of the front teeth.”
The researchers say that all conclusions drawn from these discoveries are preliminary, and excavation of the Moral-Reforma is currently ongoing as archaeologists attempt to piece together the gory details of what went on at the deathly pyramid.