I just got back from a truly incredible trip to Belize. I went there with the purpose of Scuba Diving, but we had one day off so I asked my travel buddy, Nuri, to choose a trip for us. I told her to pick something, anything, that interested her. She is an archeologist and chose an excursion to the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave. I can honestly say it ended up being one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had in all my travels.
SEE ALSO: Decoding The Maya: Tikal, Guatemala
The cave is incredible for a lot of reasons. One is for its geology. Belize is built on a foundation of limestone, a rock that forms initially at the ocean floor as thousands of years of sea creatures die, fall to the bottom of the ocean, and compound into stone. Eventually the ocean level sinks, or tectonic plates push to the surface, and arable land forms on top. The incredible thing about limestone is its chemical capabilities. It is a highly reactive stone. Mixed with ground water, particles within the stone can erode, creating underwater cave systems. As the water flows and evaporates, it rearranges the minerals within the limestone creating structures such as: stalactites, stalagmites, flow stones, flow curtains and, when the water evaporates slowly enough for chemical bonds to form between minerals, even crystals can be created.
Belize is smack dab in the middle of the ancient Mayan world and these limestone caves held great importance to the Mayan people. It is estimated that at the height of the Mayan civilization, around one million Mayans lived in what is Belize today. The modern population of the country, Mayan descent, Spanish descent, Garifuna, and more, is approximately 370,000 people. The fall of Mayan centralized control, compounded with the incredible death toll caused by European diseases a few hundred years later, decimated the Mayan population. Nevertheless, the imprint of their culture is ever present in the modern country of Belize. The ATM cave is a perfect example of this history. For the Mayans, the gods dwelled on earth within such limestone caves. They left offerings at the entrance to appease the gods, entering only when the need was most dire.
Around Mid-Classic period of Mayan civilization there was a drought in the region of the ATM cave. Seeking the mercy of their gods, the Mayans ventured farther than they ever had before. Within the cave, they sacrificed for their gods. The Mayans believed in human sacrifice stemmed from their earliest creation myths. They believed that the gods created mankind three times. The first man was created from dust, but they refused to worship the gods correctly and were destroyed. The second time from wood, but once again they failed to respect the gods and were obliterated. Some of these beings escaped, however, running into the woods and living in trees. Thus monkeys came into being: a failed early prototype for mankind. The last time the gods created man, they did so out of corn, or maze. This is why the Mayans occasionally refer to themselves as People of the Maze. This time, however, the gods gave man something extra, something holy. They gave mankind blood, a divine substance that allowed humans to appropriately worship the gods and continue to exist. Therefore, when the Mayans offered blood to their gods, they believed they were repaying their debt for creation: blood for blood.
The ATM cave is about 2 miles long. Around the half mile mark, you come across two large oblong stones perched high on a cliff. They are stele: carved stones that the Mayans imbued with divine significance. The one to the left has 9 notches on each side, meeting in a point at the top. The notches represent the nine levels of the Mayan underworld. The other stele is perfectly smooth on the sides with a pointed top, representing a huge blade. The Mayan chief used to come to this spot to offer his own blood, cutting his lips, nose, even penis and burning the blood to send it to the gods. He would collect his blood in ceramic bowls, then break the bowls to release the spirits. I have to say, when I saw these steles I felt a chill. Waist deep in cold, clear cave water I looked up those pieces of hard stone, shadows wavering in the light of our combined head lamps, and could picture a chief, head adorned in feathers, sacrificing himself to speak to the gods, asking them to give his people water.
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Just past the steles is a steep climb culminating in a ledge, the only dry part of the hike. You pass through a narrow area and open onto a large empty space called The Cathedral. It is filled with more artifacts than you ever thought to see outside of a museum. Everywhere you look the floor is littered with clay pots and fire hearths (three carefully placed stones that suspended the pot above the ground, allowing the fire to heat its underside). The pots are mostly broken, something done intentionally after a religious ritual to release bad spirits, but some remain intact. As a ceramist, I could not help but marvel at how perfectly they were made; how round and even the sides were, how beautiful and graceful their profiles. There is even a pot stamped with the likeness of a monkey on either side of the lip. This kind of pot is incredibly rare, it is one of only four found with such a stamp in all of Central America.
One of the most extraordinary things about these pots were how the cave has re-claimed them. The floor of a wet limestone cave is always moving, dissolving and reforming as it interacts with rain water. As hundreds of years of rain fell on Belize the limestone flowed, covering these pots. When the water evaporated, the minerals dissolved within it bonded to create crystals which coated whatever was below the surface. And so these pots were encased in crystals, shimmering in our flashlights, forever rooted to the ground as the Maya left them.
Further into the cave come the human sacrifices. Prisoners of war, children, teenager and adult; highborn and low, their bones litter the floor in piles just as their bodies were left. First is the artificially elongated skull of a nobel person, most likely captured from a neighboring group. You can tell the class by the cosmetically altered shape of the skull. The Mayan would tie boards to the foreheads of their highborn children while the bones were still malleable, elongating its shape. The skull looks undeniably alien, bulging into a long cone past the forehead. But yet the eyes, nose, and jaw are recognizably human, even the teeth preserved until a tourist dropped a camera, removing the front two.
After this first body come more, the skeleton of a on- year-old child, almost entirely reclaimed by the cave. Femurs, fractured bones and skulls with their faces buried in the cave floor, only the back of their heads protruding above the flows. A prisoner of war who died with his hands bound behind his back, frozen by the cave with a small hole in just above his right eye. A larger, rectangular hole with jagged edges is further back in the skull. Once again this was modern damage created by a tourist dropping a camera a few years ago. This is why cameras are no longer allowed within the cave.
Of all these sacrifices, the one that will stay with me forever was the last. National geographic nicknamed her the crystal maiden. She was likely the last person to the sacrificed in the cave and thus she lies farthest from the entrance. She was about 20 years old when she died, and stood about 5’3”. Her full skeleton is splayed on the ground. She was clearly pinned there by her attacker. Her spine is broken a few inches above the pelvis, her jaw fractured and hanging at an angle. The bones of her left hand are missing, her toes flexed in pain and knees bent in odd angles. Her right hand is flung above her head and her empty sockets stare. This was, without a doubt, the most violent thing I have seen with my own two eyes. Her skeleton shows so much pain, such struggle, that I could not pull my eyes away.
I could not help but wonder what her murder accomplished. It did not save the Mayan civilization. Did her family miss her? Was there someone who loved her, who wanted to start a family with her? How was she chosen to die while others lived? There is so much I do not know, so many questions I wanted to ask her and those who killed her. I looked down at this woman who, when she died, was years younger than I am now and knew that I would never know the answers. All I did know was that, as we turned to leave her, our flashlights skimmed over her remains one last time and in that light, she is shown with the light of a thousand crystals.
Photo: Hillary Kurland
Have you ever done the cave? Share with us in the comments.