In February, I visited the Actun Tunichil Muknal wet cave in central Belize. To get into the most important area, visitors must swim across a river, then wade through flooded sections of the cave, climb rock falls, crawl through openings, and navigate tight spaces between rocks while in neck-high water. Licensed guides provide hard hats and headlamps, as well as advice on handling the difficult sections. The trek takes 4 – 5 hours.
The highlight of the visit is the “Cathedral,” a section deep in the cave where people left offerings, mostly between 700 and 900 AD. Here, visitors must remove their shoes and stay in marked areas so they don’t accidentally step on any of hundreds of ceramic bowls that are more than a thousand years old – or skeletons of sacrificed humans. Excavations by Thomas Miller in 1986 identified remains of 14 humans. As of 2019, three more have been found. The bones of the “Crystal Maiden” and other victims are now coated with a thick layer of minerals left behind by the river, making them sparkle in the light of a headlamp.
After a careless tourist dropped a camera on a skeleton, breaking the skull, recording devices of any kind were banned from the cave. It’s just as well. A camera would only separate the viewer from the scene. And a selfie with the skeleton of a sacrificed victim is a terrible idea on multiple levels.
The cave has no interpretive signs, no visitor center, and no information about the people who left these offerings in the cave or their reasons for doing so. They left no symbols carved on the walls or paintings on the pots. But we know that the time the offerings were placed in the cave coincides with the last phase of the occupation of the area by the Maya. Between 800 and 900 AD, most of the great Maya cities in what is now Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras were abandoned due to a fatal combination of deforestation, drought, famine, political instability, and warfare. A few squatters set up huts in the empty squares of the great cities, but most of the surviving Maya scattered, going anywhere conditions were more favorable.
If a written record of the cave’s use survived, it would probably have been burned along with other Maya texts when the Spanish “converted” the Maya to Catholicism, often by torture. On July 12, 1562, Bishop Diego de Landa began a program of purging Maya artifacts and hand-written books by burning over 5000 objects that day alone. This church policy of destroying “idols” continued for 150 years. By the 20th century, so little was known of those who built the great cities that people decided the huge stone temples and ornate carved slabs were the work of aliens, a belief that persists, unfortunately, even today.
But four of the hand-painted Maya books, originally sent to Europe as curiosities for the monarchs, survived, providing essential information about Mayan language, history, astronomy, mathematics, and religion. Plus the glyphs carved in stone remained, and gradually experts teased out their meaning. Over the last forty years, archaeologists have been able to piece together much of the story of the dynasties that rose and fell in the Maya world. But the deciphering process is on-going, partly because the Maya, like the ancient Egyptians, used a complex combination of object symbols and sound symbols in their writing, and that combination could vary at the whim of the scribe.
Given all this, we can put together some of the background on the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave and the people who used it over a thousand years ago.
Modern Americans tend to think of time as an object apart from themselves. A possession. We have time or we don’t have time. We spend time, like money. We run out of time the way we might run out of gas. We use clocks to mark off little segments of each day so we can be at appointments when expected. But we don’t have any involvement in the creation or continuation of time. We don’t have to earn time. We feel no personal responsibility to make time continue, to make the sun move, the rain fall, or the seasons change.
But the ancient Maya did. In their city-states, from about 1800 BC to about 800 AD, they built monuments to honor the passage of time. They marked the moment of the solstices and equinoxes with special rituals and offerings. (Diagram of the E-group at Uaxactun, Guatemala, below.) These functioned much the same way as various stone and wood henges in other parts of the world, with a viewing point and markers for the solstices and equinoxes.
They maintained complex calendars that tracked the solar year, the lunar year, and the number of days since the beginning of the Fourth Creation, what we would call August 11, 3114 BC. At that moment, the Hero Twins, through their courage, resourcefulness, and magical abilities, were able to make time start again. Many Maya monuments note the units of time passed since that day, in the same way many western calendars count years from the birth of Jesus.
The Maya divided time into units using a base 20 system:
Kin = one day
Winal = 20 kins
Tun = 20 winals or 360 kins
Katun = 20 tuns or 7200 kins (19.7 years)
Baktun = 20 katuns or 144,000 kins (394.26 years)
Great Cycle = 13 baktuns (5,128 years)
The calendars were exact, but time itself was always uncertain, especially at the end of a cycle, a little like the anxiety people felt at the approach of Y2K.
