To date the ancient Mayan civilization fascinates us with its belief system and architecture. The Mayans' sudden disappearance off the face of Earth has made them even more enigmatic.

Recently, a team of archaeologists discovered two trophy skulls, defleshed and painted, in the jungles of Belize. The archaeologists say the skulls, meant to be worn around the neck as necklaces or pendants, were buried with a warrior thousands of years ago at the Mayan City of Pacbitun. Researchers have also found paintings of depictions of trophy skulls in stone carvings and on ceramic vessels in the Mayan sites.

The holes in the skulls are believed to have been drilled to hold feathers and leather straps. “Other holds served to anchor the jaws in place and suspend the cranium around the warrior’s neck, while the backs were sawed off to make the skulls lie flat on the wearer’s chest,” said Gabriel Wrobel, associate professor of anthropology at Michigan State University.

Christophe Helmke, an expert on Maya writing, believes the flecks of red paint decorating one of the jaws, carved with glyphic writing, is the first known instance of the Maya term for ‘trophy skull’.

The trophy skull, which could indicate a civil conflict, is just one of the theories behind the collapse of the Mayan culture. In 2012, scientists found that drought could have played a key role.

Researchers used climate-model simulations to investigate how deforestation worsened the drought. “The ninth-century collapse and abandonment of the Central Maya Lowlands in the Yucatan peninsular region were the result of complex human-environment interactions,” wrote the research team in the journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’.

A team of researchers at Austria’s TU Wien suggest that irrigation technology is what led to the demise of the Mayan civilization. Victor Ruiz Garcia/REUTERS

They established that the collapse of this ancient civilization may have been caused by an aggravated natural drought. It resulted in a drastic population decline and the fall of an empire. However, archaeologists also say that war may have wiped out the Mayans. They have found evidence of the ‘execution of the ruling family’ and desecration of temples and tombs.