A Time Of Desperation: Archaeology of Maya Caves

The Maya made offerings to their gods, including human sacrifices, in hopes that the gods would bring rain.

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This Late Classic (a.d. 750 - 850) jar likely contained perishable food that the Maya offered to their gods in hopes that the gods would reciprocate with rain. The jar was found in situ in Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave in Belize. Credit: Jaime Awe
This Late Classic (a.d. 750 - 850) jar likely contained perishable food that the Maya offered to their gods in hopes that the gods would reciprocate with rain. The jar was found in situ in Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave in Belize. Credit: Jaime Awe

Summer 2016: By Kristin Ohlson.

 In 1989, William Pleitez was hunting near his farm in western Belize when his dog squeezed between some boulders near a hillside and disappeared. Pleitez soon found that the boulders blocked the entrance to a large cave and, pushing his way inside, he discovered a vast underworld studded with ancient pots. With permission from the Belize Institute of Archaeology, he and his family decided to open the cave to the public six years later. They arranged a careful tourism trail through the cave that allowed visitors to gawk at, but not disturb, the pots, a stela, and other artifacts.

Pleitez couldn’t have anticipated the impact his cave—now known as Chechem Ha, or the Cave of Poisonwood Water—would have on Maya archaeology. Archaeologists had never encountered a cave in the Maya world quite like this one: it had an extraordinarily long history of use and was purposely sealed 1,000 years ago, its contents safe from looters and animals. In the dirt lay charcoal fragments from centuries of people carrying pine torches into the cave.

“There are literally carpets of charcoal laid down in layers,” says Holley Moyes, an archaeologist at the University of California Merced who excavated the cave during four summers between 1998 and 2003. “We radiocarbon dated the layers, and they are like stair steps going back in time, from 1100 B.C. to A.D. 950. Basically, we have the entire history of the Maya people in this cave.”

By studying the charcoal and pottery at Chechem Ha, Moyes noticed that the way the Maya used the cave changed over time. She and her colleagues—Jaime Awe, the director of the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project and an archaeologist at Northern Arizona University, geographer George Brook from the University of Georgia, and James Webster from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, proposed that around A.D. 610, during the beginning of the Late Classic Maya period, the frequency of ritual incursions into the cave intensified and the ritual activities shifted. Archaeologists had noted ritual changes in other caves in the middle of the seventh century, including an increase of food offerings and human sacrifice, but Chechem Ha cemented their view that a significant cultural shift was taking place.

Summary. Read More in our Summer 2016 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 1.

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