Recent research shows how ritualistically it was to enact the Mayan creation story, shedding light on the details of the religious sacrifices of the ancient Mesoamerican people in Belize.
The frightening red glow of broken pottery lanterns on the cave’s wet mud floor.
Our guide highlighted white stalactites and stalagmites, revealing broken stone blocks – the tools the Mayans used to grind corn – and large pottery.
Even the light caught the glow of a half-buried human skull in the mud. His front teeth shattered and his bones crystallized into calcite long ago.
We are in the main room of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM Cave), in the wilds of western Belize. This wonderful and mysterious cave was, for the Maya, a sacred entrance to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld.
For more than a thousand years, the five-kilometer subterranean cave system of the ATM has remained untouched and nothing has been taken from there. Locals discovered the entrance in 1986, and shortly thereafter, hydrologist and speleologist – cave expert – Thomas Miller found skeletons inside.
In the decades that followed, the surprisingly intact ATM Cave became the subject of much study, providing scholars and intrepid travelers with a taste of what the Mayan religion and society was like from 700-900 B.C.
By researching this and other sites in Belize, archaeologists have discovered that the Maya ventured into deep caves to somehow communicate with their deities. But the details and motives of these ceremonies and rituals are still shrouded in mystery.
In 2021, two prominent archaeologists involved in excavating an ATM cave since the 1990s came up with a new methodology to unravel these mysteries.
His study is called The Sacrifice of the Atom God: Recreation in the Main Room of Actun Tunichil Muknal and is a chapter of the research anthology titled Popol Vuh Myths in Cosmology, Art and Ritual.
In that study, Holly Moyes, a professor at the University of California, USA, and Belizean archaeologist Jaime J. Oy explained how they were able to compose a detailed picture of religious ceremonies, studying the spatial arrangement of skeletons and artifacts left by the Mayan people. .
Moise and awe manage to discover where the Maya stood during the ceremonies, what mythological stories they represented, what deities the Maya represented in rituals, and how unfortunate humans were sacrificed.
For the Maya, this remarkable cave was a sacred entrance to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld – Photo: BELIZE TOURISM BOARD
There are no personal accounts of what happened in the Mayan cave ceremonies, but a new theory recreates their religious ceremonies in a human way that is not yet understood.
Moyes and Awe argue that the Maya staged elaborate and deadly theatrical restorations of the Popol Vuh – the Mayan creation myth – and that they did so to motivate their deities to impose a “rebirth” of the world in the lead-up to the drought and political crises, the end of their civilization, known as the collapse of the Maya, in tenth century.
“It is probably one of the most important archaeological caves in the world, in terms of its level of preservation and archaeological value. This is mainly because it has not been looted,” Moyes says. “It’s a cave full of adventures; just to get there, you go through the jungle, you go through the water, and you test the path the Mayans took to get there.”
Visiting the Mayan Cave
The entrance to the ATM Cave is eight meters high and is hidden by tangled vines and dense foliage in the middle of the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. The trail is located an hour’s drive from San Ignacio, near the Guatemalan border.
From there, you can walk 45 minutes through the forest, cross rivers with knee and waist deep waters, to the entrance to an ATM cave – where the path ends and the only way to enter is by swimming.
“The Mayans should have made this trip with torches burning,” says Hector Paul, a guide for the local Mayan community, who has been promoting ATM cave tours for the past 18 years. Our small group of five tourists flashed their headlights and left the daylight behind, following the guide across the river and carved limestone path.
About 1500 pieces and fragments have been recorded so far in the different levels of the main chamber of the ATM cave, which is 183 meters long
Caves are part of the Mayan worldview.
“The Mayans began using caves around 1200 B.C., when they first arrived in Belize,” Moyes said. She explained that the caves, for them, were at the bottom of a three-tiered universe, below the terrestrial human world and the gods in the sky.
When we get to the main room, Paul orders us to take our shoes off. “You always miss jumping in the Mayan underworld,” he joked. With his lamp, he points to clay pots balanced on rocks and heavy knobs in calcified pools in the ground.
When her light reveals the unmistakable outline of that crystallized skull, we are all silent. About 1,500 pieces and fragments have already been recorded in the cave, as well as 21 human skeletons.
In the creation myth of the Popol Vuh, two deities known as the Heroic Twins travel to the underworld to please the masters of the Xibalba and challenge them to a game. But the twins lose and are quickly sacrificed.
Then another group of Twin Heroes retaliate to avenge their father – who was one of the original Twin Heroes – and end up victorious. Their avenging father is reborn as the god of corn, from whom all human life is created, and the twin heroes punish the masters of Xibalba who, from now on, can only receive offerings that have been damaged in any way.
There are 21 human skeletons inside an ATM cave – Photo: BELIZE TOURISM BOARD
Evidence from the ATM cave indicates that this myth was enacted by the Maya, in a desperate attempt to stand up to the Xibalba lords, as did the hero twins.
“The Maya must have believed that the ruthless chiefs of Zibalpa were somehow victorious during droughts,” Moyes says, referring to the natural disaster that experts believe contributed to the downfall of civilization.
“The Xibalba masters couldn’t have pretty things and almost everything we found in a broken ATM cave, which makes me think they must have been offerings to the gods of the underworld,” she explains.
Moyes also explains that all artifacts in the ATM caves are dated just before the Maya collapse.
“We have very close radiocarbon dates,” she says. “And we know that this happened in a very short period of time.” All the pottery pieces in the cave date from 700 to 900 [d.C.]. [Os maias] Face total drought conditions at about 820 [d.C.]. at 850 [d.C.]The area is uninhabited, so they kept coming to the cave at the height of the drought, just before it was deserted.”
When our group reaches the center of the main room, Paul highlights the small three-stone heart, built by the Mayans with three speleothems (mineral deposits found in caves), a clear reference to the three-stone heart of the Popol Vuh, on which God worked Milo is reborn after being sacrificed.
For more than a millennium, the 5-kilometer underground cave system has remained unspoiled – Photo: BELIZE TOURISM BOARD
“There are numerous artifacts, in addition to human remains, grouped in the central 5 x 5 meter area of the main chamber around the three stacked blocks, suggesting a literal re-enactment of the Popol Vuh story,” Moyes and Awe wrote in their article.
I saw one of these human remains in a pond near the heart.
In their study, Moyes and Awe called this headless skeleton “the embodiment of God.” His theory is that “central position [do esqueleto] Next to the heart of the three stones indicates that the intent of the sacrifice is to summon the god of corn and his journey through the waters of the underworld.”
A few meters away, two more victims met their end. Analyzing their location, Moyes and the Horror think they should represent the first twin heroes.
I stood in the middle of the room, imagining this murderous drama. But Moise explains that the Maya did not always perform this type of ritual.
She says, “Among the Mayas, we rarely, if ever, see human sacrifices until the end of the Classic period. [séculos 8° e 9° d.C.]. And I think they started doing that because they were in the midst of a drought and they tried to increase human performances.”
In fact, Moyes believes that the Mayan world has similarities with ours.
“The story that happened to the Mayans is a real human story,” she says. “It’s a story that reminds us of what we’re seeing now regarding climate change. After all, the Mayans were simply praying for rain. Here in California, we do the same. We have signs on the highway that literally say ‘Pray for rain.'”
Having carefully made our way up the haunted Mayan steps, we put our shoes back on and followed Hector Paul back through the underworld in broad daylight. As he held my hand to help me climb the rocks that lead us back to the forest path, Paul repeated the same feeling:
“It was religious fervor that brought the Maya to these caves,” he said. “But when things get out of hand and science fails us, we all begin to pray.”
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