About 150 human skulls thought to have been used as altars were found in a cave in Chiapas, Mexico. Local police thought they had stumbled upon a modern crime scene when they first surveyed the area in 2012.
Now it is clear that these victims did not die recently; The skulls are pre-Hispanic, dated to between 900 and 1200 AD, and most likely belonged to people who died in sacrificial rituals.
Following the discovery, the bones were removed from the cave and taken to the provincial capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Here, a joint operation between the Police and the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) began investigating the gruesome find.
The bones were found near the town of Frontera Comalapa, in an area reportedly notorious for violence and migrant smuggling. On top of that, human remains were not immediately recognized as belonging to pre-Hispanic individuals, as piles of skulls from centuries-old indigenous settlements were often crushed and found in ceremonial squares.
But after analyzing the remains, INAH researchers determined that the bones were more than 1,000 years old. Except for the skeletal remains of three infants, the remains mostly belong to adult women. Archaeologists reported that none of the skulls had teeth.
The remains suggest that a tzompantli, or “skull altar,” once existed in the cave, said Javier Montes de Paz, a physical anthropologist at INAH who helped age the bones. This is because the remains are mostly skulls or fragments of skulls, and a complete skeleton has not been found.
Tzompantli were wooden shelves on which the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures displayed the skulls of sacrificed people. Mesoamerican scholar Juanita Garciagodoy, who teaches Spanish at Macalester College, in her book “Digging the Days of the Dead: A Reading of Mexico’s Dia de Muertos” (Colorado University Press, 1998), states, “The severed heads of the victims were brought to the temples and beads on an abacus tucked into poles like says.
Traces of aligned wooden sticks were found near the skulls, providing further evidence of tzompantli, according to a record the Chiapas State Attorney General’s Office revealed during the initial discovery in 2012.
This discovery is not the first time a tzompantli has been discovered in Chiapas. According to the statement, 124 skulls, all missing teeth, were unearthed in Banquetas Cave in the 1980s. Similarly, during the exploration of Devil’s Tapesco Cave in 1993, five skulls thought to be placed on a wooden tapesco (a type of grid) were found.
Montes de Paz emphasized the need to continue archaeological research in the area and stated that people should immediately contact the authorities or INAH if they uncover places of interest.