As someone who takes a personal interest in caves and occasionally explores them myself, I’ve noticed that different cultures treat them differently. In South Dakota, the Lakota were aware of caves, even considered them sacred and linked Wind Cave to an emergence myth, but it was taboo to actually enter sacred caves. Outside of Wind Cave, prayer bundles can be found, but the cave itself had virtually no artifacts of human marks before European Americans arrived.
Further south, in the desert canyon country of Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, I’ve helped map caves where small baskets and other human remnants have been found. Not much in the way of larger artifacts or even petroglyphs were found in these caves. These few artifacts suggest that these caves were visited but not inhabited or used in regular important rituals. Travelling even further south, into Mexico caves seem to have grown in importance to indigenous people.
National Geographic reported that to the Maya specific caves were of great importance; a part of a mystical underworld. According to Discover Magazine, the Mayan even made sacrifices in important caves. The most infamous of these sacrifices is that of the so-called crystal maiden. In Actun Tunichil Muknal, a jungle cave in Western Belize, a woman of about 20 years old was sacrificed by a Mayan priest over a thousand years ago. The skeleton lies in the cave among pottery and other ruins. In the cave, calcite crystals grow on the undisturbed human remains, the crystal maiden is literally becoming a part of the cave where she died.
Other caves where the Maya worshipped have been found with sacrificial remains, animal as well as humans. Stingray spines are sometimes left in caves where they were used in bloodletting rituals. Vases and other less eerie artifacts are also common.
Only for about the last 60 years have archaeologists paid any attention to the caves snaking under the Mayan world of Central America. Hieroglyphs impressive pyramids and cities seemed to be the important aspects of a culture that seemed to sit over a rich maze of limestone caves merely by accident. The importance of caves was first discovered when a guide found a room full of Mayan vases in Balankanché, a cave near Chichén Itzá in 1959.
Since that time, hundreds of caves with Mayan artifacts have been discovered. Virtually every cave in Belize has some association with the Maya and even water filled sinkholes or cenotes (essentially flooded vertical caves) have been found to contain artifacts dropped from above as offerings. Art Daily reports that over 300 of the 1000 caves and cenotes in the Puuc region of the Yucatan have been registered with the National Institute of Anthropology and History, making them part of 2,000 archaeological sites in the area. Just this month, archaeologists announced the discovery of another cave full of important artifacts, this time underneath Chichén Itzá itself.
Chichén Itzá is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most important pre-Columbian archaeological sites in Mexico. The city is a thousand years old and embodies a fusion of Mayan and Toltec cultures. Monuments in the forms of impressive stepped pyramids stand as testimony of the influence and power of these cultures in their day. The Temple of Kukulcan also known as ‘The Castle’ is a famed temple in the form of a giant stepped pyramid, sitting in the center of Chichén Itzá.
According to Atlas Obscura, a shadowy serpent can be seen climbing The Temple of Kukulcan during the spring and autumn equinoxes. The serpent is a trick of shadows cast by the temple itself, a shadow undulated in a snake-like way over the pyramid steps. The shadow is said to be Kukulcan (or Quetzalcoatl), the Mayan feathered serpent god the temple was dedicated to and indeed, the shadow body appears to join the stone serpent heads at the bottom of the pyramid. Kukulcan is clearly important but what lies beneath the giant pyramid is important as well.
An archaeologist was first told about a cave with artifacts near The Temple of Kukulcan in 1966 by locals. The archaeologist had the cave walled off to seal it from would be artifact robbers and never returned to it. The memory of the cave was lost among archaeologists but the local people of the area remembered. Recently, archaeologist Guillermo de Anda learned about the cave from local man Luis Un who was one of the first people to explore the cave while still a teenager. Intrigued, de Anda underwent a six hour long purification ritual by a modern Mayan priest to ensure safety before entering the sacred cave to find what artifacts were hidden underground.
What de Anda found left him dumbstruck. The archaeologist entered the cave alone, crawling on his belly through incredibly tight passageways before entering a room full of artifacts. De Anda said upon seeing the state and extent of the artifacts left behind, he was overwhelmed and began to cry, almost feeling the presence of the Maya who left the artifacts. Vases, ceramic incense holders, decorated plates and more were left in the cave untouched for centuries. In fact, some of the artifacts had sat unmoved for so long that stalagmites had started to form around some of the objects in the cave, National Geographic reports.
The cave has been named Balamku for the Mayan jaguar god. Many of the artifacts seem to have images referencing Balamku but others have images of the face of Tláloc, the Toltec rain god as well as Ceiba trees (a symbol of the Mayan universe) and other designs. More than 200 artifacts were found in the cave so far.
Like many other caves used by the Maya, is hard to access today with modern equipment including electric headlamps. How difficult it would have been for the Maya relying only on flame to light their way through tortuously cramped passageways hints at the importance of the place to them. Balamku is beneath Chichén Itzá, less than two miles from the Temple of Kukulcan, an auspicious location.
By Zach Fitzner, Earth.com Contributing Writer
Main image credit: Karla Ortega, Great Mayan Aquifer Project