The mysterious collapse of the mighty Maya Civilization continues to intrigue scientists, anthropologists, and even the public as a whole and while there are many theories, the recent discovery of trophy skulls in Belize’s jungles hints at regional conflicts as a factor.
A recent article written by an associate professor of anthropology at Michigan State University Gabriel D. Wrobel centered on two modified skulls that were discovered inside a gravesite at one of the lesser-known sites of Pacbitun, which is located near San Antonio Village in the Cayo District. One of the skulls which had a hand-carved glyphic text, match ancient Maya depictions of trophies fashioned from either war captives or defeated foes and worn around the neck as pendants by elite warriors.
The skulls more than likely represent gruesome symbols of military might and are similar to depictions of trophy skulls worn by victorious soldiers in stone carvings and on painted ceramic vessels from other Maya sites.
Based on a physical examination of the skulls, there appeared to be drilled holes in them that either held colorful feathers, leather straps, or both. Other holes served as anchors to hold the jaws in place and suspend the cranium around the warrior’s neck while the backs were sawed off so that the skulls could lie flat on the chest.
According to Wrobel, the two skulls may help shed light on the little-understood collapse of the once-powerful Classic Maya Civilization that thrived for centuries over southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and portions of Honduras and El Salvador. Wrobel said that understanding what the skulls mean, where they were found, and who they were from could represent clues to understanding the tumultuous period and piecing it together.
What contributed to the end of the Maya Civilization?
While it in is a question that has been pondered for centuries, what is known is that the Maya empire had flourished throughout Central America, with the first major cities appearing between 750 and 500 B.C. By the eighth century, however, evidence revealed that beginning in the southern lowlands of Guatemala, Belize and Honduras the Mayas had started to abandon major cities throughout the region, leaving present-day archeologists baffled.
While Wanton said that earlier studies had focused on identifying a single cause that triggered the collapse, speculations had centered around whether it had been environmental degradation, warfare, loss of faith in leaders, and even drought. But while evidence also suggests that all the above quite certainly had taken place, none of them individually explains to researchers what had really caused the collapse.
So what really happened?
With the emergence of advanced technology, more specifically aerial LiDAR surveys, which comprise airborne laser scanning to create a 3-D point cloud model of the landscape below, archeologists now have additional evidence to study. LiDAR surveys carried out on some of the Maya cities situated in the southern lowlands uncovered quickly constructed gigantic walls, watchtowers, and other evidence suggestive that the Mayas had waged large-scale warfare for many years. Coupled with trophy skulls, and a growing list of scattered objects found in other sites in Belize, Honduras, and Mexico, Walton said that it provides evidence that the conflict may have been civil in nature, putting rising powers in the north against the established dynasties in the south.
Taking a deeper look at the skull’s social context
A deeper look at the final resting place for the Pacbintun warrior uncovered pieces of a ceramic vessel dating back to the eighth or ninth century, just prior to the site’s abandonment. According to history, it was during this same time period that Pacbitun and other Maya cities in the southern lowlands were beginning their decline. In contrast, evidence showed that the Maya cities in the north such as Yucatan Mexico rose in dominance. Artwork found in these northern cities were littered with skulls, and bones, and more often depicted war captives being killed and in some case decapitated.
Another trophy skull, inscribed with fire and animal imagery resembling northern military symbolism was found at Pakal Na, another southern site in Belize. This according to the article is suggestive that the warrior it was buried with was of northern origin and seems to indicate that the presence of northern military paraphernalia in the form of these skulls may point to a loss of control by local leaders.
Additionally, evidence suggestive of the presence of northerners in the river valleys of central Belize may have been engaged in the cocoa trade. However, according to the article archeologist argue that the geology of the northern Yucatan makes it difficult to grow the plant and thereby making it necessary to source it elsewhere.
Apart from another trophy skull that had evidence of southern origin but was discovered in the north, evidence of violent ends at several sites in the southern highlands, and evidence of the execution of one ruling family and the desecration of sacred sites and elites’ tombs seems to mark a sudden and violent end for the community ruling order.
The power dynamics conclusion
”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, ” ended Wrobel.