A stack of 150 skulls discovered 10 years ago in Mexico and first believed to be related to cartel violence have been dated back to a ritual sacrifice nearly 1,000 years ago.
Historians and archeologists have determined that the massive collection of skulls were actually from a process known as “ritual decapitation,” which likely took place between 900-1200 A.D.
“Believing they were looking at a crime scene, investigators collected the bones and started examining them in Tuxtla Gutierrez,” the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) said in a statement last week, according to the Associated Press.
The area where the skulls were found, in Frontera Comalapa, Chiapas, has been known for cartel violence and human trafficking, the AP reported. Authorities were also thrown off during the initial discovery because this pile of skulls had distinct differences from similar piles found throughout the nation.
Typically, skulls from human sacrifices and rituals would not be discovered inside caves, but in ceremonial plazas. Skulls also normally had holes put into them from the side of the head.
The skulls are believed to belong to victims of the Aztecs or a similar Mesoamerican culture, who killed people for ritual purposes and then placed their skulls on a tzompantli, or “a kind of trophy rack,” the AP noted.
The Aztecs ruled parts of Mexico beginning in the 14th century, but fell when Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes conquered them in 1521.
“Like a giant abacus constructed with human heads instead of beads, the Aztec tzompantli were constructed with wooden beams with skulls skewered in rows on horizontal poles,” Dolly Stolze wrote in 2015, according to Smithsonian Magazine. “The skulls displayed on these racks were harvested from victims of human sacrifice or from soldiers who died on the battlefield.”
The skulls in this cave were primarily from women with several young children as well.
By several accounts, Spanish explorers and conquistadors saw evidence of the mass human sacrifices that were common among Mesoamerican cultures. One Spaniard, Andres de Tapia, said he saw a tower made from the bodies of the victims. According to Tapia, the tower included the skulls of 136,000 victims.
“[F]rom top to bottom there were as many men on the [tower’s] posts as could fit, and on each post there were five heads of the dead strung by their temples,” he wrote after visiting Tenochtitlan.
Archeologists have uncovered many other skulls in the region that were from human sacrifices, and archaeologist Javier Montes de Paz told people to turn to archeologists if they have similar discoveries.
“When people find something that could be in an archaeological context, don’t touch it and notify local authorities or directly the INAH,” he stated.
Back in December 2020, 119 additional skulls were discovered as part of a similar skull tower that was under excavation in Mexico City and first discovered in 2015. Like the 150 skulls found in 2012, skulls found included those from women and children, rather than young men, who would likely be warriors.