Interviews: Uncovering a Mayan Massacre Deep in the jungle of Guatemala, archeologists have uncovered the site of an ancient massacre of Maya nobles. The discovery provides a snapshot of the Maya civilization as it began to collapse.
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Interviews: Uncovering a Mayan Massacre

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Interviews: Uncovering a Mayan Massacre

Interviews: Uncovering a Mayan Massacre

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Researchers in Guatemala have found evidence of a 1,200-year-old massacre in an ancient city called Cancuen that's led to a unique murder investigation. Arthur Demarest is a Vanderbilt University anthropology professor. He led a team that uncovered dozens of skeletons buried in a reservoir in the ruins of the royal palace in Cancuen. Demarest and his co-workers have spent years digging there with the support of the National Geographic Society. They are searching for relics that help explain Maya culture. Two years ago, Demarest even helped to recover an elaborate altar that had been stolen from these ruins. In this National Geographic Radio Expeditions interview, my colleague Alex Chadwick asked Demarest what the research team found in their latest foray into Cancuen.

Professor ARTHUR DEMAREST (Vanderbilt University): When they started excavating it, the archaeologists started hitting bones and then more bones and then more bones. And scattered among the bones were ancient Maya jewelry and costume and spearheads.


So you got from this that this was a collection of nobles or the elite and they'd been murdered.

Prof. DEMAREST: That was a possibility we thought. So I then went and got the Forensic Foundation of Guatemala, two of the leaders of which are my ex-students. And these are the guys who go all over the world and started in Guatemala with the genocide, but they worked in Rwanda and Bosnia.

CHADWICK: These are investigators, indeed, who look at these terrible modern massacres, and now they're back being archaeologists looking at this killing that occurred--What?--1,200 years ago.

Prof. DEMAREST: Yeah, but they're not back doing archaeologists; they're doing war crime. They're doing forensics. They're doing cause of death.

CHADWICK: All right. Well, you have these bodies here--I guess you think there are really dozens of them. How do you interpret what happened? What does it mean?

Prof. DEMAREST: It's an absolutely critical historical moment that we've stumbled upon, just a photograph of a critical moment in the collapse of Mayan civilization. We have the specifics of history from the monuments that we recovered from the looters and the ones we found, and it tells us that at 800 AD, this great center of trade, very strategically placed to control all the trade in the western trade route, was attacked and the site was essentially destroyed. And so it's not the cause of the Maya collapse, but it is historically the beginning of the Maya collapse. So in many ways, it's like, you know, historically recording the assassination of the archduke or the sinking of the Lusitania or one of these events that really set off a series of disasters.

CHADWICK: Who were the attackers? Who were these people who came in and captured this city of Cancuen and killed everybody?

Prof. DEMAREST: That's the big mystery. We know how they were killed. We know it was murder and then dismemberment. What we don't know is who did it. And the hieroglyphs, the archaeological evidence, the osteological evidence and soon we're having done now DNA studies, we're hoping from all that to figure out who done it, literally. There are a whole bunch of suspects, but that's, you know, the next phase, the ongoing phase of investigation.

CHADWICK: Who would be a list of suspects?

Prof. DEMAREST: One of the other great Maya city-states down river who maybe did not like having this middleman controlling so much. That also seems likely because of the way that the victims were treated. To the Western eye, it sounds like a kind of brutal, angry killing.

CHADWICK: They were stabbed to death with spears. They...

Prof. DEMAREST: Well, they were killed with spear thrusts. I mean, the forensic team are experts on that, and they've identified the particular wounds.

CHADWICK: And this doesn't sound like a brutal, angry killing to you?

Prof. DEMAREST: What makes it seem like, `Gee, it's brutal,' is that most of the bodies were dismembered, but in fact, that's an indication of ritual treatment. The nobles in the cistern were dismembered, but then all of their treasures, all of the jewelry of jaguar canines and jade and precious things, were thrown in with them. And then some pots were thrown in as offerings.

CHADWICK: Professor Demarest, earlier you mentioned something else before we began recording this interview. These altars that you found earlier--they were taken by these grave robbers and traders in artifacts, people who went to jail. You told me, though, they'd just gotten out of jail and they said they were going to come kill you.

Prof. DEMAREST: A year and a half ago, we put these looters into prison and we hunted them down with some SIC agents, which is Guatemala's FBI. Well, people aren't happy about that when you send them to prison. They're out and they sort of very specifically told a number of people that they were going to kill some of the witnesses, who are Kekchi, but most importantly they were going to kill first me, then one of my right-hand men, Julio Lopez, who's an inspector with the Ministry of Culture here, and then my co-director, Tomas Barrientos. I mean, very specific death threats, and they're coming from all directions.

CHADWICK: Are these people really capable of murder?

Prof. DEMAREST: Oh, Lord, yes.

CHADWICK: You are in Guatemala City in a home that you have, and now there are some Israeli security guards you've hired who come in and they're putting up razor wire and cameras and motion detectors. Why don't you just go back to Vanderbilt?

Prof. DEMAREST: I can't do that. I don't do that. I mean, for one thing, if I--I do exploratory archeology. I've worked in the civil war in El Salvador. Every year I worked in the civil war in Guatemala. My speciality is to go into areas where nobody can work and work, and that's where these discoveries come from. I can't run away every time there's a problem.

But the other thing is I have eight Kekchi Maya witnesses, and they don't have Israeli security. And I have my co-director here, Julio Lopez, and others I have here who are also threatened. And I can't, you know, make the statement that, `Gee, I'm a gringo, so I can run away.' This is--my family's here. You know, we're giving everybody panic buttons. I look at it more as the captain, you know, can't leave the sinking ship. So I don't think we're sinking; I think we're going to be fine. You know, this is what I have to do.

CHADWICK: Arthur Demarest is a professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University, studying now in Guatemala City, Guatemala.

Professor Demarest, thank you for speaking with us.

Prof. DEMAREST: Thank you very much.

BRAND: To see pictures from Cancuen and hear past reports about Demarest's work, go to our Web site,

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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