Burned remains of Mayan kings marked the rise of a new leader, study says

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In an ancient Mayan temple pyramid in Guatemala, archaeologists recently discovered the scorched bones of at least four adults who likely belonged to a royal lineage. According to new research, the burning represented a deliberate and possibly public desecration of their remains.

The bones offer a rare glimpse of deliberate corpse destruction in Mayan culture to commemorate dramatic political changes.

All remains were of adults and scientists identified three of the individuals as male. Two were between 21 and 35 years old, and one was between 40 and 60 years old, researchers reported Thursday in the journal Antiquity. Among the bones were thousands of burned objects – whole and in pieces – including body ornaments made of greenstone (green minerals, including jade), pendants made of mammal teeth, shell beads, mosaics and weapons. Their wealth and abundance indicated the royal status of the people in the tomb.

But the burning of artifacts and remains was unusual for the royal family, as was their placement in this pyramid chamber. The revelation sheds light on the rise of a new type of leader who likely redefined power at a time of societal transformation, the study authors said.

Ritual desecration of bones and royal attributes

Scientists found the burned bones and grave goods in 2022 at the bottom of a room beneath a temple, beneath a tangle of construction materials. The burial was under about 1.5-meter-tall stone blocks typically used for facade structures – an unexpected arrangement for people of royal descent, said lead study author Dr. Christina T. Halperin, associate professor of anthropology at the university. of Montreal.

Typically, Mayan societies kept royal remains in accessible areas where visitors could make offerings. By comparison, this room “doesn’t have all the signs you would normally expect at a royal funeral,” Halperin said. “They just dumped it in this one spot. And then they threw all the building materials on top of it.”

The shrinking and warping of the charred, broken bones indicated that they had been burned in a massive inferno at a temperature of more than 800 degrees Celsius. Radiocarbon dating – which analyzes the decay rates of carbon isotopes to determine an object’s age – showed that the burning occurred around 773 to 881. However, the analysis also showed that the people had died decades earlier; possibly as much as a century before their skeletons were burned, suggesting the fire was linked to events that occurred long after their deaths, the scientists wrote.

“This is a fascinating deposit of burnt human remains and precious objects clearly associated with royalty,” said Dr. Stephen Houston, professor of anthropology and history of art and architecture at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, said in an email to CNN.

“Halperin is one of our most talented field workers,” said Houston, who studies ancient Mayan culture but was not involved in the research. “This paper illustrates how we should interpret unusual remains,” he added.

Fire illuminated the rise of a ‘foreign’ leader

Researchers discovered the remains at a site called Ucanal, about 250 miles north of Guatemala City. The ancient metropolis was the capital of the Maya’s K’anwitznal kingdom, and during Ucanal’s peak, from about 630 to 1000, city settlements covered about 16 square miles.

Around the early ninth century, when the remains were burned, excised Mayan records described the deeds of a new ruler named Papmalil. The name did not appear in previous engravings, “and may have been of foreign origin,” the study said.

Unlike the royal family that came before him, Papmalil’s official title — “ochk’in kaloomte” or “Western overlord” — was associated with military leaders, Halperin said. Major changes in political alliances, the dismantling of old, elite monuments and the creation of new public buildings also marked this historical period. A ceremonial burning of the bones of previous rulers may have highlighted the shift in leadership, the researchers reported.

Ritual desecration of royal remains by fire was not unknown in Mayan culture. The Mayans even had a term for it: “och-i k’ak’ tu-muk-il, ‘the fire entered his/her grave,’” the researchers wrote. However, there were no scorch marks in the room where the bones and artifacts were found, indicating that the burning took place elsewhere.

“It could have been burned in their original tomb itself; it could have been burned in a public square,” Halperin said. But wherever the remains were scorched, a fire of that magnitude would not have gone unnoticed.

“It was such an extraordinary fire that the general public must have been aware of it,” she said. After the fire, the placing of blackened remains in the great temple pyramid would likely have been part of other ceremonies commemorating Papmalil’s rise to power.

Evolving Mayan society

Finding ancient Mayan evidence pointing to transformative social change “is really exciting,” Halperin said.

“We know so little about the politics happening today, so it’s an important event that helps us recognize a political transition. It really highlights that political dynasties have indeed collapsed. But there is also a renewal and reworking of a society in different parts of the Mayan world.”

This enigmatic collection of burnt bones and royal artifacts, dumped in a room and covered in filler material, “is nicely elucidated by ritual links to practices known from Mayan hieroglyphs and to the arrival of an exalted, if foreign, person in historical records” , Houston said. . “Broader excavations at Ucanal may reveal other ripples in this shift of dynasties, perhaps in the form of buildings burned or rapid changes in artifacts.”

The discovery also provides insights into the persistence and continuity of Mayan culture, Halperin added.

“It underlines the fact that Mayan societies did not end when their political systems changed,” she said.

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