Scientists are slowly revealing the stories behind the remains of at least 20 people who were buried in a mass grave in the former Mayan city of Uxul, located in modern-day Mexico, some 1,400 years ago. A part of that story tells of brutal beheading and dismemberment of these men, women, and children.
The grave was first discovered in 2013 when archaeologists from the University of Bonn found a well when investigating a water supply system. Excavations carried out in collaboration with the Department for the Anthropology of the Americas revealed that of those buried, there were at least 14 men, one woman, several adolescents, and an 18-month-old infant. The group had been killed and decapitated outside of the water reservoir before being dismembered and thrown inside. Heat and cut marks suggest that the flesh had been scraped from the bones. Upon burial, individual bones of each person were placed as far apart as possible – a practice meant to be disrespectful.
"This clearly demonstrates the desire to destroy the physical unity of the individuals," said Dr Nicolaus Seefeld with the University of Bonn in a statement.
Previous research and Mayan artwork portray ritualized violence as common in ancient society. Beheading and dismemberment were often associated with displays of power during armed conflict, with victorious rulers taking elite families from their warring counterparts as prisoners of war before publicly humiliating and killing them. It was believed that these individuals may have been taken as prisoners, but Seefeld and his team did not know where the remains originated from.
Researchers from Isotope Geochemistry Laboratory of the Geophysics Institute at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) took tiny samples of tooth enamel from 13 individuals whose remains were well enough preserved to study in order to conduct a strontium isotope analysis. Strontium is a silvery metal found in nature and is often ingested with food and stored in the bones and teeth much like calcium. Strontium levels vary in certain rock and soil types and different regions can see different levels, each with their own unique characteristics.
“As the development of tooth enamel is completed in early childhood, the strontium isotope ratio indicates the region where a person grew up," said Seefeld.
It was determined that the individuals killed had lived at least 150 kilometers (95 miles) away in the southern lowlands in what is now Guatemala, though one adult and one infant were determined to be local to Uxul. Eight individuals had elaborate jade tooth jewelry or engravings in their incisors, both of which were symbols of status at the time. Uxul was one of the largest and influential Maya centers of this region, and Seefeld believes that the individuals found were likely taken as prisoners through an act of war.
“The documented actions in Uxul should therefore not be regarded as a mere expression of cruelty or brutality, but as a demonstration of power," said Seefeld.
The researchers conclude that their work provides better insight into the identity of the individuals and why they were killed, allowing a deeper look into the ancient society.