ACTUN TUNICHIL MUKNAL - MAYAN SACRIFICES
Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM Cave, is an archaeological cave located in the Roaring Creek Valley in the Cayo District of Belize. It is approximately 5 km long and contains a perennial stream that runs through it. Several areas of remains of ancient ritual activity including a ledge with two stelae and a large chamber full of intact human remains and whole pots are found throughout.
The name translates to "Cave of the Stone Sepulcher" and was given in reference to the number of deceased found within. ATM cave is now a national park co-managed by the Institute of Archaeology and Belize Audubon Society, and is one of the major tourist attractions in the country drawing hundreds of tourists everyday.
History of Exploration
Canadian geologist Thomas Miller first reported this cave in 1989. It quickly drew the attention of National Geographic, which produced a documentary on it in 1992 titled, "Journey Through the Underworld". Belizean archaeologist and now Commissioner of Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology in Belize, Jaime Awe guided the National Geographic team through the cave. The following year, Awe and his Western Belize Regional Cave Project (WBRCP) began full-scale archaeological investigations in the cave that ran as a research program and archaeological field school through 2000. The cave was opened up full time for tourism soon after.
The use of this cave spans the Classic Period, roughly between AD 250-900. The earliest artifacts occur near the entrance of the cave, while the later material occurs deeper within. The archaeologists believe that the Maya felt a need to perform their rituals deeper in the cave because it was more sacred and possibly closer to the rain god, Chaak. These rituals were necessary because at the end of the Classic period the rain patterns had changed causing a long-term drought in this area of the Maya lowlands.
There are two main areas of ritual significance in the cave. The first is a ledge located above the stream that contains two slate stelae, one carved in the shape of an obsidian blade, and the other of a stingray spine. The stelae are propped up with cave formations and broken pottery, a few obsidian blades, and another carved piece of slate are scattered throughout the area. These objects suggest that the Maya were performing bloodletting rituals at this location. The second area of significance in the cave is the "Main Chamber" located approximately 1 km from the entrance. The remains of 14 individuals were recorded there, including a young adult female that the cave has since grown over, except for one spot on her head. Nearly half of the individuals left here were children with some head trauma, suggesting that they were sacrificed. Thoughout Mesoamerica, children were commonly sacrificed to the rain gods in the Post Classic and Colonial periods. Other artifacts found within this chamber include ocarinas, manos and metates, as well as large jars and pots, all of which suggest agricultural rituals were performed here.
THE CRYSTAL MAIDEN OF THE ACTUN TUNICHIL MUKNAL CAVE
The skeleton of an eighteen-year-old girl lies legs akimbo on the cave floor, two of her vertebrae crushed. She is known as the Crystal Maiden, and after a thousand years, she has newfound celebrity.
Discovered in 1989, this jungle cave in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve is accessible via an hour's ride from San Ignacio, Belize, and a walk for another hour across shallow rivers and through jungle. Here one arrives at the Actun Tunichil Muknal or "ATM" cave mouth. To gain access to the cave one must swim in and then wade up the cave river for another kilometer.
Walking a further kilometer and a half in the cave, past huge boulders and cavernous rooms (one known as "The Cathedral"), to the back of the cave system, you find the skeletons of the ritual sacrifices made by the Maya to their Gods, more than a thousand years ago.
The skeletons range in age from one year old to adult. Four of those sacrificed are infants between the ages of one and three, some of them stuffed into crevices and small adjoining caves. There is one child of seven, a teenager of fifteen who appears to have been bound before being killed, a twenty-year-old, and the rest are adults between the ages of thirty and forty-five. Many of the younger skeletons show signs of cranial deformation or "skull shaping," giving their heads a slightly elongated alien look.
Almost all were killed by blunt trauma to the head, with some having had their entire skulls crushed. While the precise dating of the skeletons is difficult (due to their being essentially cemented to the cave floor by calcite) most of the pottery found at the site dates from between 700 and 900 AD, which is likely when the bodies found here were sacrificed.
Farther into the cave is perhaps the most famous of these long-dead Maya, the skeleton of an eighteen-year-old girl (or one thousand and eighteen years old, at this point) known as the "The Crystal Maiden."
She is unique in her positioning and the fact that two of her vertebrae are crushed. Because of this researchers believe she may have died in a particularly violent manner and then been thrown or tossed onto the ground, where she has lain for at least the last 1,100 years. The skeleton has been there so long, in fact, that is has been completely calcified, giving her bones a sparkling, slightly plump look and inspiring the name "The Crystal Maiden."
It is unknown what the circumstances of the sacrifices were, though some believe they were to appease the rain god Chac, or possibly the gods of the underworld. Another theory holds that these were believed to be witches (possibly suffering from some kind of mental or physical ailments) and that leaving them unburied in the cave would ensure that their spirits were trapped there.
Other items found in the cave include ceramics, marked with "kill holes," and cave formations carved by the Maya, such as silhouettes of faces and animals. The cave is also home to Amblypygi or "whip spiders" and other predatory spiders.
Due to the inaccessibility and the calcification process of the cave, many of the relics have been preserved just as they were left and very little has been removed from the cave since it was discovered. (Some things were looted early on.)
The name Actun Tunichil Muknal translates as "Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre," and the locals know it as "Xibalba" after the Mayan underworld. The Crystal Cave was traditionally believed to be an entrance to hell, a deep fissure in the earth filled with rivers of blood and scorpions. This was the domain of the Mayan death gods, the subterranean court of the "Lords of Xibalba." Often referred to as demons, these twelve deities had names like "Stabbing Demon" and "Skull Staff," and inflicted a range of maladies on people including sickness, pain, and fear.
In a country not known for protecting its cultural heritage, ATM cave is one of the few protected places, with only a few guides authorized to lead tours of the cave. Be very careful, however, as none of the skeletons or pottery are roped off, and one tourist has already accidentally stepped on and broken one of the skulls.