To help make time continue, the Maya gave offerings to the gods. If they didn’t, they believed time would stop. The motion of the sun across the day’s sky, the turn of the seasons, the coming of the rains, the seasons of planting and harvest – all these required offerings. For the same gods who brought rain could withhold it – or bring so much that the land was flooded. The sun god that drew the seedling out of the ground could also kill it.
Blood was the most precious offering. Ritual blood-letting by the city’s rulers, considered priest-kings, is recorded in paintings and monuments of many Maya city-states. The king and other aristocratic men would be expected to pierce themselves with stingray spines. The queen and other royal women would have to draw a rope studded with thorns or obsidian blades through their tongues, as shown in the drawing of a panel from Yaxchilan. Drops of their blood fell on special cloth that was offered to the gods. The dream-trance that accompanied this act, pictured as a vision serpent, allowed the leaders to communicate with their ancestors and the gods.
The glyph for bloodletting/conjure, known as the “fish in hand” sign, appears in the upper left hand group in the next panel from Yaxchilan, Here, a kneeling queen, wearing the blood-spattered cloth from her bloodletting to tie up her hair, sees the vision serpent rising from the blood-spattered cloth in the bowl at the bottom left. Out of serpent’s mouth emerges the head of the ancestor/god.
A blood sacrifice was thought to open up a channel of communication with the gods. According to the Maya creation story, the gods created people by sprinkling their own blood on maize dough. They wanted creatures who could honor them and nourish them through sacrifice. The rulers’ blood offering released the essence of the gods to regenerate the world.
Caves and cenotes
Even those who did not participate in public bloodletting were expected to give offerings to the gods. These included any items of great value: fine ceramics, exotic shells, masks, and precious stones, especially greenstone. These gifts were often set in caves or thrown into rivers or cenotes (sink-holes containing water) to honor the powerful rain god, Chaac.
Ordinary people offered the best they had, ritually sacrificing these items by burning them, drilling a hole, or breaking off a section.
(The practice of leaving offerings in caves continues today in parts of Guatemala, where local people place flowers, candles, and incense in caves to seek favors from the gods, now combined with Catholic figures of Jesus, Mary, especially Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the saints as shown in the photo.)
For a long time, the Maya system seemed to be a great success. Their engineering feats rivaled the Romans’. Their art and architecture still amaze viewers. During what are called The Pre-Classic and Classic eras, lasting from 1000 BC to 250 AD, the Maya built the most sophisticated cities in the Western Hemisphere. El Mirador’s La Danta Temple, at 236’ tall, was the tallest building in the world when finished. Today it’s hard to see (photo) because the forest has reclaimed it. The site included water management systems and wide roadways that connected it to other cities. The UNESCO artist’s rendering provides an idea of what the city looked like at its peak.
Tikal, another powerful city-state, is still impressive, even though only ruins of the largest structures remain. (Photo shows one of the twin temples in the main square)
The political and religious system that had powered the growth of this empire continued despite warnings that the rulers’ practices were not sustainable. Deforestation in rainforests left the soil too weak to be productive. Research indicates that El Mirador failed for this reason. But there were other places, and the kings simply moved their empires or their allegiance and built again.
Then, between 650 and 800 AD, the rains began to fail across the Maya World, especially in what is now the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, Belize, and the Petén area of Guatemala. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), several periods of intense drought, each one lasting decades, coincided with the collapse of the Classic Maya cities.
The rulers apparently decided that Tlaloc/Chaac, the rain god, needed more offerings. The recent discovery of ritual offerings at the Balamku cave system at Chichen Itza (Mexico) this year shows many similarities to the findings at Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in nearby Belize. A team of explorers funded by National Geographic pulled themselves through tight passages in the cave for hours before finding an undisturbed collection of offerings left by the residents a thousand years earlier. They included vases, decorated plates, braziers, and bowls. The difference here is that the offerings were clearly marked for the rain god.
The goggle-eyed figure on the pots is Tlaloc, the rain god.
