Openings to the Underworld

The ancient Maya may have dug caves with spiritual abandon

For more than 100 years, archaeologists have hacked through jungles in Mexico and Central America in a quest to uncover pyramids, temples, and other majestic ruins of Maya civilization. James E. Brady of California State University, Los Angeles appreciates the backbreaking work that goes into finding such monumental structures, but he has his sights set lower. As he’s probed the ancient Maya’s sacred landscape, he’s come to realize that this group’s belief system invested immense supernatural power in caves and the mountains that surround them.

ENLIGHTENING FINDS. At a Maya cave site in Guatemala, an archaeologist sits on a mound of artifacts that were thrown into a cave after ceremonies were conducted in a plaza near its opening. A. Cobb

POT LUCK. A small chamber at the end of a convoluted underground passage holds two ceramic water jars, apparently untouched for 1,200 years. The items have been covered in calcite by water dripping from the ceiling. A. Cobb

CAVE PRESERVES. Some caves preserve delicate artifacts, such as a jaguar face mask made of unbaked clay (above) and a broken vessel in which a stalagmite grew (below). Both finds date to around A.D. 800. J. Brady

J. Brady

Brady heads up a growing band of researchers who are piecing together this subterranean, spiritual perspective. In their view, a supernatural terrain permeated pre-Columbian religious life from central Mexico through much of Central America and still inspires faith in many native groups.

Caves occupy the focal point of this archaeological project. In initial research, Brady discovered that some of the largest Maya outposts of the Classic period, which lasted from A.D. 200 to A.D. 900, were strategically oriented on and around natural and humanmade caves (SN: 1/24/98, p. 56: http://www.sciencenews.org/sn_arc98/1_24_98/bob1.htm). As entryways through sacred, living earth into an underworld of gods, mythical creatures, and ancestors, caves served as spiritual landmarks. In these dim chambers, rulers conducted ceremonies vital to maintaining their power.

New discoveries from before and during the Classic period indicate that caves had considerable spiritual standing in rural as well as urban areas and among common folk as well as rulers. In some locales, caves also show signs of having been visited regularly by religious pilgrims. For example, clues point to cave visits by Maya scribes, the artisans who recorded the royals’ exploits.

Cave supply responded to the intense spiritual demands, Brady says. Rather than rely on a limited supply of natural caves, the Maya created new caves in huge numbers. “Artificial caves were constructed according to fairly regular plans and should be considered a formal architectural type of the ancient Maya, just like their ball courts and pyramids,” Brady contends. “I suspect there are thousands of these artificial caves that have yet to be discovered.”

Artificial caves assume particular prominence in the researchers’ latest fieldwork, which Brady and others described this March in Denver at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology.

Maya farmers living far from the madding crowds of major cities excavated their own caves out of dirt or rock apparently to serve as the religious heart of their communities. In some areas, pits that represented caves were dug in houses for family-based rituals, according to Brady.

Moreover, from about 1500 B.C. to A.D. 1400, rural Maya buried their dead in specially designated rock shelters and caves, often dug out of hills or mountains by the sweat of many brows. Among the Classic Maya and their non-Maya contemporaries in central Mexico, a tradition of cave burials may have prompted the construction of pyramids, as symbols of sacred mountains, encasing deceased royalty in cavelike tombs.

Seven caves of creation

Around 1,000 years ago in central Mexico, the Chichimec people founded a town known as Acatzingo Viejo. In the center of the site, settlers excavated seven small caves out of a steep limestone slope. This cave array represented Chicomoztoc, seven mythical caverns from which Chichimec ancestors were believed to have first emerged, says Manuel Aguilar of Cal State, Los Angeles.

The group of caves also put a spiritual stamp of approval on Acatzingo Viejo and affirmed the legitimacy of its new rulers, Aguilar proposes.

He and his coworkers found stone altars, ceramic incense burners, and other evidence of past ritual activity in the six surviving caves at the Mexican site. Local residents told the researchers that the seventh cave had recently been destroyed to make room for a new road.

The caves lie just below the remains of a ceremonial plaza that includes a small pyramid. Other central-Mexican sites pair artificial caves with pyramids, Aguilar notes. For example, there’s an artificial cave beneath the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, where a separate civilization thrived at around the time of the Maya’s Classic period.

