Belize cave containing the sparkling, calcite covered skeletons of Mayan children, sacrificed to the rain god.

The skeleton of an eighteen year old girl lies legs akimbo on the cave floor, two of her vertebrae crushed. She is known as the Crystal Maiden, and after a thousand years, she has a new found celebrity.

Discovered in 1989, this jungle cave in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve is accessible via an hours Jeep ride from San Ignacio, Belize and a walk for another hour across shallow rivers and through jungle. Here one arrives at the Actun Tunichil Muknal or "ATM" cave mouth. To gain access to the cave one must swim into the cave and then wade up the cave river for another kilometer.

Walking a further kilometer and a half in the cave, past huge boulders and cavernous rooms (one known as "The Cathedral") to the back of the cave system, it is here one will find the skeletons of the ritual sacrifices made by the Maya to their Gods, more than a thousand years ago.

The skeletons range in age from one year old to adult. Four of those sacrificed are infants between the ages of one and three, some of them stuffed into crevices and small adjoining caves. There is one child of seven, a teenager of fifteen who appears to have been bound before being killed, a twenty year old, and the rest are adults between the ages of thirty and forty five. Many of the younger skeletons show sign of cranial deformation or "skull shaping" giving their heads a slightly elongated alien look.

Almost all were killed by blunt trauma to the head with some having had their entire skulls crushed. While the precise dating of the skeletons is difficult (due to their being essentially cemented to the cave floor by calcite) most of the pottery dates from between 700 and 900 AD, which is likely when the bodies found here were sacrificed.

Farther into the cave is perhaps the most famous of these long dead Maya, the skeleton of an eighteen year old girl (or one thousand and eighteen year old, at this point) known as the "The Crystal Maiden." S

he is unique in her positioning and the fact that two of her vertebrae are crushed. Because of this researchers believe she may have died in a particularly violent manner and then been thrown or tossed onto the ground, where she has laid for at least the last 1100 years. The skeleton has been there so long in fact that is has been completely calcified, giving her bones a sparkling, slightly plump look, and inspiring the name "The Crystal Maiden."

It is unknown what the circumstances of the sacrifices were, though some believe they were to appease the rain god Chac, or possibly to the gods of the underworld. Another theory holds that these were believed to be witches (possibly suffering from some kind of mental or physical ailments) and that by leaving them unburied in the cave, their spirits would be trapped there.

Other items found in the cave include ceramics, marked with "kill holes," and cave formations carved by the Maya, such as silhouettes of faces and animals. The cave is also home to Amblypygi or "whip spiders" and other predatory spiders.

Due to their inaccessibility and the calcification process of the cave, many of the they have been preserved just as they were left, and very little has been removed from the cave since it was discovered. (Some things were indeed looted early on.)

In a country not known for protecting its cultural heritage, ATM cave, is one of the few protected places, with only a few guides authorized to lead tours of the cave. Be very careful, however, as none of the skeletons or pottery are roped off, and one tourist has already accidently stepped on and broken one of the skulls.