Ancient Maya burned their dead rulers to mark a new dynasty

An ornament found with the burned remains of royal people at a Maya temple

Dr Christina T. Halperin

Around 1200 years ago in a Maya city, the bones of several royal people were burned and unceremoniously discarded within the foundations of a new temple. These recently discovered remains may have marked a fiery political transition at a time of upheaval in the Maya world.

“When we first started excavating, we had no idea what this was,” says Christina Halperin at the University of Montreal. She and her colleagues made the discovery in 2022 at the archaeological site of Ucanal, located in present-day Guatemala.

The researchers found the deposit mixed in with rocks beneath a pyramid temple structure. The deposit contained the bones of at least four people, along with thousands of ornamental fragments and beads. The bones of two individuals and many of the ornaments showed evidence of burning at high temperature.

It was clear this wasn’t a normal set of remains, says Halperin. But it was the nosepiece and obsidian eye discs of a burial mask that made clear they were royal individuals. She says sifting these clues from the ash “took forever”.

Despite their apparent highborn origins, the royals’ burned remains were not carefully buried but were instead “dumped there”, says Halperin. Radiocarbon dating of the bones and ash also indicated at least one individual had died up to a century before the remains were burned between AD 773 and 881. This suggests the bones were exhumed from a previous burial and then burned.

This timing corresponds with the rise of a new leader at Ucanal named Papmalil, an outsider who came to power amid a wider unravelling of Maya society. Within that context, the researchers think the deposit may be the product of what is known as the “fire-entering rite”, a Maya ritual that dramatically marked the destruction and end of the previous dynasty and the preeminence of the next. “This rite seems to be both an act of veneration, but also an act of destruction,” says Halperin.

Simon Martin at the University of Pennsylvania says the discovery provides vivid physical evidence for the theory that influence from outside cultures contributed to radical shifts in Maya society during this period. “These are the ancestors. These are the forebears,” he says. “To do this kind of thing is really tearing all of that up.”

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