Mexican archaeologists have unearthed what may be the resting place of dozens -- and perhaps hundreds -- of victims, including the tiny vertebrae and clavicles of children massacred during North America's last large-scale Indian war.
The excavations in this Caribbean coast town have yielded a cautionary tale about the destructive power of rural conflict here. The dig at Bacalar's old San Joaquin Church illustrates how, when Mexico allows land and ethnic conflicts to simmer, they eventually explode, often with astonishing violence.
Originally built in the 1600s to withstand attacks by English pirates, Bacalar, 320km south of Cancun, finally succumbed to a different threat: Mayan Indians driven to rebellion by 300 years of oppression, first by the Spanish conquistadors and later by mixed-race Mexicans.
In what was known as the Caste War, the Mayas grew tired of suffering land expropriations and an oppressive tax system and rose up in arms in 1848 with the aim of expelling non-Indians from their lands.
At one point, they controlled almost the entire Yucatan peninsula. As many as 200,000 non-Indians fled and thousands were killed before the uprising was put down in 1901.
The inspiration for the uprising came from the so-called "Talking Crosses," wooden crosses that supposedly spoke and gave divine orders.
"The time has come for Indians to fight against the whites, as in the old times," Indians reported the crosses as saying. In February 1858, when the rebels overran Bacalar, the orders were to kill.
Contemporary accounts say about 250 white and mixed-race women and children were forced to gather at the church, as well as a lesser number of Mexican army soldiers. Those accounts list only one survivor, a 7-year-old girl who hid in a storeroom.
No one knows for sure how many died. Bacalar lay abandoned for decades after the massacre and wasn't repopulated until the 1930s.
Those who repopulated the city reported finding human bones strewn around the church. When the old building underwent a renovation this spring, archaeologists decided to dig into the floor in one of the few excavations of a Caste War site.
"We found a very large number of jumbled human bones, and what stands out is the large number of bones from children under 15," said archaeologist Allan Ortega, describing the contents of two 1.5m-by-1.5m exploratory pits dug in the church floor.
Parts of several dozen skeletons were found scattered in the two pits. If the layer of scattered bones was found to extend over the whole floor, the number would rise into the hundreds.
"They seem to have tried to eliminate any future rivals," archaeologist Allen Maciel said of the preponderance of children's bones.
The bones are still being examined for age, sex and possible signs of cause of death at the local offices of the National Institute for Archaeology and History.
With most of the church floor now buried in a layer of cement from the renovations, archaeologists have no plans to extend the dig beyond the two small exploratory pits.
But the position of the remains -- jumbled, not buried, in a layer of loosely packed earth above an older and more peaceable level of burials apparently dating to the early 1800s -- suggest they belong to victims of the massacre.
Other sites remain to be excavated. Many 19th century towns in what are now the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo were abandoned forever during the uprising. Archaeologists -- long more concerned with preserving the area's wealth of Mayan ruins -- are only now beginning to study the towns.
The legacy of the Caste War remains among the Mayan people. They still leave offerings of flowers at the little church in the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, where the Talking Crosses first appeared.
Anastasio Garcia, 72, a deacon at the chapel, said his grandfather Francisco Chan described the hardship among the rebels and Indians who, like Chan, fled the violence.
"People had to go live in the jungle," Garcia said. "There was no food, except for maybe some rotten fruit fallen from the trees, like zapote. They ate that, even though it was rotten."
Yet Garcia says the war made life better for the Mayan people.
"Before [the uprising] we lived without liberty, we were like slaves," he says. "Now, we live in peace. Free."
The voices coming from the Talking Crosses were later found to be the work of a ventriloquist hired by a mestizo rabble-rouser. The rebellion -- with its violence and suffering -- appears to have brought the Maya few gains.
Their survivors live mostly on bone-dry farms in the southern part of the state, far from the tourist-generated riches of Cancun. Their modest fishing villages have long ago been taken over by beach resorts.
In rural Mexico, violent massacres persist even today, again resulting from long-simmering land disputes. Only this time, the violence is mainly Indian-on-Indian, and often fueled by poorly drawn boundaries and land reform programs that assigned the same plots twice to different groups.
A year ago, a land dispute in southern Oaxaca state prompted an ambush that left more than two dozen men dead. Similar motives were partly to blame for the massacre of 45 Indians in Chiapas in 1997.
"We have some communities in Oaxaca killing each other over land title disputes that go back to colonial days," said Rodolfo Stavenhagen, a UN official who deals with Indian rights.
Fears of more violence led about 50 protesters to demonstrate outside government security offices in Mexico City in May to demand police protection after their Oaxaca village -- Santa Maria Tataltepec -- was surrounded by armed men from a neighboring community.
The two towns are locked in a decades-long battle over a disputed stretch of farm land. Men on both sides have been killed, showing that the potential for violence in rural Mexico is as real today as it was in the 1850s.
"We just don't want to repeat the old pattern of authorities waiting to act until after the massacre has happened," said protester Ever Juan de Dios.
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