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Tomb Could Yield Clues To Mayan Decline

January 28, 2010

An 1,100 year old Mayan tomb, discovered by Mexican archaeologists during maintenance work last December, may shed light on what happened to the Mayan civilization, according to an Associated Press report.

The tomb, which had ceramics from another culture inside of it, may help archaeologists determine who occupied the Mayan site of Tonina after the ancient civilization began fading. There is speculation of either internal warfare between Mayan cities or environmental degradation being the root causes of the culture’s downfall, which started around A.D. 820.

Archaeologist Juan Yadeun, who oversees the Tonina site for Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, said the artifacts found in the tomb, which were dated to between A.D. 840 and 900, are from the Toltec culture and may point to something else.

The Toltecs were people from Mexico’s central highlands, who apparently expanded their influence to the Mayan people in southern Mexico. They are believed to have dominated central Mexico between the 10th and 12th centuries, before the Aztec culture became significant.

Yadeun said that the Mayan tomb is of Toltec origin. “This is very interesting, because we are going to see from the bones who these people are, after the Maya empire,” he added.

Other experts not connected with the project cautioned fellow colleagues about making conclusive remarks based on one tomb and its findings,as the Mayan empire was vast and covered a wide area. It was a very complex culture.

David Stuart, an expert on Mayan epigraphy at the University of Texas at Austin, offered “One tomb, even if it is very fancy, isn’t going to answer big things about the trajectory of Maya history all over the place…maybe locally.”

“The whole idea of a migration of people from Tula to the Maya area has been abandoned,” Susan Gillespie, an archaeologist at the University of Florida, told AP.

The tomb was unearthed along an area filled with temples and platforms. The tomb was dug into the earth at the foot of one of the older temples. Inside, a stone bowl-like sarcophagus lies inside a narrow burrow, covered with a heavy stone lid. The lid lacks inscriptions that are found on most tombs of Maya origin. It seems the Maya began to abandon their complex writing system in the last ages of their cultural reign.

Archaeologists also found a ceramic urn and the bones possibly of a woman. The skull appears to have been intentionally malformed, a common practice for the Maya. Studies are currently under way to determine what group of people she came from.

There is evidence that the tomb had been tampered with since the fall of the Mayan culture. The woman’s bones were displaced by boiled bones found in another pottery urn. These newer bones were apparently placed there by Tzeltal chieftains sometime during the late 1400s, prior to the Spanish conquest.

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