The trail to Actun Tunichil Muknal has gotten a much needed upgrade. It's a really nice trail now, albeit a little wide in some places. The new restrooms at the parking area are great too. Well done, NICH!
"The photos show the end result of the ATM Upgrade Project which was designed to enhance the trail system from the parking lot to the entrance of the cave. In order to improve safety, trails were widened, stairs and bridges constructed where necessary and ropes erected to safely guide visitors across the river. Two resting shelters and a communal area were constructed at the camping area at the entrance of the cave."
Re: Into the Underworld – Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM)
#503369 04/15/1501:57 PM04/15/1501:57 PM
Why did the ancient Maya take their sacrificial rites underground?
Stalagmites rise to meet stalactites in Actun Turnichil Muknal's main chamber.
Inside Actun Tunichil Muknal, a giant limestone cave in the jungle of western Belize, it has been raining for thousands of years. Water falls lightly from the tips of stalactites into the river flowing through the cave. Beneath this light shower, I wade up the river with University of California, Merced, archaeologist Holley Moyes. She is 5 feet 4 inches tall, and the water reaches up to her chin, leaving a ripple in her wake as she moves deeper into the chamber. In the vast and echoing hall, our headlamp beams are like pinpoints in the pitch-black darkness. Underwater, tiny fish nibble at our legs.
Archaeologist Holley Moyes wades through the high waters of Actun Turnichil Muknal to reach artifact-laden chambers within its depths.
A quarter-mile deep in the cave, Moyes hoists herself onto a slippery ledge and leads me into a large chamber. Spread over the ground are hundreds of ancient orange and black ceramic pots, some as large as beach balls. Scattered among them are small obsidian tools, stone figurines and mirrors made of pyrite. We climb a ladder to a small chamber tucked away high above the cave floor. “There she is,” she says, as though greeting an old friend. Her headlamp illuminates a human skeleton lying on its back, its mouth jarred open, its ribs covered in glittering calcite. It is the remains of a 20-year-old woman known as the Crystal Maiden. She was sacrificed by an ancient Maya priest as part of a religious ritual more than 1,000 years ago.
Over the past 50 years, vestiges of religious rituals have turned up in hundreds of caves throughout the land of the ancient Maya, stretching from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula down through El Salvador. Some caves, like Actun Tunichil Muknal, or “Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre,” contain human or animal remains, as well as ceramic pots, musical instruments, jewelry, small sculptures and stingray spines, which were used for bloodletting. Others contain mysterious stone structures: altars, plaster platforms, pathways and monuments. In some caves, every chamber is adorned with this architecture — an extraordinary feat of engineering in absolute darkness.
The offerings are almost all found in the “dark zone” of caves, far beyond the “twilight zone,” which is what speleologists (cave scientists) call the parts of a cave illuminated by diffuse light. The Maya ventured into these deep spaces at great risk — in some cases traveling more than a mile underground, swimming down subterranean rivers, climbing precipitous cliffs or lowering themselves into tight hollows. Archaeologists can only access some of these places with ropes.
Moyes is part of a small, enthusiastic league of cave archaeologists in Mesoamerica who are trying to solve the puzzle of these mysterious underground artifacts. She has spent two decades crawling into jungle-choked caves, scrambling through guano and knocking her helmet against rocky ceilings, all in search of the answer to a single question: What drove the Maya to make offerings in such dark, remote places?
A 1,000-year-old skull, above, offers evidence of subterranean sacrificial rituals.
The territory of the ancient Maya covered much of Central America, but its heart was the heavy jungle surrounding Actun Tunichil Muknal in modern-day Belize and Guatemala. Between A.D. 250 and about 950, which archaeologists call the Classic Period, the rainforest here was home to resplendent cities. Copán, south of Actun Tunichil Muknal, housed 30,000 people. Tikal, a few hours west, held 100,000. Nearby Caracol was home to as many as 180,000. Kings filled these cities with lordly stone monuments called stelae and pyramids of gray stone. The Maya studied astronomy, composed music and wrote scroll-like books, or “codices,” in elegant hieroglyphics, the most advanced writing system in the pre-Columbian Americas. But like all civilizations, the Maya eventually fell. Their great cities were abandoned and engulfed by the forest.
