May 31, 2007 / 2:47 PM / in 11 years

Ancient skeleton, tomb reveal complexity of Mayan life

NEW YORK, May 31 (Reuters Life!) - A 7th century skeleton found in an elaborate tomb in Honduras shows ancient Mayan life in the region was more culturally and socially complex than previously thought, anthropologists said.

The tomb’s construction, the human remains and the artifacts found nearby show the person was an elite member of Mayan society who lived in a complex urban state, according to a report published in National Geographic News.

The tomb was found about 450 meters (yards) west of the Mayan ceremonial center of Acropolis in Copan, western Honduras. Copan is well-known for its grand Mayan monuments and hieroglyphics and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“It’s an extraordinary tomb construction,” Professor Allan Maca of Colgate University in New York who headed the research team, said in an interview.

“Never have we found anything outside of the area that is so elaborate ... We’ve never had a full picture of the social and political complexity of the city itself, beyond this kind of ceremonial core where the Acropolis is.”

The team of researchers spent two years excavating and documenting the find, including digital reconstructions of the tomb, after making the discovery in 2005.

Their findings show the skeleton belonged to a man who died when he was about 50 years old. He had suffered several debilitating infections and some deformities. He also had detailed dental work including jade inlays.

Some artifacts found inside a tomb are displayed in this undated handout photo. A 7th century skeleton found in an elaborate tomb in Honduras shows ancient Mayan life in the region was more culturally and socially complex than previously thought, anthropologists said. REUTERS/Handout/Raul Mejia

“The studies of the skeletal bone are indicating pathologies that are really unusual, suggesting this was a very unusual and unique person,” said Maca.

“The variety and pattern of dental modifications -- they modified their teeth with inlays and different types of stone, including jade -- in this person’s teeth have never been seen before anywhere in the Maya area.”

A digital reconstruction of the tomb released may 31, 2007 shows a cutaway based on excavation data and shows the placement and character of the tomb construction .REUTERS/ Handout/Clement Valla

Unusual ceramic vessels were also found, suggesting cultural affiliations between areas of Mesoamerica far beyond the Copan region.

Maca said these clues give researchers a much richer cultural fabric with which to make interpretations of ancient Maya life.

“We know that people with deformities or illnesses...were considered special and unusual and were sometimes granted different types of religious and political authority, so that’s one of the reasons why we’ve drawn such attention to the pathologies and to the unique features of skeleton itself,” said Maca who has worked in the region for ten years.

The researchers are continuing excavations in this area.

“We’ll be doing that for quite a while. We’ve already located at least one other tomb, so it appears we have a funerary complex, an area where important people were laid to rest.”

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