Mayapan (Mexique): Skulls reveal Mayans used spiked clubs

Anna Salleh

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A large concentration of skeletons with lethal injuries were found in a passageway directly to the east of this Mayapan Round Temple (Source: Stan Serafin)

Nasty skull fractures are a sign Mayan armies engaged in open warfare with weapons that included spiked clubs, new research suggests.

The findings come from a study of skulls recovered from 13 sites, including the important Mayan capital of Mayapan, in northwest Yucatan, Mexico.

"Based on the pattern of injuries, we found evidence that clubs with points embedded in them were used [as weapons]," says first author Dr Stan Serafin, a bioarchaeologist from Central Queensland University.

The findings are published online ahead of print publication in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Relatively little is known about the weapons and tactics used by the ancient Maya people of northern Central America and the role violence played in the rise and fall of the civilisation.

To gain insights into this question, Serafin and colleagues looked at the shape, location and frequency of injuries to 116 Mayan skulls, dating from between 600BC to 1542AD.

Serafin says the shape of the injuries - two oval-shaped indentations next to each other - suggests they were inflicted by wooden clubs embedded with stone points.

Mayan artwork depicts such weapons along with spears and bows and arrows, but this is the first evidence from cranial injuries of the clubs' existence.

Open warfare

Serafin and colleagues also found males had more fractures than females, and the fractures were concentrated on the front left of the skull.

The position of the injuries suggests they were inflicted by right-handed opponents approaching the victim from the front, says Serafin.

In their study of some related skeletal material, the researchers also found the first evidence yet of an arrowhead in a Mayan skeleton - in a right scapula.

"Based on the position and orientation of the injury it looks like the person was shot from the front," says Serafin.

While injuries on the back of female skulls provide some evidence of surprise raids, he says the findings suggest a definite preference for open warfare tactics in the region he studied.

Serafin says this fits with the terrain which is flat, dry and has little vegetation: "In this region you will see your enemies approaching."

Serafin says the only other comparable study, focusing on less open, more heavily vegetated areas, found surprise raids were the norm.

Violence and downfall

After the 'Classic' period ended in 900AD the Mayan population declined, with many of their old cities and towns becoming depopulated or abandoned completely.

While the 'Post-Classic' decline is thought to be due to many factors, violence is one factor believed to have contributed, says Serafin.

But in the region he studied, he found the frequency of skull trauma decreased during the late Classic.

"It appears warfare did not contribute to the Classic period collapse in this area."

The researchers did find violence increased in the Post-Classic period, which Serafin says is to be expected since hard times tend to breed violence.