Starting in the middle of the 19th century, archaeologists began pouring into the jungles to search for traces of the ancient inhabitants. One of the first things they noticed about the landscape was the abundance of caves. The Maya world, which rested on a soft, water-soluble limestone formation called karst, was like a terrestrial coral reef, perforated with thousands of cavities. There were limestone caverns gushing with subterranean rivers, dry mountain caves and water-filled sinkholes called cenotes. But few archaeologists suspected there was anything to learn from these hollows. They mapped the grand pyramids, measured the ornate palaces, sketched the hieroglyphs etched into stelae. The caves — dark, cramped and spattered with guano — were ignored.
That all changed in 1959 with the discovery of a small chamber in a cave called Balankanché, near the great Yucatán ruin of Chichén Itza. A local guide broke through a false wall in the cave, revealing a dark passageway. After a 500-foot crawl, he emerged into a hidden hollow brimming with ancient vases. The discovery, which inspired a National Geographic-funded excavation and report, made archaeologists wonder what other secrets the caves might hold.
Mark Robinson braves chest-high waters, tight crevices and almost darkness to reach ritual sites deep within Actun Turnichil Muknal.
By 1996, when Moyes first arrived in Belize as a Florida Atlantic University graduate student to participate in the Western Belize Regional Cave Project, cave studies had been recognized as a legitimate subdiscipline of Maya archaeology. Moyes, at 34, was older than most of her fellow students at the field school. She’d come to anthropology late, from a previous life running an off-Broadway theater in New York City. As she hacked through the jungle and ducked through cave mouths, she became captivated by the riddle of the subterranean offerings.
Under the tutelage of lead archaeologist Jaime Awe, Moyes came to appreciate the intricacy and depth of the Maya’s relationship to the underworld. Caves, she learned, were a recurring motif in ancient Maya art and literature: They were painted on the sides of ceramic vases, cited in songs and poems, and carved into stone monuments. “The Maya were cave-obsessed,” she says. To them, every cave was believed to be a portal into the underworld, which they called Xibalba.
For more than 1,000 years, the calcite-encrusted skeleton of a 20-year-old Maya woman called the Crystal Maiden has lain where she fell in a chamber deep within Actun Tunichil Muknal. Archaeologists believe she was sacrificed to appease Maya deities as populations plummeted.
At night in the jungle camp, Moyes read descriptions of Xibalba in the Popol Vuh, the ancient Maya creation myth. The story told of Hunahpu and Xbalanque, the Hero Twins, who journey into the underworld to do battle with the evil lords of Xibalba. What made Moyes curious was the conflicted nature of the Maya’s relationship to the underworld. Xibalba was known as “The Place of Fright,” home to monstrous figures with names like Pus Demon and Flying Scab; at the same time, it was linked to life-giving resources. The Maya people dreaded the underworld, but they could not live without it. Living in dark caves on the cusp of the underworld was Chac, the god of rain. He brandished terrible lightning bolts, and yet the Maya could not survive without the rain he brought. In the Popol Vuh, even after the Hero Twins defeated the major gods of Xibalba, they promised that the Maya people would bring them offerings.
In 1997, Moyes joined a team led by Awe that conducted a detailed survey of Actun Tunichil Muknal, the first in-depth study of the cave. They camped for three months beneath gigantic palm trees near the entrance. Each day she swam through the mouth of the cave, a giant hourglass draped with green vines. During long hours underground, Moyes helped map the cave and scour the floor for traces of the Maya. Sometimes she would record artifacts into the wee hours of the morning. “Time becomes obsolete underground,” she says. “I’d work late into the night without even noticing. Jaime would have to go find me because I’d been down so long.”
Just inside the cave mouth and within the twilight zone, the team found pots and large offerings of snail shells. As they moved deeper into the cave, the offerings grew stranger and more abundant. In the cave’s large central chamber, a quarter-mile from the entrance, they encountered a stunning profusion of artifacts: ceramic pots, grinding stones, bits of obsidian. They found more than 1,000 pieces in all. Including the Crystal Maiden, Moyes and her colleagues counted 14 human skeletons, some tucked away in corners, others splayed out in the open. At the foot of a massive speleothem, or mineral deposit, they found the remains of two young men, their skeletons dismembered and encrusted with calcite. In dark crevices, Moyes saw the skeletons of infants. They carefully extracted samples of the artifacts and pieces of charcoal from the cave floor to be carbon-dated.