So it seems reasonable to say the offerings in Actun Tunichil Muknal served the same purpose – a plea for rain that would save the people and their community. If the old beliefs were true, then the gods needed more offerings, better offerings. And, perhaps, for a while, the offerings seemed to work. The drought would loosen its grip and the rains would start. But the change didn’t last.
Imagine the confusion the people felt. The same system that had sustained them so brilliantly for so long wasn’t working. So they offered more, ritually “killing” the pots by breaking off a section or drilling a hole in the bottom. Today, pots lie piled inside other pots, often six or seven deep, all over the upper section of the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave.
When that still wasn’t enough, they turned to the most precious gift of all: blood. Evidence shows the victims were killed inside the cave. Many still have the killing stone lying next to them. Some were teenagers. Some were children. Four were infants.
What drove the people to these murders? There are many theories, including the slaughter of people suspected of being witches bringing down bad luck. But given the Maya attitude toward offerings to the gods, especially blood offerings, it seems more likely it was an extreme response to a terrible situation. Perhaps it seemed the only way they might buy more time from the gods.
Today, the skeletons lie scattered where floodwaters have taken them. With their thick mineral coating, they’re gradually becoming part of the flowstone. But they’re still powerful.
And desperation still hangs in the air of the cave.
Sources and interesting reading:
“Actun Tunichil Muknal,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Actun_Tunichil_Muknal/
Coe, Michael and Mark Van Stone. Reading the Maya Glyphs. London: Thames and Hudson, 2001.
“Diego de Landa: Spanish Bishop,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://britannica.com/biography/Diego-de-Landa/
“Drought and the Ancient Maya Civilization,” NOAA, https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/abrupt-climate-change/Drought/
“El Mirador,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Mirador/
Foer, Joshua, Dyland Thuras and Ella Morton. Atlas Obscura. New York: Workman Publishing, 2018
Foster, Lynn V. Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Jarus, Owen, “The Maya: History, Culture & Religion,” Live Science, 22 August 2017, https://www.livescience.com/41781-the-maya.html/
Longhena, Maria. Maya Script: A Civilization and its Writing. New York: Abbeville Press, 2000.
Martin, Simon and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. London: Thames and Hudson, 2000.
“Maya,” History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-americas/maya
“Maya Religion,” https://www.anccient.eu/Maya_Religion/
“Maya Ruins of Belize,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_ruins_of_Belize/
Miller, Mary Ellen. Maya Art and Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999.
Monteferrante, Sandra, “Maya Cycles of Time,” originally published in Convergence in March 2007, https://www.maa.org/book/export/html/117893/.
Montgomery, John. Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs. New York: Hippocrene Books, 2006.
Schele, Linda and Mary Ellen Miller. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. New York: George Braziller Inc., 1986.
Steffens, Gena, “Maya ritual cave ‘untouched’ for 1,000 years stuns archaeologists,” National Geographic, 4 March 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2019/03/maya-ritual-balamku-cave-stuns-archaeologists/
Spector, Brandon, “Lost Cave of Jaguar God Rediscovered Below Mayan Ruins – and It’s Full of Treasure,” Live Science, 5 March 2019, https://www.livescience.com/64917-lost-mayan-reasure-cave-rediscovered.html/
Stone, Andrea and Marc Zender. Reading Maya Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011.
“Treasure trove of hundred of Mayan artifacts discovered beneath Chichen Itza,” Mexico News Daily, 5 March 2019, https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/treasure-trove-of-hundreds-of-mayan-artifacts-discovered/
“Uaxactun,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uaxactun
“Yaxchilan bloodletting scene,” Lintel 17, drawing by Ian Graham courtesy of the Harvard University collection, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 2004.15.6.5.16 Digital file #101240031.
“Yaxchilan Lintels,” The British Museum, https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery…
“Yaxchilan Lintel 24,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yaxchilan_Lintel_24
Zraick, Karen, “The Place Is Extraordinary: Well-Preserved Artifacts Are Found Under Mayan Ruins,” The New York Times, 6 March 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/06/science/chichen-itza-mexico-mayan.html
Photos of Tikal and La Ventana cave by the author