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Skulduggery not required as Mayan skulls reveal brutal blows to the head

Published:27 March 2014

Dr Stan Serafin analyses an ancient Mayan skull with a healed fracture

A close examination of 116 skulls left over from 2000 years of warfare indicates that ancient Mayan armies used nasty spiked clubs for combat in open terrain.

The widespread adoption of these clubs, as well as projectiles, may have been due to larger armies enlisting more commoners.

A recent published study follows previous research into Mayan skeletal trauma indicating a fondness for flaying and decapitation, heart extraction, dismemberment, de-fleshing, parry fractures and head fractures.

While Mayan artwork has depicted spiked clubs, this latest research is the first evidence from head injuries of the clubs' use.

It was carried out to trace changing patterns of violence and warfare relating to distinct periods in the Mayan civilisation. The findings are published online at http://bit.ly/1dIwyTR ahead of print publication in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

CQUniversity 'bioarchaeologist' Dr Stan Serafin, now based in Rockhampton, was part of a team who examined skulls and skeletons recovered from 13 sites in Northwest Yucatan, Mexico, where the Mayan peoples have lived for over 3000 years.

The authors, who also included Carlos Peraza Lope and Eunice Uc González of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico, were particularly interested in periods of population peak, population collapse and the post-collapse (Postclassic) period considered a period of increased social strife and militarism.

Dr Serafin says that while there was no apparent boost in warfare contributing to the Classic period collapse (in fact there was a decrease), the researchers did find an increase in violence in the Postclassic period "which is to be expected since hard times tend to breed violence".

"The increase in cranial trauma frequency in the Postclassic, though not statistically significant, supports the long held view of the Postclassic as a time of increased militarism, particularly at the regional capital of Mayapan," the authors write.

"The concentration of these injuries in the left frontal suggests they resulted from blows delivered with close quarter weapons by right-handed assailants in face-to-face confrontations.

"However, while some of these injuries may have been from arrows, a wooden club with protruding points would better account for their concentration in the left frontal and horizontal orientation in four out of five examples.

"A predominance of wounds in males towards the anterior and left side of the skull during all periods suggests greater reliance on open combat between military units and less on raiding compared to other parts of the Maya area."

Image Gallery (Click on image thumbnail to see full-size image)

Dr Stanley Serafin analysing an ancient Mayan skull with a healed fracture Dr Stan Serafin Excavation of ancient Mayan burial in progress