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Archaeologists Uncover Eight Sacrificed Bodies at a 2,000-Year-Old Mayan Pyramid

South facade of Structure 18. Photo: Moral-Reform Project.

Mexican archaeologists have unearthed the remains of eight young men in a 2,000-year-old Mayan pyramid. The finding sheds new light on Mayan practices and beliefs, giving archaeologists a unique opportunity to study the ancient civilization's sacrificial rituals. This discovery marks an important step forward in understanding the complex practices of one of the world's most fascinating ancient civilizations.

Ancient Rituals Revealed at a 2000-Year-Old Mayan Pyramid

Mexican archaeologists have found the buried remains of eight young men who were apparently decapitated as an offering in a 2,000-year-old consecration ritual at a Mayan temple. The discovery, by archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), of a total of twenty human burials dedicated to a temple-pyramid in the Moral-Reforma Archaeological Zone, offers insight into the connection of this construction to death or a Mayan underworld deity due to the decapitation marks on some of the skulls.

The Moral-Reforma Archaeological Zone: A Mayan Classic Period Site

The Moral-Reforma Archaeological Zone is a Mayan site from the Classic period, located in the municipality of Balancán, in the Mexican state of Tabasco, on the floodplains of the San Pedro Mártir river. The site was an essential enclave for navigation, cultural exchange, and merchandise between the Mayan peoples of the Guatemalan Petén and those settled on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico during the Late Classic period (600-900 AD).

2000-Year-Old Mayan Pyramid

The team coordinator, Francisco Apolinar Cuevas Reyes, explains that between January and March, excavation and consolidation work was carried out on the temple pyramid called Structure 18. This structure is located in the eastern square of the ancient city and consists of a basement with staggered bodies, delimited by walls with slight slopes, crowned by a building with a bay, and provided with a staircase attached to the south façade.

Discovering Two Groups of Burials: Tracing Different Time Periods

The two groups of burials were recorded when exploring 12 meters south of the stairway and corresponded to the two moments of construction of the building. Preliminarily, the first group is considered to belong to the Late Classic period, while the second group, with 567 pieces such as shell and jade beads that must have formed sartals, shell rings, projectile points, vessels, perforated shells, and bone needles, is believed to be two millennia old, linking it to the Late Preclassic (300 BC-250 AD).

Distinctive Features: Young Male Adults with Deformed Skulls

Regardless of their temporality, the researcher highlights that the skulls recovered in both mortuary complexes are mostly those of young male adults and show oblique tabular deformation, a physical feature obtained intentionally by splinting the head at an early age because it elevated the status of individuals in pre-Columbian Mayan society. Two individuals from the Late Classic also display dental modification through filing and jade inlays in the frontal pieces.

The Hypothesis: Connecting Structure 18 to Death or a Mayan Underworld Deity

The hypothesis of the link between Structure 18 and death or a Mayan underworld deity is supported by the particularities of the burials. The Late Classic group’s skeletal remains were found between 35 and 57 centimeters deep and comprised 13 burials consisting of male human skulls, jaw fragments, and limb bones. Of these burials, eight individuals were likely decapitated and had their body parts dismembered and placed separately to consecrate the temple.

Meanwhile, the Late Preclassic group’s seven individual and multiple burials were detected between 60 and 87 centimeters deep, corresponding to the bones of at least 12 individuals. Some were arranged in a seated and lateral right position at the time of death, while others were taken to the site after a first burial (secondary burials), resulting in several skeletons lacking anatomical relationships.

Implications of the Discovery: Unraveling Ancient Mayan Practices

The discovery of these burials sheds light on the ancient Mayan practices and beliefs surrounding death and the underworld. The decapitation marks on the skulls, as well as the placement of the remains, suggest that the temple pyramid at Moral-Reforma Archaeological Zone was linked to death or an underworld deity. This discovery contributes to a better understanding of the rituals and beliefs that shaped the lives of the Mayan peoples over two millennia ago.

As archaeologists continue to excavate and analyze the remains found at the Moral-Reforma Archaeological Zone, more details about these ancient rituals and the culture of the Mayan civilization during different time periods will likely be revealed, enriching our knowledge of this intriguing ancient society.