Two skulls which were recently discovered in the Belize jungles could hold the key to discovering why the once powerful Mayan civilisation collapsed.
The painted human skulls were thought to be worn around the neck on the pendants of victorious warriors as trophies, over a thousand years ago at Pacbitun, a Maya city.
Researchers say the skulls, which were placed on the chest of a northern warrior, likely represent gruesome symbols made from the heads of defeated foes.
Both skulls are similar to depictions of trophy skulls worn by soldiers in stone carvings and on painted ceramic vessels from other Maya sites.
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Two skulls which were recently discovered in the Belize jungles could hold the key to discovering why the once powerful Mayan civilisation collapsed. The painted human skulls were thought to be worn around the neck on the pendants of victorious warriors as trophies
Archaeologists are fascinated by the mystery of 'the collapse' of this once powerful empire.
Earlier studies focused on identifying a single cause of the collapse like warfare, loss of faith in leaders or drought.
With the help of LiDAR surveys, researchers found evidence that some southern lowland cities, quickly constructed fortresses, according to the Live Science.
This indicated that violence and warfare between the north and the south could have partly contributed to the end of the empire.
The trophy skulls, together with a growing list of scattered finds from other sites in Belize, Honduras and Mexico, provides further evidence that the conflict may have been because of rising powers in the north pitted against the established dynasties in the south.
The skulls likely were embellished with feathers, leather straps held in by holes that had been drilled into the skulls.
Other holes served to anchor the jaws in place and suspend the cranium around the warrior's neck
The backs were sawed off, the researchers claim, to make the skulls lie flat on the wearer's chest, the publication said.
Despite a Mayan prophecy, the world did not end on December 21 last year - but new evidence suggests the ancient civilisation's calendar system was, in other respects, accurate. Above, the Caana pyramid at the Caracol site in the Cayo District of Belize
The Maya empire flourished throughout Central America, with the first major cities appearing between 750 and 500 B.C.
But beginning in the southern lowlands of Guatemala, Belize and Honduras in the eighth century A.D., people abandoned major Maya cities throughout the region.
At Pakal Na, a southern site in Belize, a similar trophy skull was discovered inscribed with fire and animal imagery resembling northern military symbolism.
This suggests a northern origin of the warrior it was buried with and the presence of northern military paraphernalia may point to a loss of control by local leaders.
Archaeologist Patricia McAnany has argued that the presence of northerners in the river valleys of central Belize may be related to the cacao trade.
Cacao, the plant from which chocolate is made, was an important ingredient in rituals, and a symbol of wealth and power of Maya elites.
For hundreds of years the Mayans dominated large parts of the Americas until, mysteriously in the 8th and 9th century AD, a large chunk of the Mayan civilisation collapsed.
The reason for this collapse has been hotly debated, but now scientists say they might have an answer - an intense drought that lasted a century.
Studies of sediments in the Great Blue Hole in Belize suggest a lack of rains caused the disintegration of the Mayan civilisation, and a second dry spell forced them to relocate elsewhere.
The theory that a drought led to a decline of the Mayan Classic Period is not entirely new, but the new study co-authored by Dr André Droxler from Rice University in Texas provides fresh evidence for the claims.
The Maya who built Chichen Itza came to dominate the Yucatan Peninsula in southeast Mexico, shown above, for hundreds of years before dissappearing