Over the last decade News 5's
reporters and camera crews
have ventured deep beneath
the surface of the Belizean
countryside to explore
caverns at the Vaca Plateau,
Mountain Pine Ridge and Caves
Branch. Tonight we take you on another adventure
to a place that offers the most stunning evidence
yet of how the earliest inhabitants of Belize
lived--and died--in a realm called the underworld.
Janelle Chanona reports.
Janelle Chanona, Reporting
Geological surveys of Belize have revealed that the
country is home to the largest network of cave
systems in all of Central America. Many of these
mysterious underground tunnels have yet to be
discovered, but an increasing number are being
explored by scientists and in their footsteps, an
In the Cayo District, the caverns of one such cave and
the artefacts they contain have earned the name
Actun Tunichil Mooknal or the Cave of the Stone
To get there requires a forty-five minute hike through
the bush, punctuated by no less than three crossings
of the picturesque Roaring River.
"The cave is not the only attraction of the trip. The
trail takes you through the Tapir Mountain Nature
Reserve, home to giants like this Wild Fig Tree."
Leading the way is tour operator and guide Emilio
Awe. Awe has been walking this path for the past five
years and is keen to make sure that the source of his
livelihood stays in good shape.
"We ask that you do not touch any of the formations
in the cave: stalactites, stalagmites or flowstones
also we ask that you do not have any paper in your
pockets, anything that can float out of your pocket
and litter the floor of the stream."
"This cave lay untouched for more than a thousand
years until modern day scientists explored it in 1986.
Since then it's become a popular destination with
So every year, one by one, hundreds of tourists take a
leap of faith into the cold waters to behold the
remnants of a world lost in time.
Once inside we are enveloped in the overwhelming
darkness; our tiny headlights helping to show us the
way as the gurgling sounds of the stream echo off the
walls. Much of the route goes through water, ranging
from ankle to chest deep.
"It is a very adventurous trip. It can only be done by
people who are physical or able to hike...they have to
be able to swim, climb, crawl, and be able to hike for
most of the day."
Having navigated the claustrophobic caverns and
twisting waterways, we begin our ascent into the main
chamber. Suddenly a strange odour fills the air as we
encounter the first artefact of the cave on the aptly
named Boot Hill.
"Emilio, why do I have to take off my shoes?"
"Because of the conservation of the cave. We will be
walking on some travertine pools or rim stone dams,
and also within the main chamber of the cave, there's
a lot of artefacts that are littered all over the floor of
the cave...some of them covered by calcium carbonate
minerals, some of that you see exposed. By being
barefooted, then we tend to be more careful with
every step we make."
One set of feet that apparently has not entered the
cave is that of looters. This has allowed scientists to
spend years documenting everything they could find.
And what they discovered are ancient stone tools,
carved monuments arranged as an altar and thousands
of pieces of pottery. This particular pot depicts a
creature with only four fingers on each limb, leading
scientists to suspect it is a spider monkey. Now lying
scattered all over the floor, these pieces are broken
symbols of a lost civilisation trapped forever in layers
"Halfway through the main chamber we find dramatic
evidence of human occupation. Archaeologists tell us
that even though the Mayans didn't actually live in
caves, they did use them extensively for religious
And one of those purposes was sacrifice.
How they are related to religious purposes is unclear,
but fourteen skeletal remains have been found
entombed here giving the cave its name. Beneath the
limestone, they found a skull that during its formative
years, had been moulded so the forehead would
appear flat, achieved by binding two planks of wood to
the head. The teeth had been chipped and carved into
a three pronged design. It is believed these
alterations to the body were seen as signs of beauty
by the Ancient Maya.
Despite his pleasing appearance--or perhaps because
of it--this particular citizen met a violent death. A
fracture line clearly visible on the side of the skull
looks like trauma with a blunt instrument, a feature
common to most of the cave's skulls.
But the prize of Tunichil Mooknal lies in this alcove.
Estimated to be at least twelve hundred years old,
this is the cave's only fully preserved skeleton.
Initially, water movement might have shifted its
position, but soon after the limestone built up around
it, naturally cementing it to the floor. The shape of
the eyes and pelvis indicate that this was a woman.
Additional tests have revealed she died when she was
only twenty years old. Like the others, she too boasts
a fractured skull.
"This is the only female found so far. So the other
thirteen, are males, the ages go from about nine
months to about fourteen years of age."
"Whatever skeletal remains you see in the cave are
not considered to be burials, as they do not believe
the Mayan people buried their dead in the cave. But
they believe that the skeletal remains are evidence of
sacrificial offerings done to the Gods that dwell within
the cave, primarily the Rain God. And they believe
that the Rain God because most of the remains, as
you might have noticing, were placed in areas that
hold water during the rainy season."
But will the artefacts like these of Actun Tunichil
Mooknal have to be sacrificed to satisfy the curiosity
of those who would brave the darkness?
"This cave is seen as actually as a natural museum,
stuff is left exactly as the Mayan people left it."
"There are two different tour companies conducting
tours in the cave, and all the guides have been
trained by archaeologists. So they have set
designated paths as well as rules for conducting tours
in the cave."
By all accounts, those rules are being scrupulously
followed. The people who have had the honour of
retracing the footsteps of the Ancient Maya have done
so with respect and the cave appears to be in
remarkably good condition. For any reasonably fit
person, a visit here is a lesson in history that can't be
found in any book.
Reporting for News 5, I am Janelle Chanona.
Cameraman on this remarkable story was Brent
Toombs, who at six foot, six inches tall is not
exactly the ideal size for cave exploration. Emilio
Awe is proprietor of PACZ Tours, one of the two
companies licensed to operate in the cave. He can
be contacted in San Ignacio at 824-2477.