Kellie Jaeger/Discover; after Thomas Miller and the Western Belize Regional Cave Project
The results revealed a puzzling pattern. The artifacts found closer to the entrance of the cave dated from A.D. 250 all the way up to the ninth century A.D. Deep in the darkness of the main chamber, on the other hand, the artifacts all dated from the eighth and ninth century A.D. Over the course of many centuries, the Maya had visited the entrance of the cave and the parts within the twilight zone, but only occasionally ventured into the dark zone. Then, during the eighth and ninth centuries, they suddenly began making frequent trips into the depths. Again and again they struck deep into the cave, leaving offerings, conducting ceremonies and performing sacrifices. And then, as abruptly as they began, the ceremonies ended. There was no sign of the Maya in the caves beyond the middle of the ninth century A.D.
This pattern matched other caves in the region. At Chechem Ha, a large, dry cave 25 miles from Actun Tunichil Muknal, Moyes found the same distribution. Ceramics and fire residue showed the cave had been visited off and on going back to the second millennium B.C., but in the eighth and ninth centuries, there was a sudden burst of activity. Even Balankanché, the cave in the Yucatán, fit the pattern: The ceramics left in the sealed chamber all dated to the ninth century.
On a quiet afternoon toward the end of that field season, Moyes sat outside the entrance of Actun Tunichil Muknal. Monkeys chittered in the trees; tanagers squawked. The river glided forth from the cave and passed over a ridge of mossy boulders, following the same path it had for millenniums. About 1,100 years ago, the Maya suddenly became fixated on this cave, venturing into the darkness again and again. What had changed, Moyes wondered, to drive the Maya into the underworld?
Some parts of the cave are only accessible by climbing — a challenging task even with modern equipment.
Classic Maya Collapse
The ninth century A.D., Moyes knew, was a turbulent time in Maya history. The great ancient cities of modern-day Belize, Guatemala and Honduras began their demise. After six centuries of legendary prosperity, the Maya heartlands suddenly emptied out. The population in Tikal, in the jungle west of Actun Tunichil Muknal, decreased from 90,000 people to 10,000. The populations of Copán and Caracol also plummeted. Maya kings, who inscribed dates on the stelae they erected, stopped building altogether: The latest date on a monument anywhere in the Maya heartland was A.D. 909. Once-glorious cities were left to be consumed by jungle. Archaeologists call this the Classic Maya Collapse.
For decades, Mayanists had debated the cause of the collapse. Some argued that the ancients were felled by a wave of foreign invaders or a deterioration of trade routes that led to economic failure. Others suggested a disease epidemic or a massive civil revolt. The strange cave offerings during the ninth century, Moyes imagined, were related to the collapse — she just didn’t know how.
In the early 2000s, the puzzle pieces began to fall into place. In 2000, a Texas-based Mayanist named Richardson Gill finished a 17-year-long study on the ancient climate of Mesoamerica. Gill examined data on sediment cores from the bottom of lakes, tree rings and cores from speleothems in caves. When he parsed the data, the pattern was unmistakable: At the beginning of the ninth century A.D., there was a sharp and severe drop in rainfall.
Moyes leads the way through one of Actun Turnichil Muknal's perilous passageways.
In his book, The Great Maya Droughts: Water, Life, and Death, Gill explains that the Maya had always had an anxious relationship with water. Between May and October of each year it rained heavily, but during the other seven months, the Maya heartland was dry as bone. To grow sufficient crops to feed their enormous populations, Maya cities relied on a network of cisterns, irrigation ditches and drainage systems that conserved rainwater from the wet months. But during the ninth century, it almost stopped raining altogether, even during the wet season.
Gill paints a grisly scene. The reservoirs and cisterns went dry. The crops, which grew in terraces cut into jungle hills, died. Starvation set in; millions perished. Eventually, the survivors gave up hope and left, migrating to the coast or to lakes in the north.
So, Moyes wondered, were the cave offerings connected to the drought? She returned to past studies on the Maya’s relationship to caves and read art history books. In one of them, she saw photographs of Maya vases. Painted on the vases were caverns in silhouette, shaped like the mouth of a monster. Inside the cave crouched a deity with wild eyes and a long headdress. It was Chac, the Maya rain god.
