There are three large pre-Columbian civilizations that dominate our thoughts and fascinate us about what was once in Mesoamerica and South America. These three (the Incas, Aztecs, and the Mayans) were all very different. So much was lost and destroyed but still, we do have so much more to discover about them. When one thinks of the Mayans, one often thinks of their incredibly impressive pyramids. But another of the great legacies of the Mayans is underground and we are still discovering more of these caves.
Of course, we are discovering much more than just Mayan caves. Who knows how many more caves and other sites are waiting for us to find and explore them? Unfortunately, many of the caves have been looted through the centuries and their treasures have long since been lost.
History Of The Mayan Culture And Significance Of The Caves
The Mayan culture is believed to have originated in what is now Guatemala in around 600 BC. The Mayan culture spread to include the Yucatan Peninsula of what is now Mexico, all of Guatemala (don't forget to check out the Mayan ruins at Tikal), all of Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. We now know that the Mayans had a very complex social structure with various innovative technologies and unique religious practices and rites.
Despite the devasting effects of wave upon wave of European plagues and the massive relative technological advancement of the Spanish, it was a long time before the Spanish managed to subdue this region.
Today one of the main things they have left behind is their caves. Some of these caves seem to have been important places for rituals and pilgrimage. In these caves, we can find a whole range of religious and other artifacts and paintings. It seems that for the Maya the most sacred places on earth were certain caves. These were places where the gods lived and it was the job of the priests to commune with them.
Re-Discovered Cave At Balamku
One such cave was discovered in the ancient Maya city of Chichen Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula. It was accidentally discovered and more than 150 ritual objects were unearthed here. What is amazing is that the cave hadn't been touched for more than 1,000 years - meaning that it had long been forgotten by the Maya by the time the Spanish arrived.
It was rediscovered in 1966 but it wasn't excavated, instead, it was sealed up and forgotten about once more for another 50 years. That all changed in 2018. Inside were treasure troves of vases, decorated plates, and incense burners with stalagmites that had formed around them. Some of the 155 artifacts have images of the Toltec rain god Tlaloc while others had markings of the ceiba tree. The ceiba tree is a sacred representation of the Maya universe.
This cave is part of the Balamku cave system. To access some of these caves, one must crawl flat on one's stomach for hundreds of feet (one wonders how the Mayans did it without headlamps!). There are seven ritual offering chambers that are known so far in this complex. And in case anyone is wondering, there aren't any Indiana Jones-style booby traps, ancient guardians, or real-life curses in these caves.
- Fun Fact: It Is Believed That The Maya Lowlands Numbered Some 10-15 Million People
The Mayan Underworld
Many cultures throughout history have stories of an underworld, just think about Greek mythology or the Epic of Gilgamesh and such. The Mayans were no different and for them, caves were openings to this underworld. Historically, archaeologists were more interested in the grand monumental structures on the surface, but this has been changing since the 1980s.
It is hoped that not only will caves like this one at Balamku shed light on Mayan religious practices and beliefs, but also the history of the great city of Chichen Itza above it. They may help answer questions like, why did Chichen Itza decline in the 13th century and when exactly? We may even be able to learn about the catastrophic droughts that are believed to have taken catastrophic tolls on the Mayans.
Examples Of Mayan Cave Sites
- Where: Near The Maya-Toltec City Of Chichen Itza (Mexico)
- Duration In Use: Around 2,000 Years
- Gods Worshiped: Maya Rain God - Chaac, And Tlaloc
- Open To Tourists? Yes
- Hours: 8.00 am to 5.00 pm
- Days Open: 7 Days A Week
- Admission Fee: $86
Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre)
- Where: Belize Near San Ignacio
- Includes: Skeletons, Ceramics And Stoneware
- Skeletons: Possible Sacrifice Victims
- Open To Tourists? Yes
- Where: Yucatan Peninsula
- Includes: A Painted Mural And numerous Mayan Inscriptions
- Date: 3rd To 7th Centuries AD
- Site Of: Ritual Performed In The Cave And There Are Many Artifacts
- Used Today: The Cave Is Sill Used Today Bey the local Ch'ol Mayan People For Day of the Cross Ceremonies
In short, when in the Yucatan Peninsula or other Mayan homelands and you are exploring the massive pyramids there, don't forget to look under the surface! Be sure to explore the many ritual caves doting the region.