This pyramid contains stone drains that may have channeled rainwater into the chamber to intensify its connection to the spiritual underworld. Some archaeologists suspect that the drains simply collected water for a well.

However, their impractical positioning directly under a pyramid betrays their spiritual significance, Aguilar argues.

Spanish documents from the 16th century and scientists’ interviews of the area’s current inhabitants reveal a longstanding regional belief that water originates in mountains and issues out of caves. Native groups in Mexico and Central America have long regarded caves with water sources as symbols of “the generative womb of the Earth” that gave birth to humanity, Aguilar says.

An intricate replication of a water-bearing cave has been discovered at Muklebal Tzul, a 1,100-year-old Maya site in a mountainous region of southern Belize. In 1999, a team led by Keith M. Prufer of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale noticed a spot next to the settlement’s ceremonial center where large amounts of earth had been cleared to create a flat expanse.

On closer inspection, they uncovered what they regard as an artificial cave that descends beneath that area. The structure consists of a narrow, 50-foot-long diagonal tunnel leading down to an open area with a 7-gallon, plaster-lined basin for collecting water. An underground spring supplied water that fell into the basin from a small opening in the tunnel’s side, creating an artificial waterfall. The small quantity of water yielded by such a major construction project argues against its use as a well, Prufer says.

“[This project] was intended to reproduce a water-bearing cave on a miniature scale, allowing the residents of the site to center their community over a feature with mythic and sacred qualities,” Prufer holds.

Artificial caves had a domestic side as well, according to Brady. In the southern lowlands of Guatemala and Honduras, where natural caves are scarce, ancient Maya houses frequently contain large earthen pits known as chultuns.

Separate chambers built into the sides of chultuns were big enough for a person to crawl into, and many include wall niches in which pottery and other items were placed.

Although chultuns have attracted relatively little systematic research, the ancient Maya probably regarded them as household caves in which to conduct rituals, Brady asserts. Hundreds of such chultuns dot the residential landscape of major Classic-era sites such as Tikal in Guatemala.

Nearer to the gods

Contrary to traditional theories, complex Maya beliefs may have inspired poor folk in the hinterlands as much as they did the governing elite in Classic-era centers.

Crucial evidence for this possibility comes from discoveries of rural Maya burials in rock shelters. These structures consist of stone walls erected around depressions in hills or mountains. In poor communities, rock shelters were used to bury the dead at the gate of mythical “creation caves,” says David M. Glassman of Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.

In contrast, ancient Maya royalty were buried in tombs that symbolized caves and in some cases even contain artificial stalactites, Glassman asserts.

Upon dying, Maya bigwigs thus gained direct access to the supernatural underworld that had issued their founding ancestors.

“All settlements, large and small, shared the religious ideology of the Maya elite, yet expressed and celebrated it in different ways and with different resources,” Glassman contends.

In the Maya Mountains of southern Belize, he and his colleagues have excavated a rock shelter located just below the entrance to a natural cave.

The shelter contains skeletal remains of more than 150 people, all lying in a flexed position facing the cave’s entrance. Items placed in the graves include pottery, obsidian blades, and various types of rock.

In the past few years, other researchers have found other rock-shelter cemeteries in the same region of Belize.

Prufer’s group discovered human skeletons in three natural rock shelters high in the Maya Mountains, not far from the ruins of Muklebal Tzul. Skeletal remnants of 13 individuals have been tallied so far.

Pottery styles and radiocarbon dates indicate that these rock shelters were used as cemeteries as early as 300 B.C., several centuries before intensive settlement of the area.

Soil in each of the burial sites contains dense concentrations of shells from a freshwater snail eaten by the ancient Maya. Large numbers of these shells have also turned up at the entrances to 16 Maya caves that were used for ritual activities. Prufer says that the shells were associated with sacred concepts of water, fertility, birth, and death.

Modern Maya groups continue to revere these snails. Several anthropologists have discovered offerings of snail shells recently left in niches at cave openings.

In 2001, Brady and his coworkers uncovered human graves in four of seven caves in a small, isolated, Guatemalan hill called Balam Na. The badly looted caves also yielded pottery and beads that date to times before the Classic period. When the researchers found the caves, pieces of crude stone walls lay at the entrances, indicating that these sacred sites had once been closed off.

