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Discoveries may rewrite Mayan history.

Archaeologist have uncovered several intact tombs in Caracol, Belize, belonging to the ancient royalty of one of the most important kingdoms of Mayan civilization. The discoveries contradict long-held theories relating to the Central American society's organization and collapse that are premised on the existence of a wide gulf between the royalty and the rest of the Mayan people. "Classic Mayan society was far more complex than we have previously recognized," point out Diane Z. Chase and Arlen F. Chase of the University of Central Florida.

The findings include two intact royal burials. One 1,600-year-old undisturbed tomb contained the remains of a Mayan ruler. A 1,300-year-old tomb held members of a royal family that reigned over a kingdom of more than 7,000 square miles.

The older tomb contained 17 vessels, some of them elaborately painted and stuccoed, as well as obsidian earflares, bone figurines, and the remains of a jade and shell necklace. A second body also had been placed in the chamber. The other housed four people, all resting on a plaster floor that was covered with jade flakes. Two males were placed on their backs with their heads to the south; one had a necklace of human teeth. The remains of two other individuals, including an adult female, rested among the 20 vessels and other artifacts recovered from the chamber.

Prior to the Caracol discoveries, it generally was believed that the Maya buried their dead rulers and royals in ways that differed significantly from the rest of the population. The Caracol data show that this was not the case. Shared patterns include the interment of more than one person within the same chamber or tomb; the movement of bodies, bones, and offerings from one resting place to another; and the use of identical ritual deposits.

According to Arlen Chase, their research indicates a shift in the over-all picture of the Maya. "For one thing, the Westernized burial patterns that have been ascribed implicitly to the Maya by researchers for many decades are probably incorrect. The Maya actually integrated the dead into the world of the living." Unlike Western practice that calls for the dead to be buried far off from the living in special, secluded spots like cemetries, the Maya placed their dead in specially constructed buildings that were a part of their living complex. "They had the dead live with them. The dead may have even been formal participants in rituals carried out by their living descendants."

The Chases' findings also dispel the popular belief that Mayan society included two opposing groups--a small wealthy elite and a large downtrodden class of peasants. "There was a large middle group who lived very much in the manner of what we thought was reserved for the nobility," Diane Chase points out. "Instead of a widening of the gulf between two disparate classes, the elite and commoners grew closer and closer together over time." The middle class may have arisen because of Caracol's success in warfare that began in 562 A.D. with the conquest of Tikal, the great Maya city located in what is today Guatemala. Following this victory, there are indications of increased wealth and prosperity throughout Caracol. Apparently, the spoils of war brought shared riches.
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Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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