Etched into an ancient stone monument was another image of a cave. Floating out of the cave mouth was a rain cloud. It illustrated the ancient belief that caves, the realm of Chac, were the birthplace of rain.
Moyes also came across a photograph of a group of modern Maya — descendants of the ancient Maya who survived the Collapse — kneeling inside a cave. They held candles and were saying prayers. (Even though most modern Maya are Catholic, they continue to make pilgrimages to the caves to pray for rain and abundant crops.) It was just before the harvest, and they were conducting a ceremony to bring rain.
Carved into a rock face of the Olmec site Chalcatzingo in central Mexico, a relief known as "El Ray," shows what appears to be rain clouds emerging from a cave.
The Drought Cult
The next time Moyes swam through the shadowy mouth of Actun Tunichil Muknal, she imagined herself on the tail of a procession of ancient pilgrims. They waded through the darkness ahead of her, lighting their way with torches. On their backs, they balanced giant ceramic pots. The group moved through the cave with a choreographed slowness, chanting prayers. A priest in feathered regalia kept an obsidian blade in a sheath on his hip. A 20-year-old woman walked in the middle of the group, the river — lowered by the drought — reaching up to her waist.
A diagram of the relief known as "El Ray."
The pilgrims were thin and haggard, their faces creased. In the torchlight, they eyed the stalactites, like monster’s teeth, on the ceiling. They were inside Xibalba, following the path of the Hero Twins. It was the realm of Chac. They were afraid, but they had no other choice.
The planting season was approaching, and again there had been no rain. The water reservoirs were empty, the soil in the terraced hills parched. In the cities, people whispered of leaving this place behind, perhaps heading to the coast. Their offerings to the rain god had been insufficient. But perhaps if they did something drastic, if they brought more sumptuous gifts, they could appease the god and bring rain. They watched — hopeful — as water dripped from above into the river around them.
The pilgrims climbed into the cathedral-like main chamber. The floor was already littered with offerings from past pilgrimages. They found an empty niche to place the ceramic pots — out of some, corn spilled onto the ground. The priest sharpened his blades; the young woman trembled. In the glow of the torches, amid a rising prayer, he prepared the sacrifice.
“Just as their world was falling apart,” Moyes says, “they made a last-ditch effort to please Chac.” She calls this influx in subterranean rituals, which were happening all over the Maya world during the ninth century, the Drought Cult.
Since that first field season at Actun Tunichil Muknal 17 years ago, Moyes and her team have investigated more than 50 caves, all in Belize. “It’s still a new theory,” says University of California archaeologist James Brady, one of the pioneering cave researchers in Mesoamerica. “To claim that there was a widespread cult will require more work in the caves.”
Moyes says she plans to expand her work to sites in Mexico and Guatemala.
In some caves, the offerings are so elaborate and painstaking, you can almost sense the desperation and urgency the Maya felt as their world crumbled. On my last afternoon in Belize, Moyes brings me to Las Cuevas, a cave two hours south of Actun Tunichil Muknal, not far from the mega-ruin of Caracol. It is a behemoth of a cave, with an entrance big enough for an ocean liner to pass through. “During the time of the drought,” says Moyes, “pilgrims were coming here from all over.”
At the back of the first chamber, Moyes leads me to a thick stone wall made from bone-hued rocks and chunks of speleothem. Fingerprints are visible in the mortar. In the middle of the gateway is an opening, a passage so low that we have to crawl into the next chamber. The wall dates to the ninth century. “We may be looking at one of the gateways of Xibalba,” Moyes says.
In the Popol Vuh, she explains, the Hero Twins follow a road through Xibalba that brings them through separate compartments of the underworld, each characterized by a harrowing trial or challenge — not unlike the rings in Dante’s Inferno. Each compartment in Xibalba is divided by a gateway. Moyes believes the Maya may have built this gateway to re-create the Hero Twins’ path through Xibalba.
A crooked sliver of light greets Actun Turnichil Muknal visitors re-entering the above-ground world.
