The remains of an elite Maya female with an arrowhead lodged in her shoulder blade provide speculative evidence that high-ranking women participated in pre-Columbian warfare. After analyzing the strength of the ancient corpse’s upper arm, the authors of an as yet un-peer-reviewed study suggest that she may have been a proficient archer, with skills matching those of male warriors.
Seeking to determine how wars were fought in the Late Postclassic Maya era, which ran from 1200 to 1450 CE, the researchers assessed the biomechanical properties of three skeletons found at the Maya capital of Mayapán in the Yucatan peninsula. Previous analyses had already identified one of these skeletons as that of an elite male warrior, while the other two were attributed to an elite female and a commoner female.
Unlike the low-ranking woman, the two elites were both found face-down and appeared to have been shot. In the case of the male, researchers found an obsidian arrowhead embedded within the ribcage, while a chert arrowhead had punctured the shoulder of the elite female.
Of course, being shot doesn’t necessarily make someone a warrior, which is why the study authors decided to test the load-bearing capacities of the humerus of all three skeletons. Using models to recreate the strain generated by archery and spear-throwing, the team set out to determine how well conditioned each individual was to the demands of warfare.
Because archery places a significant load on both the bow arm and the draw arm, seasoned archers develop high levels of strength in both arms. Given that elite males are thought to have been the principal Maya combatants, the researchers hypothesized that the male humerus would exhibit the least amount of stress under loading conditions associated with both the bow arm and the draw arm.
Results indicated that the male upper arm bones were better adapted for archery than those of the commoner female, but not those of the elite woman. According to the authors, this finding implies that the high-ranking male and female “were most likely at relatively similar levels of proficiency if they engaged in archery.”
“This provides support for the notion that this elite female could have participated in warfare,” they say.
When recreating the loading conditions for spear-throwing, the researchers found that even the commoner female’s humerus displayed a similar level of strain to that of the elite male. However, given her clear lack of practice at archery and the fact that Maya warfare is strongly associated with high-ranking individuals, it’s unlikely that this woman of lowly status would have been allowed on the battlefield.
This research is still awaiting peer review and is currently available as a preprint at bioRxiv.