Trophies Made Of Vanquished Enemy Skulls Highlight The Collapse Of The Maya Civilization

An aerial view of Lamanai Maya ruins in the tropical jungle of Belize. Wollertz/Shutterstock

The archaeological relics of the Maya civilization make one thing very clear: do not mess with us, unless you want to be made into our latest fashion accessory.

A recent archaeological survey has unearthed two wearable ornaments carved out of human skulls in the jungle of Pacbitun, Belize. As reported in the journal Latin American Antiquity, the research team believes that the skulls could shed light on regional rivalries and power struggles in the Maya civilization.

Known as the "Pacbitun trophy skulls", the morbid ornaments were most likely worn around the neck as extravagant pendants. It appears that a great deal of blood, sweat, and hard work went into the crafting of these objects. Scrapes and scratch marks show that the skull was first defleshed with a sharp blade, while two holes were drilled into each end in order to anchor a rope to suspend the skull. One of the skull trophies was then carved with an ornate design and painted with red pigment.

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

The Maya are practically inseparable from gory rituals and skulls in many imaginations. Nevertheless, archaeologists actually know very little about the meaning behind skull trophies. At some sites, rulers are depicted wearing the skulls of their own ancestors as ornaments, however, the Pacbitun trophy skulls are believed to have expressed something much more sinister.

Just as other imagery has suggested, this new study argues elite warriors might have worn the trophies, fashioned out of the skulls of their vanquished enemies, to express power and victory. Skull trophies from other Maya sites in Belize have been decorated with fire and animal imagery, symbols commonly associated with warriors and the military.

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

This idea neatly fits into the wider social context of the time. The skull trophies date to the eighth or ninth century CE, a time when Pacbitun and other Maya cities in the southern lowlands were losing their grip on power, while the northern cities attempted to take advantage of this power void and upped their aggression. Eventually, in the midsts of this carnage, the once powerful civilization eventually suffered a mysterious collapse.

While the reason for the collapse remains uncertain, this relic perhaps serves as a gruesome memento of its descent into chaos and ruin.

“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,” lead author Gabriel D Wrobel, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University, wrote in an article for The Conversation

“These grisly artifacts lend an intriguing element to the sweep of events that resulted in the end of one of the richest, most sophisticated, scientifically advanced cultures of its time.”

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