Over the next hour, we push deeper into the cave, passing through nine distinct chambers. Dividing each one is a stone gateway. On the ground in front of each portal is a sprinkling of charcoal, fallen from the torches of ancient Maya when they stopped to perform a ritual.
Through the final gateway, we emerge onto a high, craggy ledge. The path of the Hero Twins through Xibalba opens up to a view over a voluminous chamber. At the center of the chamber is a cenote; its babbling water reverberates lightly, like ancestral whispers. It takes a moment to see that almost the entire cave floor is man-made. Encircling the cenote are platforms, flat terraces of plaster — all built in the ninth century. Some terraces are still white and perfectly smooth. Looking out over the constructed subterranean landscape, I imagine thousands of desperate Maya singing and dancing on these platforms, begging for rain that would never come.
Diving deeper into Mayan lore — and a den of human sacrific
Shoeless and shivering cold, I’m halfway through a subterranean triathlon of wading, swimming, and climbing through Belize’s Actun Tunichil Muknal, a portal to the sacred underworld according to ancient Mayan lore. Locals still call the cave Xibalba, or “place of fear,” and as I tiptoe past yet another human skull, it’s not hard to understand why.
The entrance of Belize’s Actun Tunichil Muknal.
Three hours before, the cave looked welcoming — refreshing, even. A river flowed from the vine-draped grotto, and a swim across a 15-foot pool was required to access the inner depths. Jumping into the clear, minnow-filled water was the closest I and my Northeastern University classmates — volunteering in western Belize over our spring break — would get to scuba diving off the country’s Caribbean coast. Eager for semi-aquatic adventure, we may have overlooked the fact that we were venturing into what was once a den of human sacrifice.
Not far from the cultural hub of San Ignacio, Actun Tunichil Muknal is closer to Guatemala than to Belize’s tourist-heavy eastern seaboard. Famous for its skeletal sovereign, a young woman whose calcified remains have earned her the epithet the Crystal Maiden, the cave is one of a number of prehistoric sites in the mountainous Cayo District, where the Mayan civilization thrived more than a millennium ago. The skeletal remains of 13 other humans, as well as many ceramic and stoneware pieces, have been discovered in the limestone abyss.
Our archeological adventure began after a bumpy backroads drive and a 45-minute jungle hike that included fording a waist-deep river three times.
At the mouth of the cave, we abandoned our packs and strapped on miner’s helmets. Split into two groups, three of my classmates and I – joined by a middle-aged American couple and two visibly nervous French-Canadian women – put our trust in Martin, a guide from San Ignacio’s Mayawalk Tours. Headlamps shining, we plunged into the aqueous aperture and followed Martin into the dank, dark unknown.
Stalagmites in an upper chamber of Actun Tunichil Muknal.
Not for the feeble or claustrophobic, navigating the cave required spurts of doggy paddling in between traipsing shallow waters, clambering over slick boulders and squeezing through tight passages with names like “the guillotine” — all obstacles of adventure or of peril, depending on one’s intrepid spirit.
Along the way, sights of fluttering bats and gigantic spiders, plus the occasional crab, reminded us spelunkers that life survives underground. Seeing fellow tourists slipping and colliding, helmet-first, with overhanging rock slabs reminded us that, amazingly, we had never signed liability waivers.
About a mile in, we climbed away from the clammy stream to a dry upper space called the Cathedral. The white flowstones and massive stalagmites and stalactites of the soaring chamber looked more like Gaudí creations than natural occurrences.
There, we removed our shoes and kept an eye out for artifacts blocked off by nothing more than strips of orange tape. Past foot traffic had damaged the haphazardly scattered bones and bits of broken pottery found in the chamber, and our wearing only socks was meant to prevent further harm. Cameras have not been allowed in the cave since, in 2012, a tourist dropped his and shattered a centuries-old skull.
Sitting below jagged stone altars, most of the pottery had calcified into the cave floor. Martin pointed out the “kill holes” in some of the ceramics, evidence of the bloodletting ceremonies and hallucinogenic quests that Mayan priests and royalty would engage in to connect with the deities of the underworld.
We saw four partial skeletons before scaling a rickety ladder, wedged precariously between boulders, to a small separate chamber that was the Crystal Maiden’s resting place. The only female found in the cave, her skeleton — sprawled and facing upward, jaws gaping — was also the only one that was fully intact. The sparkling remains were deceiving, showing no indication she had been the victim of human sacrifice. It’s believed she was killed with a club.
