Trophies made from human skulls hint at regional conflicts around the time of Maya civilization’s mysterious collapse

Two trophy skulls, recently discovered by archaeologists in the jungles of Belize, may help shed light on the little-understood collapse of the once powerful Classic Maya civilization.

The defleshed and painted human skulls, meant to be worn around the neck as pendants, were buried with a warrior over a thousand years ago at Pacbitun, a Maya city. They likely represent gruesome symbols of military might: war trophies made from the heads of defeated foes.

Fragment of the Pacbitun trophy skull. Drawings by Christophe Helmke; Laserscan model by Jesse Pruitt, CC BY-ND
Both skulls are similar to depictions of trophy skulls worn by victorious soldiers in stone carvings and on painted ceramic vessels from other Maya sites.

A carving from the Maya city of Yaxchilan depicts the local ruler forcing a subdued captive to kiss the shield of his captor. At the small of his back, the victorious king wears a decorated trophy skull. Drawing by Ian Graham, CC BY-ND
Drilled holes likely held feathers, leather straps or both. Other holes served to anchor the jaws in place and suspend the cranium around the warrior’s neck, while the backs were sawed off to make the skulls lie flat on the wearer’s chest.

Flecks of red paint decorate one of the jaws. It’s carved with glyphic writing that includes what my collaborator Christophe Helmke, an expert on Maya writing, believes is the first known instance of the Maya term for “trophy skull.”

What do these skulls — where they were found and who they were from — tell us about the end of a powerful political system that thrived for centuries, covering southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and portions of Honduras and El Salvador? My colleagues and I are thinking about them as clues to understanding this tumultuous period.

What ended a civilization?

The vast Maya empire flourished throughout Central America, with the first major cities appearing between 750 and 500 B.C. But beginning in the southern lowlands of Guatemala, Belize and Honduras in the eighth century A.D., people abandoned major Maya cities throughout the region. Archaeologists are fascinated by the mystery of what we call “the collapse” of this once powerful empire.

Earlier studies focused on identifying a single cause of the collapse. Could it have been environmental degradation resulting from the increasing demands of overpopulated cities? Warfare? Loss of faith in leaders? Drought?

All of these certainly took place, but none on its own fully explains what researchers know about the collapse that gradually swept through the landscape over the course of a century and a half. Today, archaeologists acknowledge the complexity of what happened.

Clearly violence and warfare contributed to the end of some southern lowland cities, as evidenced by quickly constructed fortifications identified by aerial LiDAR surveys at a number of sites.

Trophy skulls, together with a growing list of scattered finds from other sites in Belize, Honduras and Mexico, provide intriguing evidence that the conflict may have been civil in nature, pitting rising powers in the north against the established dynasties in the south.