Inside the Mayan Underworld of Caves


Over the past few weeks we've been giving you glimpses into Mayan history under the learned guidance of the Director of Belize's Institute of Archaeology, Dr. Jaime Awe. Yesterday Awe took us from the fascinating and colorful overworld into the shadowy Mayan underworld where Belize's extensive network of caves which served as communal grounds for the Mayas and their Gods. And what they carried to their Gods may surprise you: it was human sacrifice, very often small children and infants Dr. Awe tells us more.

Dr. Jaime Awe,
"Most caves are made because of water erosion, many of them have rivers going through them, some of are easy to get into like Rio Frio Cave in the Pine Ridge where most of us have gone; in there you can just walk in and its not a problem. But in some cases you have to hike deep into the forest to get to some of the caves and in other cases you have to be able to swim because you know the water is deep and some of them have waterfalls, this is actually called the waterfall cave in the Caves Branch region, and some of them you have to crawl through very tight little spots."

This vast cave called Actun Cabal in Northern Belize goes 7 and half miles.

Dr. Jaime Awe,
"Belize has some of the longest caves in the Western Hemisphere. For example in Actun Cabal, in this view here, you can see four individuals that had to shoot flares off in order for us to get this photograph. Its an immense chamber, you could fit all the Bliss Institutes in here and still have room for parking lots etc. etc. The Museum of Belize could fit in there without a problem."

And Actun Cabal, is like every other cave in Belize - the Mayas used it to commune with their Gods

Dr. Jaime Awe,
"Caves are a whole different world and as an archeologist, and also just as an individual who enjoys going to these places, it is not hard for me to see why the Mayas thought these places were incredibly special. The remains of humans are one of the most common things that we find in the caves during our expeditions."

And those remains are not leftovers from burials, they are in fact the product of human sacrifice.

Dr. Jaime Awe,
"Most of the skeletal remains that we find in the caves are remains of people that were sacrificed. What is also interesting is that a lot of them are children. We know, again from some of the expert documents that were left behind by the Spanish, that the Mayas considered children as the preferred offering to the Rain God and that is through all across Meso-America. Some of the infants that we find seem to have trauma to the skull, it looked like somebody bashed them over the head and then laid them to rest inside the cave. So we think that they were actually taken alive inside the cave and then killed inside the cave. The most important offering the Mayas could make was human sacrifice, that was the ultimate offering to the Gods. One of the things that we have been finding is that around the late Classic, just around the time that the civilization started to crumble the Mayans are going deep inside the cave. Before that they were mostly around the entrance but by about 700 AD they started to go deeper into the cave and its like they're trying to get closer to the Gods or something is going on that wasn't going on before because eventually we know a lot of their cities are abandoned and I think that the drought had to do with it. So the Mayans then started to go deep inside these caves in the late Classic Period and this is when we see a large increase of activity inside the caves and higher incidences of human sacrifice. This is a cave, not too far from Belmopan, and in this small little room, no bigger than the one we are in right now, over 7 individuals, you can their bones right here. At Tunich-Hil Mucknal we have some of the most spectacular caves and we have some of the most spectacular human remains, many of them are so calcified right into the stone. In this case this skull is flattened and the teeth are also modified. Here you can see the remains of this little infant, you can see how small that skull is, this child was not much older than one year old, the leg bone or the femur as we call it is no longer than one of my fingers. Tunich-Hil Mucknal has 15 skeletons and 7 of them are children between the ages of about 7 to one year old. Here you can see the remains of a child that was around 9 years old, again at Tunich-Hil Mucknal, and here is one of a young adult probably a teenager, and course Tunich-Hil has what's often referred to as the Crystal Maiden which is the sketelal remains of a women somewhere between 18 and 20 years old that's just lightly covered with calcium carbonate. Again from Tunich-Hil we have the skull of a male that's in his 30s."

The majority of those sacrifices are form the Actun Tunich-Hil Mucknal Cave are they are about 1200 years old and still preserved. But remains are the only things preserved inside the caves. There are precious vases such as this one, and other discoveries:

Dr. Jaime Awe,
"In many of the caves one of the most common objects we find are these large jars and most of them are either broken, the bottom is knocked, or a little piece is chipped off, or they've cut what we call a kill hole inside of it. The reason for that is whenever the Maya took these objects in there and they left offerings in them, they would partially smash them so that nobody could reuse them because it's a belief that whenever you do a ceremony everything has to be pure, uncontaminated. We call this ceremonially killing the vessel and it is not just the Mayas that did this, a lot of cultures had this practice. At Chechen Ha we have founds seeds of chili pepper, of annatto which you make recardo from, and in many places like Barton Creek we also found corn preserved in the cave. Some of the corn are very small, the cob is only like this big, and some people ask if the corn is small because its prehistoric corn. No. What we have found out is that they are the first ears of corn. One of the important Gods that lives in the cave is the Rain God and the Mayans go in there to request that he comes out to make rain so that the agricultural cycle will be good because when you plant corn and the rain doesn't come your corn will not grow. As thanksgiving the Mayas will harvest some of the first ears of corn and take it into the cave."

Indeed, there is a vast treasure of mysteries in Belize's sprawling underworld - much of it still uncovered, preserved for over a thousand years.

Dr. Jaime Awe,
"Caves are exciting, they may be beautiful, but they remain very sacred places to one of the most amazing cultures in the New World."