As I looked at her calcified skeleton one last time before descending the ladder, ready to make my way back above ground, I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was. I would be leaving Actun Tunichil Muknal alive.
Exploring This ‘Portal To The Underworld’ Will Leave You In Awe Of Mayan Culture
Fine, fine, that kid we thought was so brilliant, the one who discovered an ancient Mayan city by looking at the stars? Probably not real. But that doesn’t mean that the Mayan world doesn’t still hold secrets untold. Secrets that will only reveal themselves to bold spirits and intrepid explorers.
Deep in the lush green jungles of Belize, there’s a cave with a 1,000-year-old skeleton inside. The bones once belonged to a human — killed to glorify the Gods — and can still be visited to this day. The spot is so special that National Geographic ranked it No. 1 in their book Sacred Places of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Most Peaceful and Powerful Destinations.
It’s called Actun Tunichil Muknal, which translates to Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre. How good is that? It could be an Indiana Jones title with zero modification. To the locals, it’s known as ATM cave (because it makes the region a lot of money?); to the ancient Mayans it was Xibalba. The word means “place of fear,” which designates the cave as an entrance to the Mayan underworld. For the Mayans, the underworld was not an abstract concept — it was real, accessed through caves like this one. And with Belize being home to the most caves in all of Central America, Xibalba was never far from the minds of the region’s early inhabitants.
In those ancient days, standing at the entrance to Actun Tunichil Muknal, and any cave for that matter, was like standing at the entrance to hell. Xibalba wasn’t just home to demons, though. It was also home to one of the Mayans’ most revered deities: Chac, the God of rain. Early Mayans who followed rivers upstream to discover their sources usually found a stream gushing from the mouth of a cave. This led them to believe that water was born in caves — so naturally caves were also the home to Chac.
Chac was responsible for the rain he provided for crops (signifying his mercy) and also the withholding of rain or the throwing of lightning bolts from the sky (signifying his vengeance). When the Mayans sought his favor, they offered gifts, delivered to his dark and wet home deep under the earth. They delivered quite a few gifts to him at Actun Tunichil Mukna, offerings that remain there today.
To see all of this for myself, I traveled down a long and bumpy dirt road, hiked through the jungle, and waded across two rivers before finally arriving at the cave entrance.
I. Into The Belly Of The Beast
With the overgrown vines and the precariously situated boulders hanging above, plus the blue-gray water pouring from the caves’ mouth, Actun Tunichil Muknal is the quintessential jungle cave. It’s so perfect looking that you’ll think it’s the entrance to a Disney World ride.
Remember, caves were considered the underworld to the ancient Mayans — the home of Gods. With that in mind, as you stand at the entrance, think about the Mayans who stood in this spot one thousand years ago to begin their journey into the underworld to offer sacrifices (sometimes human ones) to the Gods with only torches to light the way.
II. Abandon Hope Ye Who Enter
Come prepared to get wet. Very wet. To enter the cave, you’ll need to jump into the grotto and swim about 20 feet to the other side. Your feet won’t be able to touch the bottom. Don’t freak out, the only thing swimming with you will be a few tiny fish.
Inside, your journey will include climbing and maneuvering over, under, and around rocks — including a few tight squeezes. But mostly, you’ll be wading through the cave’s river and pools, which vary in depth. Unfortunately, few photos exist that show this part of the trek, so you’ll just have to use your imagination.
III. This Cave… Rocks!
Throughout the adventure, you’ll see an impressive array of cave formations, like stalagmites and stalactites that have been continuously forming for hundreds of thousands of years. You’ll also enter some spectacular dry rooms, including the expansive main chamber (pictured below).
IV. Mayan Relics Abound
After entering the cavernous main chamber (it’ll require a little climbing), you’ll need to remove your shoes and continue on in just your socks to help preserve the cave and artifacts.
Continuing deeper into the cave, the presence of the ancient Mayans turns from metaphysical to tangible as clay pots left behind ages ago begin to appear in the darkness. Brought in to appease the Gods, these pots held offerings like food and animal blood.
