Lisa J. Lucero, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recently completed an expedition to central Belize to study ancient Maya underwater offerings.
On Oct. 24, 2010, Hurricane Richard transformed the landscape where I conduct archaeology in central Belize. Huge swaths of the tropical forest were flattened. But damage to ancient Maya sites was surprisingly minimal. Then, in mid-April, there were concerns about wildfires as the dry season wore on, turning dead vegetation into a tinderbox waiting for a spark. I arrived in Belize for the diving expedition at Cara Blanca in early May, dreading the effects of the enormous fires. There was another landscape transformation, but again the ancient sites remained largely undamaged.
How could these ancient buildings withstand such forces of nature? They have survived many natural challenges since the Maya abandoned them by A.D. 900. This got me thinking about resiliency — regarding not the sites, but the Maya.
Resiliency is important for scientists too. The original purpose of the Cara Blanca diving expedition was to explore for ancient Maya offerings 200 feet underwater in one of the thousands of caves and water bodies thought to be portals to the underworld, Xibalba. We wanted to determine if the Maya intensified rituals in an attempt to get the gods to bring an end to a series of droughts that struck the Maya area between A.D. 800 and 900. But the large trees that have been falling for hundreds of years, the extreme darkness and deep bottom silt precluded that, at least for now.
As one door closes, another opens — into a world of extinct megafauna.
We had four days to dive at one of the deepest known cenotes of the 25 pools at Cara Blanca. We had brought in cave dive instructors, Kim Davidsson, Patrick Widmann and Chip Petersen; Marty O’Farrell, an underwater videographer; and Andrew Kinkella, an archaeologist. Divers used nitrox (oxygen and nitrogen) or trimix gases (oxygen, nitrogen and helium) and open-air or closed-circuit rebreathers, which would allow them to explore the cenote bottom for offerings and to map the huge cave discovered last year by Robbie Schmittner and Kim Davidsson. The mouth of the cave begins to open 100 feet below the surface and is at least 150 feet wide. It is aptly named Actun Ek Nen, Mayan for Black Mirror Cave. It was a challenge for Patrick Widmann and Kim to map because it is pitch black, penetrates 160 feet into the cliff face and bottoms out at over 220 feet.
In the process of exploring the remainder of the 330-by-230-foot cenote, Marty O’Farrell discovered megafauna fossil beds halfway down the steep sidewalls that were not of the first found in 2010 by Robbie and Marty — giant sloths, mammoths or mastodons, and other large creatures — that lived anywhere between two million and 10,000 years ago. If giant sloths roamed this area, then we have entered the realm of creatures that stood up to 20 feet high on hind legs. If mammoths or mastodons were also around, their shoulder height ranged from 10 to 15 feet.
Divers collected several fossils that were the first recorded in Belize, as well as sodden wood from the same stratum. According to H. Gregory McDonald, a paleontologist, the fossils appear to show evidence of weathering, indicating that they had been exposed for a while before a rise in the sea level and water table submerged them.
Most interesting to archaeology is whether humans were around at the same time as the megafauna. The tropics keep many secrets, including how long ago people lived here — were they here around 10,000 years ago? We know they were in other parts of Belize. The fossils are currently at the Institute of Archaeology in Belmopan, the capital of Belize, being prepared for export to the United States for dating.
While the discovery of fossils does not bring me closer to my main goal of addressing ritual intensification in response to a series of droughts that took place between A.D. 800 and 900, I have no doubt that the ancient Maya made offerings into this portal to the underworld.
Cara Blanca, with its concentration of several cenotes and year-round water, is practically devoid of farmsteads. Instead, we have found ritual sweat baths and other ceremonial buildings near cenotes, indicating that this area served a special purpose — a sacred one, likely for pilgrimage. Water jar sherds excavated from buildings near the pools also indicate intensified ritual activities between A.D. 800 to 900 during an intense period of climate change. That is why it is so critical to explore these sacred waters, not only to find offerings, but to find out from how many centers or communities they came.
While the devastation of Hurricane Richard last year and the wildfires this year has been difficult to witness, I realized that the Maya have dealt with similar challenges for millenniums — and with aplomb. And they still do: the Maya “survive” in the millions in present-day southeastern and Yucatan Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. While kings may have disappeared, the people did not. Now that is resiliency.
The Maya persevered, without metal tools, beasts of burden, wheeled carts or roads. They also practiced sustainable farming for millenniums (before, during and after the advent of kings) without major irrigation systems. In fact, the Maya were completely rainfall-dependent. There are lessons here that archaeologists and other scientists are attempting to cull from the past.
Climate change played a role in the demise of Maya kings by A.D. 900, similar to what we are experiencing at present — intense storms, unpredictable weather and so on. And just as the blanket term “global warming” does not capture the intricacies of changing climate, neither did “long-term drought” for the Maya. In the end, the ancient Maya abandoned hundreds of centers famous for their palaces, temples, tombs and ball courts over a thousand years ago. They even stopped worshiping at sacred places like Cara Blanca.
The goal of this and future expeditions is to explore for ancient offerings, specifically from A.D. 800 to 900, when there are indications that the Maya intensified rituals to propitiate the rain god Chaak, ancestors and other supernatural forces not only to bring forth rain, but to bring it in the right amount (not too much, not too little) and at the right time for planting and replenishing water stores.
On a future trip I will excavate the ceremonial building (Str. 1) at the 200-feet-deep cenote; it sits so close to the edge that it is eroding into the pool. While I expect that excavations at Str. 1 will provide us with an idea as to what the Maya proffered into the cenote, I am still determined to search for offerings in the watery underworld we call Cara Blanca.