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Jade-toothed skulls from Mayan burials await analysis by team from Down Under

Jade-toothed skulls from Mayan burials await analysis by team from Down Under

Published:08 December 2017

CQUniversity 'bioarchaeologist' Dr Stan Serafin (pictured centre) will take along two of his undergraduate anatomy students - Jacqueline Harper (left) and Hayley Vandenberg - to help with the task of analysing the remains from a cave in Chiapas, and also some from burials in the neighbouring state of Tabasco.BELOW: Dr Serafin pictured in a laboratory setting.

A trio of Australians will help analyse a large number of human skeletal remains recently excavated from a cave in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, which borders Guatemala.

The remains have not yet been studied but preliminary observations by the archaeologists who excavated them have noted that some teeth have jade inlays while others are filed into different shapes, some crania were modified (indicating head binding) and there may be cut marks indicating defleshing and/or dismemberment.

CQUniversity 'bioarchaeologist' Dr Stan Serafin, based in Sydney, will take along two of his undergraduate anatomy students from Rockhampton to help with the task of analysing the remains from the cave in Chiapas, and also some from burials in the neighbouring state of Tabasco.

The trio will be based in the laboratory of Dr Roberto López Bravo at the Universidad de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas in the city of Chiapa de Corzo from late January through to early February, 2018. The human remains were excavated as part of the Proyecto Económico de los Altos de Chiapas, co-directed by Dr López Bravo and Dr Elizabeth Paris of the University of Calgary.

The visitors also plan trips to several archaeological sites, including Palenque, Yaxchilan, Comalcalco and Chiapa de Corzo.

Dr Serafin is the only Australia-based academic specialising in burials from ancient civilisations of the Americas, so the excursion will be a unique experience for the two Rockhampton students.

“We will seek to shed light on the people buried in the cave. Were they refugees from a collapsing Mayan city? Why were they interred there? Were they victims of sacrifice and/or warfare?

“We will inventory all the teeth and bones to determine how many individuals were interred in the cave, as well as their age, sex, diet and health.

“We will identify the different styles of head-binding and tooth-filing to determine ethnicity and cultural affiliation.

“We will analyse trauma and cutmarks to determine if these individuals were victims of violence or subjected to protracted funerary rituals.”

Dr Serafin says it’s already known that the remains date to the Late Classic (A.D. 800-1000) and Early Postclassic (A.D. 1000-1200) periods.

“This was an important period of transition during which many Mayan cities were collapsing, yet for unknown reasons this region of highland Chiapas saw an increase in population during this time. Geographically, the sample is from the western Mayan borderlands where there were/are diverse Mayan and non-Mayan ethnic groups in close proximity.”

CQUni student Jacqueline Harper said the Mexican project would be a great way to start 2018 as she headed into her second year of study in the Bachelor of Occupational Therapy (Honours) degree.

“Over the last year, Stan's passion for anatomy and bioarcheology has sparked my interest in the subject, which I had never previously considered,” Ms Harper says.

“The Mexico study school appealed to me as it provides an opportunity for me to learn and experience new things. Visiting an unfamiliar country will provide insight into new cultures and allow me to gain additional knowledge, both personally and academically.”

Around 3.5 years ago, Ms Harper moved from Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory to Rockhampton with her husband and three children to expand on career options, although the family hopes to return to work within the remote communities one day.

“Prior to commencing my university journey, I worked at as a teacher aide at Rockhampton Special School,” she says.

“Since starting my degree I have been employed by the CQUni accessibility team as a participation assistant.  Over Term 3, I volunteer at the Mater Hospital Rehabilitation Ward two days per week and have recently started a position at CentrecareCQ as a disability support worker.

“I completed the CQUni STEPS preparatory program prior to completing my undergraduate degree and I am the first person in my family to attend university.

“I believe that anything in life that does not go to plan or as expected is for a reason and that better options eventuate as a result. Studying at CQUniversity and having opportunities like this trip, is one of the positive things that transpired in my life.”

CQUni student Hayley Vandenberg is focused on her Podiatry degree but says she’s always been interested in archaeology.

“It sounded like an amazing opportunity. As the trip gets closer I am excited and nervous for my first overseas trip,” she says.

Originally from Sydney, Hayley moved to Rockhampton around seven years ago and enrolled in CQUni’s STEPS preparatory program before progressing her degree studies.

She has two children and a very supportive husband and family who enable her to fit in her study around work commitments.

“I have been working at Malouf Pharmacy for two years as a cosmetics consultant/beauty therapist,” Hayley says.

“It is being a beauty therapist that led me to want to be a podiatrist. Working in the medical field has always been a passion of mine.”