But when these offerings didn’t appear to be work (when war, drought or famine persisted), the Mayans took their sacrificial offerings to a new level — by offering the blood of humans which was ceremoniously collected in the cave (often by piercing the tongue with the spine of a stingray).
And when human blood didn’t seem to do the trick, well…
V. Let’s Talk Human Sacrifice
In dire times, Mayan’s offered the ultimate sacrifice to their Gods — people. Within Actun Tunichil Muknal rests the skeletal remains of 14 human sacrifices, including those of seven children. All are not visible and the bones of most remain scattered, buried or semi-buried on account of being displaced by running water and covered in sediment.
VI. Finally, In A Hidden Chamber… The Crystal Maiden
Before turning back, you’ll make one final stop. Using a ladder (the only human device throughout the entire cave brought in to assist visitors), you’ll climb up and into a small room. Crouching down, you’ll shuffle forward a few feet and come face to face with the Crystal Maiden — the name given to the fully intact skeleton which has been lying here for more than 1,000 years.
For years, it was believed the skeleton was that of a 20-year-old female, but later science determined that it’s actually that of a male of about the same age. After a thousand years of being dripped on by water falling from the ceiling, his bones are now calcified and sparkle ever so slightly under light.
Climbing back down the ladder, lost in thought, you’ll begin the journey back to the cave’s entrance. After twisting and turning your body through some tight passageways (one just big enough to squeeze your neck through…while treading water), you’ll emerge from the underworld and into the sun-filled jungle.
How To Go:
Only government approved tour operators are allowed to lead groups into Actun Tunichil Muknal. A simple Google search for “Actun Tunichil Muknal Tour” is all it takes to get started.
Tip: Since Actun Tunichil Muknal is located in the far west of the country, and tours depart in the morning, you’ll most likely need to spend the night before in the region (and we highly recommend spending a few nights in the jungle anyway). Your hotel will be able to set you up on a tour, and some hotels even have their own guides.
Chaa Creek, Belize’s original jungle eco-resort, makes it easy to organize your Actun Tunichil Muknal trip through the hotel’s activities concierge.
Price: Most tours range from $90 to $110 per person.
Good To Know:
You will see bats and maybe a spider or two. Keep your cool, you will survive. Since 2012, cameras have been strictly prohibited within the cave (thanks to someone dropping their camera on a skull and cracking it). The photos seen here were taken several years ago, before the ban.
In a world with a “If I can’t post a photo of me doing this to Instagram, did it ever really happen?” mentality, it’s kind of nice to be forced to see and remember the world with your eyes and brain, not with a camera.
What To Bring:
For guys: athletic undies with shorts or a bathing suit and a long or short sleeve shirt. For ladies: a bathing suit with shorts or yoga pants and a long or short sleeve shirt. Don’t forget to wear socks.
The most important thing is having the right shoes, becasue Belize is humid and it could take days for regular sneakers to dry out. Chacos, like the Outcross 1 for men and the Outcross 1 for women, were made for a situation like this.
Rare Footage of Belize's Ancient Maya Sacrificial Cave
The rarely photographed Actun Tunichil Muknal cave was used as a sacred sacrificial site for the ancient Maya. The cave contains dozens of skeletons including the calcified remains of an eighteen-year-old woman known as, “The Crystal Maiden.” National Geographic was granted special access to explore this Maya archaeological site in this deleted scene from National Geographic's One Strange Rock.
Dr. Jaime Awe has a short explanation of the importance of Actun Tunichil Muknal cave.
"Explore Belize’s Maya Archaeological site, Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in this deleted scene from National Geographic's One Strange Rock. Watch more One Strange Rock Mondays 10/9c. Catch up on-demand & with the Nat Geo TV app.
Deep in the jungles of Belize, a sacred site has begun attracting tourists that are willing to hike, swim, and climb their way to reach it. The Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, a place of great significance for ancient Maya, was discovered in 1989. After years of research by Belizean archeologist Jaime Awe and his team, the site was opened to the public in 1998. The site is home to dozens of skeletons, including the famous Crystal Maiden.
Although the cave now draws much interest from adventurous tourists, it is still not widely seen: a few years ago, photography and video were banned. In 2017, Awe visited the cave again with National Geographic during filming for the new series One Strange Rock.
