The politically fragmented Maya engaged in many wars against each other, some no more than raids for ritual captives and others for all-out destruction of a rival. So what was the fate of the losers?
To answer in one word: horrific. The winners skinned the dead soldiers on the battlefield (they also broke their jaws) and wore their skin.
However, the Maya placed stress on the capture of live enemies. So the real question is what happened to these live enemies. And that depended on their social status and the post-war agreements.
There were political consequences of conquests. At best, the defeated dynasty was allowed to continue ruling but was turned into a vassal. This was common between Yaxchilán and Piedras Negras in the Ucumasinta river area and may other ancient city states. The vassals had to pay tributes, supply services and sacrificial 'material'. They provided the wealth, the income. For example, the Aztec Codex Mendoza lists the following tributes that one of their vassals had to pay regularly: strings of jade beans, 40 jaguar skins, coloured feathers, cacao beans, 2 bezote (lip piercings) of amber and 2 pieces of clear amber the size of a brick.
In other instances, the defeated dynasty was taken to the winner's city for prolonged captivity by the ruler. This was a practice of Chichén Itzá, which conquered many states in Yucatán. The king in captivity ensured that the tribute continued to be paid by his people.
There were other methods of tarnishing the prestige of an enemy state. Captured battle banners and effigies of patron gods were carried in processions in the victorious cities. Warfare was so critical to the prestige of the ruling dynasty that both king and queen were depicted standing atop prisoners. Important captives were named and carved into stone monuments (it is believed that it was the defeated city that had to carve such monuments as a tribute).
At a few sites, the ruler was depicted in combat, grabbing the hair of a captive (this was seen as a sign of disrespect). Prospective rulers had to capture prisoners for sacrifice at the coronation. And there was human sacrifice at the ball courts after the ritual game. For example, two sculptures of war captives were found in the Toniná site which conducted a 26-year war against Palenque. The captives were possibly sacrificed during the inauguration ritual of the Toniná ballcourt in 696 AD so they could give 'life' to the structure.
If the captives were commoners, they would have been turned into slaves. The slaves could have worked their way in the society, depending on their skills.
The best known slaves that we know of were from Spain. Jerónimo de Aguilar, a Franciscan friar, and Gonzalo Guerrero, a sailor, were shipwrecked in Yucatán when sailing from Panama to Santo Domingo. Aguilar and 11 other survivors were captured by the Maya.
About five of them were decapitated, and the rest had to work as slaves. Aguilar and Guerrero managed to escape but were later caught by another Mayan chief named Xamanzana who was hostile to their first tribe. Earning his freedom, Guerrero became later a respected warrior for Nachan Kaan, Lord of Chektumal, married his daughter and fathered the first mestizo children of Mexico. He apparently died in battle, defending the Maya against the Spanish conquerors.
The captives were 'precious' if they were of noble or of royal origin, and those were usually decapitated. A text inside the Palace in Palenque describes the 654 to 668 AD alliance with the cities of Tikal and Yaxchilán and that they captured six kings. These would have been decapitated in public rituals. Those destined for death were displayed, their clothes and jewellery removed and their earrings replaced with paper slips to humiliate them. Before they were killed, they were often tortured. War captives also played the ball game against the war victors and were ritually decapitated in the ball courts. In Chichén Itzá the Toltecs introduced the large-scale sacrifice of war captives on the main ball court.
The scenes on the mural of the battle in Bonampak show the fate of the captives very vividly. I have described this in my post Bonampak but it is worth noting here that King Yahaw Chan Muwaan stands above the dead captives at the centre of the wall. The captives (only wearing loincloths) are depicted in deep agony, having their fingernails ripped off. Kevin Johnston, an anthropologist at Ohio State University, suggest that these are scribes and by removing their power to write, they diminished the power of their enemy ruler. I have no opinion on this but I ran this option via our Lacandón guide in Bonampak and he did not seem to think this theory was feasible. However, it seems rather specific that they had the fingernails removed so I would not rule it out, they may have been the king's scribes.
In the centre one captive is lying dead below the king, the severed head of another captive is at his feet (with grey brains coming out of the cranium). Nikolai Grube explains that the officer opposite the king extends his arm to present the captives. In one hand he has a jade bead, in the other quetzal feathers. These are precious possessions, probably the loot from the captives.
Evidence of human sacrifice of warriors has been found at numerous Mayan sites. In Los Mangales (Guatemala) at least 12 dismembered victims and three possible trophy heads were found at a burial site. In Chalchuapa (El Salvador) 33 individuals were found, or rather just their crania (trophy heads). Examples of decapitation, dismemberment, and sacrifice of young to middle-aged males were also found in Cuello and Colha (both in Belize). It was not uncommon to keep heads as trophies.
In Yaxchilán there is an image of the torture of a captive. Step 7 frieze, leading up to the front of Structure 33, shockingly shows that the ball was a bound captive human, thrown down the stairs. I had to really focus to see it with naked eye when visiting Yaxchilán but a photograph captures it well. This would have either killed the captive or injured him severely. It appears that the king Bird-Jaguar is waiting for 'the ball' to reach him, to 'play' with it. And in one text at this site, prisoners are said to be 'food' of local deities. Ritual cannibalism was not unknown in Mesoamerica. There is apparently evidence for the Aztecs and the Xiximes (Mexican people) who believed that ingesting the bodies and souls of their enemies and using the cleaned bones in rituals would guarantee the fertility of the grain harvest. Would this practice also be imported to the Mayan lands in the Post-Classic period? A site at Cueva del Maguey revealed cannibalised bones. After each corn harvest, Xiximes warriors were deployed to hunt for enemies – and their flesh. On account of these practices, they were called by the Spanish Jesuits the wildest and most barbaric people of the New World. I find the contrast between the cultural sophistication and an undercurrent of primitivism in ancient Mesoamericans fascinating.