The topmost cave appears to have entombed high-ranking individuals. That arrangement reflects an attempt to protect their graves from pillaging by invading groups, says Cal State’s Sergio Garza.

The vulnerability of cave burials to theft may have encouraged the Classic-period tradition of placing royals in pyramid-covered tombs that symbolized caves within hills, Garza proposes.

Pilgrims’ progress

Ancient-Maya cave activities may have taken other intriguing turns. For instance, caves on Cozumel, an island off the coast of southeast Mexico, exhibit signs of having regularly been visited by religious pilgrims, says Cal State’s Shankari Petel. The focus of worship on the island was Ix Chel, the Maya goddess of the moon, childbirth, fertility, and medicine.

Accounts of 16th-century Spanish explorers described Cozumel as a destination for Maya pilgrims. However, archaeologists have shown little interest in probing for evidence of pilgrimages on the island, Petel says.

They have portrayed Cozumel’s caves variously as pottery dumps, rock quarries, burial sites, and places where people hid during times of social conflict.

Remains of ritual activity, including incense burners, conch shells, and pottery, have been recovered in caves at two Classic-era settlements on Cozumel, according to Petel. Scattered masonry blocks in the caves were probably used to build walls near their entrances. Some of the caves contain cenotes, or openings to underground water sources, that the ancient Maya associated with Ix Chel.

Maya scribes, the artists who used a complex writing system to record the activities of the royalty, conducted their own pilgrimages to certain caves, proposes Andrea Stone, an art historian at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

Cave paintings at Naj Tunich, a Classic-era city in Guatemala, contain numerous images of scribes, in what appear to be self-portraits.

Accompanying text includes the scribes’ names. Other pieces of Maya art, such as an elaborate painted vase found at Naj Tunich more than 20 years ago, contain scenes that scholars now say situate scribes among cave symbols.

Scribes portrayed themselves in distinctive costumes, Stone says. They wear cloth head wraps into which paintbrushes are tucked and quill pens are tied with knotted cords. Many scribes sport spiky hairdos that poke through their headgear. In the portraits, scribes often appear in or near open skeletal jaws, which symbolized caves. Pictorial symbols of stone, water, and death usually surround the scribes.

On cave walls at Naj Tunich, scribes documented their own ritual pilgrimages to invigorate their ties to underworld gods and initiate novice practitioners, Stone theorizes. “The self-references scribes made in cave paintings are part of a record of their returning to the divine source of their craft, affirming their legitimacy, and supporting their social positions,” she says.

Spiritual standoff

Maya researchers frequently regard artifact-strewn caves primarily as places where pottery and other objects were either thrown out or accidentally broken. Brady, however, says that those explanations pale when archaeologists dare to explore the dark, sometimes dangerous realms of caves.

Other critics of Brady’s approach, such as David L. Webster of Pennsylvania State University in University Park, consider caves to have had ritual significance but don’t see them as spiritual beacons on the sacred landscape. Caves in Maya country have long attracted all sorts of activity, from casual visitors and those seeking refuge to people burying their dead or conducting ritual ceremonies, he says.

Brady’s conviction that Classic-era Maya rulers consistently oriented cities around caves and heeded widespread beliefs about a sacred landscape “is a hypothesis that remains to be proved,” Webster remarks.

Still, Brady has changed some minds. Timothy W. Pugh of Queens College, City University of New York initially thought that a large, artificial pit dug out of bedrock at a Maya site in Guatemala served as a dump for ceremonial remains and the dismembered skeletons of at least 65 adults and children.

After discussions with Brady, he examined the pit more closely and concluded that it represented an underground, sacred water source into which sacrificed individuals were thrown.

David Freidel of Southern Methodist University in Dallas has long held that a common set of spiritual beliefs has informed Maya life for at least the past 2,000 years. “I don’t think we can overestimate the influence of a sacred concept of caves among the Maya,” Freidel says.

For instance, major Classic sites such as Copan feature so-called labyrinth buildings that have intricate networks of darkened chambers probably designed as artificial caves for communing with gods and ancestors, according to Freidel.

“Brady’s ideas are very convincing,” he says. “Maya cave archaeology is now in the scientific mainstream.”

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Archaeology

From the Nature Index

Paid Content