'They're portals to the underworld, to where important gods resided," Awe says, highlighting the cave's importance to the Maya civilization and the world. "We also see human sacrifice. Things must have been really difficult for the Maya to be doing this. The Maya certainly contributed to their own demise.'"
Climate change has been affecting civilizations for a long time.
When archaeologist Holley Moyes first poked around Belize’s Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, the massive amount of bat feces impressed her. Sure, the ancient Maya pots and tools dazzled Moyes. But during early trips into Actun Tunichil Muknal, it was the piles of poop that alerted her to the uniqueness of this ancient site.
“There were seven or eight centimeters of almost pure bat guano and almost no charcoal, and I thought, ‘Hey, what is this all about?’” says the University of California, Merced, professor. Given that pine torches would’ve left a charcoal carpet, “it was a dead giveaway that bats were coming in, but people weren’t.”
Like many Maya sites, though, Actun Tunichil Muknal — Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre, known as ATM to researchers — generated as many mysteries as it solved. Why did the Maya seal the cave for centurylong breaks and then reopen it? Why did they journey deeper and deeper into the earth over time? What was the purpose of the human sacrifices that litter its chambers?
ATM is one of hundreds of limestone caves in the jungles of western Belize. For decades, scientists swarmed the grand cities dotting the area, but in 1959, a guide discovered a cave in Chichén Itza in southern Mexico filled with Maya artifacts, according to The Ancient Maya of Mexico, edited by Geoffrey E. Braswell. Quickly, Maya studies expanded to include subterranean sites. But few compare to ATM, which was mapped in the mid-’90s by a team that included Moyes.
Scientists discovered its most impressive treasure only after navigating an underground river and descending a quarter-mile below the surface. The reward: the Crystal Maiden, the skeleton of a 20-year-old covered in sparkling, naturally occurring calcite. The maiden, whom experts believe was offered by priests to Maya gods more than a millennium ago, is one of 14 human sacrifices hidden in the cave.
During the heyday of the Maya civilization, from roughly A.D. 250 to 950, hundreds of thousands of people lived in cities throughout Central America. The largest urban area, Caracol, in present-day Belize, had a population of 140,000, according to research by Diane and Arlen Chase, husband-and-wife anthropologists at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The cities devoted room to sacrificial burial grounds, so why did priests bother battling underground rivers and scramble up and down slopes covered in guano to offer up a sacrifice?
It’s especially baffling, given that the Maya underworld, Xibalba, is a nasty place. Lords of the nether realm sported such names as “One Death, Seven Death, Pus Master, Jaundice Master, Trash Master [and] Stab Master,” writes Andrea Stone in Images From the Underworld. They were “the ghouls and goblins of the Maya Pantheon.” Sadly for the Maya, occasional trips to “the place of fear” were a necessity.
They might have had to make the journey as a rite of passage or as part of a kingly ascension ceremony, says Moyes. The rituals in caves are considered highly esoteric, and for a long time there wasn’t much about them in ethnography, she notes. When ethnographers first started working in Maya areas, they weren’t invited to the cave ceremonies, Moyes says. “You didn’t take foreigners there.”
“The ancient Maya don’t write very much about caves,” says Moyes. “But they were using them like crazy, especially in the late classic period, there is this whole boom in cave use.”
Through carbon-dating, researchers discovered that the remains near the entrance of the cave are older than those tucked deep into the darkness. Over hundreds of years, the Maya journeyed farther and farther into the cave system — many experts think drought near the downfall of the Maya empire in the middle of the 10th century created a desperation that forced the people to bring sacrifices closer to the home of certain gods.
“It has to do with climate and stress, part of a nexus of how the environment and human rituals all come together,” Moyes says. “They must have been pretty panicked, because ritual life increases dramatically in this period.”
Scientists are still stumped by much of Maya history. Maybe a layperson will stumble on a key to one of the mysteries. For years, ATM remained closed to the public, but reaching the portal to Xibalba these days requires only an hour’s drive from San Ignacio, followed by an hour of hiking through dense jungle, fording streams and swimming across the pool at the cave’s mouth. After that, an amateur Indiana Jones has only to wade a kilometer along a subterranean river, where the Crystal Maiden awaits.
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Re: Into the Underworld – Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM)
#538007 08/29/1904:34 PM08/29/1904:34 PM