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Burial practices of the Maya changed over the course of time. In the late Preclassic period , people were buried in a flexed position, later the dead were laid to rest in an extended position. In the late Classic period , the elite constructed vaulted tombs, and some rulers ordered the construction of large burial complexes.

In the Postclassic period , cremation became more common. The Maya believe that the soul is bound to the body at birth. Only death or sickness can part the body and soul, with death being the permanent parting. To them, there is an afterlife that the soul reaches after death. This contact can be used at certain times in the season, or when certain family matters pertain to the ancestors.

Understanding the perception of what the deceased do in their afterlife can give ideas towards what rituals need to be performed and what types of items one must be buried with in order to successfully navigate the afterlife. The aspect of reincarnation is one strongly mentioned in Mayan beliefs and religion. The Popol Vuh gives importance to the Maize deity, and how the Mayan people themselves descended from maize people created by this god.

Interactive Digs - Cahal Pech, Belize - Archaeological Institute of America

In the tale, the maize god retreats to the underworld and with two hero twins battling the monsters and lords of the place, makes way back to the earthen world. He is reborn again, dies, and on and on the cycle continues. In this aspect, it is believed by the Mayans that the Earth itself is a living being. As they came from corn, consuming corn or having sex then brings one closer to the earth.

The concept of the afterlife, or Xibalba , differs between the Mayan ethnic groups. Many have a generalized belief of all souls going to the afterlife, being reincarnated or having another role to participate in after death, but these ideas change dramatically with the rise of Christianity. With that came the idea of Xibalba being a location of punishment. The longer one spent in Xibalba, the worse a life they led while living. With this belief, heaven became a paradise for many to strive for. The Chontal of Tabasco are an example of this.

To the Awakateko and the Chuj , the ancestors remain in contact and have the ability to affect the affairs of the living even in death.

The Awakateko believed that the afterlife is a place where all ancestors remain, and that there is nowhere to pass on to. If one does not follow these contracts, the ancestor can plague the one bound to the contract with illness or misfortune. To Them, they can contact their ancestors at altars, caves, or places connected to Mayan societies. The association of caves to the underworld is one intertwined with the older Mayan civilization and is an aspect continued by the Chuj people.

There are other ethnic groups that believe ritual items are needed in order to make the journey into the afterlife. The Lakandon bury their people facing the sun, and wrapped in a tunic and hammock. Often a dog was ritually sacrificed, or an effigy buried along with the deceased in order to complete this task. Other ethnic groups believed that the spirits of the dead still had tasks to complete in the afterlife. Against the wishes of her family, she enrolled at the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City and has lived in Mexico ever since.

Back then, few people were interested in the bones of the ancient Maya; Mexican archaeology was about temples, pottery and jade masks. Those who did study bones typically collected only the most basic information.

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Tiesler was introducing a field often called taphonomy, which was gaining popularity in Europe at the time, and goes beyond classifying bones by trying to reconstruct the body that once hung from them. But the practice had never been applied to ancient Mesoamericans. She began looking through Mexican museums at various collections of skulls, which she considered the most interesting parts of the body. Archaeologists who study the Maya assumed that the practice had something to do with religion, but knew little more than that. Vera Tiesler examines the remains of a person buried in Mexico during early colonial times.

Tiesler noticed that certain regions tended to have specific head styles. Over time, that shape became popular, and dominated the late Classic period 1. She, along with others, found a possible reason, based on Maya traditions in colonial times. The ancient Maya saw babies as not-yet human, and at risk of losing their essence through a few points in their skulls, she says.

Death and the Classic Maya Kings

By shaping the head, the Maya kept the essence in place 2. By the time Tiesler got her PhD in , she was already fleshing out much of ancient Maya culture and soon began excavating royal tombs. She found that their relatively luxurious lifestyle gave them premature osteoporosis, visible in their thinning bones.

Their teeth were barely worn from eating soft, decadent food their whole lives 3. She found that he had a disfigured upper jaw with teeth that were dislodged and had then healed at angles, possibly from a blow to the face during battle, given that he was eager to show it off. The Snakes were a line of kings who moved into the Maya world in and, over years, built the closest thing the Maya ever saw to an empire. Credit: Alamy. The first of these, Sky Witness, was found in a moderately humble grave, shared with a handful of other elite warriors who died in battle.

Tiesler had very little time to inspect him, but found his skull speckled with deep injuries — some on top of previously healed ones. His shield arm was mangled from numerous heavy blows, and he could barely have used it by the time he died, in his early 30s. All this fits the image in snippets of writing from across the region that describe a brilliant military leader who toppled the ruling city of Tikal and establish the Snakes as the dominant force in the region.

When Tiesler and other researchers excavated the king, they found him opulently arrayed in a chamber with a jade mask alongside a young woman and a child sacrificed at the same time. From her studies of his bones, Tiesler found that he was portly, bordering on obese, and in his 50s when he died. Like Pakal, his teeth showed that he spent his life eating soft food such as tamales and sipping a chocolate and honey drink popular among the elites 4.

One carving shows him as a fit man, athletically playing a Mesoamerican ball game. But Tiesler found that Fiery Claw had a painful disease that fused several vertebrae together, meaning the game would have been dangerous to play, and suggesting that the carving was propaganda.

These kinds of details do not change the basic plot line of Maya history, but they do fill out its characters and hint at what their lives were like. Her lab has compiled a database of 12, burials, 6, of which she and her colleagues worked on directly. Her university alone houses the remains of more than 2, individuals from ancient, colonial and modern times, most of which she had a hand in uncovering. Tiesler enjoys a unique position in Mexican academia.

After centuries of watching antiquities fly north, along with all the credit, the authorities have become reticent to allow foreign archaeologists to do large projects in the Maya area. She pairs this multiculturalism with a ravenous appetite for research and boundless energy. This came in helpful when she dug into her favourite topic: human sacrifice. A skeleton from early colonial times in Mexico. When Tiesler examined the bones, she found a sternum with deep, clean cut marks in it that showed intentional, almost surgical, placement.

The cuts were horizontal, not likely to have come from battle, and were later found in the same place on other bodies. A skilled person, who knew what they were doing and was moving fast, might have cut the chest open, pulled the ribs apart and exposed the heart while the victim was still alive. To Tiesler, these cuts represented something larger than just macabre murder. It was more likely to be a spectacle, some form of ceremony. Her observations resonated with some written accounts of Mexica or Aztec sacrifice 1, kilometres away, from around the time of the Spanish invasion in the sixteenth century.


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This led her down a fascinating and dark rabbit hole into the physiology of human sacrifice. How was it done? XII : — Archived from the original PDF on Coe, Michael D. The Maya Sixth ed. Demarest, Arthur Drew, David The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings. London, UK: Phoenix Press. Estrada-Belli, Francisco Foias, Antonia E. Ancient Maya Political Dynamics.