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Wed Feb 13, 2019, 12:04 AM

Maya bones bring a lost civilization to life

12 FEBRUARY 2019

Trained in both medicine and archaeology, Vera Tiesler has revealed how the human body was deeply woven into the religion, tradition and politics of the Maya world.

Erik Vance

The Autonomous University of the Yucatán, in the Mexican city of Mérida, holds one of the most comprehensive libraries on Earth. But few books line the shelves on the bottom floor of the anthropological sciences building. Instead, boxes are stacked from floor to ceiling in almost every corner of the laboratory, with labels naming Calakmul, Pomuch or Xcambo and other ancient Maya ruins. Inside every box is a set of human bones.

Bodies from some 2,000 burials are stored here, with another 10,000 records of others in a database. The remains of some of the most famous Maya kings have passed through this room at the university. Ancient paupers, warriors, priests, scribes, lords, ladies and artisans — the lab has seen them all.

And tucked in the middle of it, surrounded on all sides by the remains of long-dead civilizations, sits bioarchaeologist Vera Tiesler. Over the past quarter of a century, Tiesler has carved out a reputation as the world’s premier specialist on ancient Maya remains, which has helped her to unlock secrets of their lives and culture. On a drizzly November day, she pulls out one of her favourite bones, a flat strip no bigger than her finger, and puts it under a magnifying lens. It’s a sternum bone from a young man who was probably sacrificed. She points to a deep V-shaped cut over the centre of the chest, and she marvels at the skill of the person who inflicted it.

“You’d need a lot of strength — a lot of force — and you’d need to know exactly where to hit,” she says. “Because if not, you’d have these false starts, it would be a mess.”



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