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Interviews: Uncovering a Mayan Massacre

Researchers in Guatemala have found evidence of a 1,200-year-old massacre in an ancient city called Cancuén, the capital of one of the richest kingdoms of Maya civilization. The discovery, deep in the jungle of highland Guatemala, provides a snapshot of the Maya civilization as it began to collapse.

A team led by Arthur Demarest, a professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University, has uncovered dozens of skeletons buried in an old reservoir in the ruins of a royal palace located in Cancuén.

"When they started excavating (the site), the archaeologists started hitting bones, and then more bones, and then more bones, and we then began to realize that the entire bottom half of this swimming pool was filled with human bones," Demarest says.

Precious adornments found near and on the skeletons -- including jade, carved shells and jaguar-fang necklaces -- led the team to conclude that the people massacred had been nobles.

Finding evidence of the slaughter was like stumbling upon "a critical moment in the collapse of Maya civilization," Demarest says. "It tells us that in 800 AD, this great center of trade -- very strategically placed to control all the trade in the Western trade route -- was attacked."

The attack itself didn't cause the Maya's collapse, Demerest says. But it did occur in the same historical time period during which the entire Maya civilization began its decline.

The bigger mystery, Demarest says, is who perpetrated the massacre. He says there are many suspects -- including soldiers from other Maya city-states.

Demarest and his co-workers have spent years digging at the site, searching for relics that might help explain Maya culture. The National Geographic Society has provided support for the research.

As part of an ongoing series of interviews for Radio Expeditions, a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society, Alex Chadwick talks with Demarest about his research team's latest finds in the Petén jungle region of Guatemala.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.