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Mexican Police Thought They Found a Crime Scene – Turns Out It Was an Ancient Sacrifice From 900 C.E.

(Photo Credit: Ronaldo Schemidt/ AFP/ Getty Images and DEA/ ARCHIVIO J. LANGE/ Getty Images)
(Photo Credit: Ronaldo Schemidt/ AFP/ Getty Images and DEA/ ARCHIVIO J. LANGE/ Getty Images)

When Mexican authorities found a pile of 150 skulls in a cave near the Guatemalan border in 2012, they thought they were looking at a massive crime scene. Turns out the authorities weren’t completely wrong. They might have been looking at a massive crime scene, but from way earlier than they were initially thinking.

Mexican skull found at Templo Mayer archeology site
A skull is pictured at The Templo Mayor museum in Mexico City, on October 5, 2012. (Photo Credit: Ronaldo Schemidt/ AFP/ Getty Images)

The remains were brought to the Mexican state capital. Over the next decade, numerous tests and analyses were run on these skulls. Experts recently determined that the skulls came from sacrificial victims killed between 900 to 1200 C.E.

The police weren’t incorrect to believe they were looking at a modern-day crime scene when they stumbled upon these skulls. The border area between Mexico and Guatemala has, sadly, seen a rise in violence and immigrant trafficking in the last few decades.

Furthermore, pre-Hispanic skull piles in Mexico tend to have holes through each side of the skull and are usually found in ancient ceremonial plazas.

Archeologists look at skulls unearthed in Mexico City
Anthropologists, who work at the National Institute of Anthropology and History, examine skulls, which were found during excavation work, in Mexico City, Mexico on July 10, 2017.
(Photo Credit: Daniel Cardenas/ Anadolu Agency/ Getty Images)

Experts believe the victims found in the cave were probably victims of a ritual decapitation. Their skulls may have been put on a trophy rack known as a “Tzompantli.” Spanish conquistadors including Hernán Cortés, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and Andrés de Tapia have described Tzompantli skull racks in writings about their conquests. It wasn’t uncommon to see a Spaniard’s head included on a Tzompantli.

However, experts note that these skulls might have rested atop poles rather than being strung on them. In ancient cultures including the Aztecs, Tzompantli racks were typically created by casting a hole through the skull and stringing it up on wooden poles.

Tzompantli skull rack
The Tzompantli (skull rack) found during the excavations of Templo Mayor (Great Temple) in Tenochtitlan. Aztec civilization. (Photo Credit: DEA/ ARCHIVIO J. LANGE/ Getty Images)

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Experts also noted that there were more females than males among the victims found in the cave, and none of them had any teeth. Previously, researchers had thought that skulls in a Tzompantli structure tended to belong to defeated male warriors, but recent analysis has indicated that this is not always the case.

In light of this discovery, archeologist Javier Montes de Paz believes that people should probably call an archeologist before the police.

“When people find something that could in an archeological context, don’t touch it and notify local authorities or directly the [National Institute of Anthropology and History],” he advises.

Madeline Hiltz

Maddy Hiltz is someone who loves all things history. She received her Bachelors of Arts in history and her Master’s of Arts degree in history both from the University of Western Ontario in Canada. Her thesis examined menstrual education in Victorian England. She is passionate about Princess Diana, the Titanic, the Romanovs, and Egypt amongst other things.

In her spare time, Maddy loves playing volleyball, running, walking, and biking, although when she wants to be lazy she loves to read a good thriller. She loves spending quality time with her friends, family, and puppy Luna!