NY Times, November 17, 2005
A 1,200-Year-Old Murder Mystery in Guatemala
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
Archaeologists and forensic experts in Guatemala have made a grisly
discovery among the ruins of an ancient Maya city, Cancu=E9n.
In explorations during the summer, they found as many as 50 skeletons
in a sacred pool and other places, victims of murder and dismemberment
in a war that destroyed the city and, it seems, served as a beginning
of the collapse of the classic period of the Maya civilization. The
precipitous decline of the Maya is one of the enduring mysteries of
As the scale of the massacre became apparent, the archaeologists
called on Guatemalan forensic investigators for their experience with
mass burials of modern war. The team, established in 1996 to excavate
the mass graves from Guatemala's civil war, has also analyzed sites in
Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda.
Arthur A. Demarest, an archaeologist at Vanderbilt University who
directed the excavations, described the discovery yesterday in an
announcement by the National Geographic Society and in an interview by
telephone from Guatemala City.
"This is probably the most important thing I've ever discovered," said
Dr. Demarest, who has explored Maya ruins since the 1980's.
In a gruesome departure from what had been normal Maya warfare, he
said, the conquerors - not yet identified - did not spare the city to
rule it as a vassal state.
Around A.D. 800, they methodically destroyed the palace and monuments
and rounded up the king and queen of Cancu=E9n and members of the court,
men, women and children. They killed them en masse, mostly by lance
thrusts and ax blows to the neck or head. Most of their mutilated
bodies were dumped into the palace pool or buried in shallow graves.
"After this tragic and violent event, unlike any yet discovered at a
classic Maya site," Dr. Demarest said, "the city of Cancu=E9n was
completely abandoned, as were many other cities downstream" on the
The river was a major trade route through the jungle and the source of
Cancu=E9n's wealth in the eighth century. Within 10 years of Cancu=E9n's
fall, the other river cities were abandoned, with the exception of
Seibal. The displacement of people, Dr. Demarest said, had
repercussions throughout the Maya lands, eventually contributing to
the end of the classic period, which extended from 300 to about 900.
David A. Freidel, a specialist in Maya archaeology at Southern
Methodist University who was not involved in the research, agreed that
the extermination of a vanquished royal family and nobility was a
sharp departure in Maya warfare in the classic period. A defeated
ruler might be executed, he added, but not the entire palace court.
"This is the kind of extreme violence that is characteristic of Maya
civilization in the collapse period," Dr. Freidel said.
The initial discovery of the jumble of thousands of bones was made by
two Guatemalan archaeologists, Sylvia Alvarado of the University of
San Carlos and Tom=E1s Barrientos, co-director of the Cancu=E9n project,
who is also affiliated with Vanderbilt.
A special grant from the National Geographic Society has enabled the
project to continue the forensic studies. The research will include
DNA tests of the remains to determine if, as the archaeologists
suspect, most of the victims were members of the extended royal
The investigators have concluded that the bones uncovered so far in
the mud at the pool belonged to at least 31 individuals. The king and
queen were found in shallow graves 80 yards away. More than a dozen
other skeletons, some also dismembered, were dug up north of the
The spring-fed pool, lined with masonry and covering 90 square yards,
was part of a network of channels in the sprawling palace complex.
They were presumably sacred bodies of circulating water.
By murdering the elite and placing their broken bodies in the
ceremonial waters, Dr. Demarest speculated, the conquerors were
"killing the city ritually."
Another peculiarity, he noted, was the respect the victors seemed to
have shown for their victims. They took the trouble to bury them with
their finest robes and adornments, an abundance of jades, necklaces of
jaguar fangs and rare shells.
The king, Kan Maax, was buried in full regalia and a necklace bearing
his name and title. He was the son of Cancu=E9n's greatest ruler, Taj
Chan Ahk, who had died in 795.
"What we have here is a shift in studies of the Maya collapse," Dr.
Demarest said. "Broad theories are being replaced by specifics turned
up by archaeology."