travel Creeping around the Mayan underworld

National Post — October 18, 2003

If the skeletons in your closet aren’t creepy enough for you this Halloween, the skulls in Actun Tunichil Muknal cave probably are. Thousand-year-old Mayan food and human-sacrifice remains are attracting archeologists and tourists alike to a creepy cave wonder near San Ignacio, Belize.

But die-hards only, please. Reaching the skeletons is no walk in the park.

Wannabe spelunkers must first tromp through the Central American jungle, swim into the cave, trudge through waist-deep pools of cold water and climb 100 meters on slippery rocks to see the Actun Tunichil Muknal skeletons. But they are definitely worth the effort.

Actun Tunichil Muknal means “cave of the crystal sepulcher” in Mayan. It was first excavated in 1988 by Jaime Awe, a Belizean-Canadian archeologist. The cave was named after the birth place of a young woman of about 20 that archeologists call the crystal maiden.

Her well-preserved skeleton is the goal of most cavers. But Actun Tunichil Muknal has much more to offer: rare cave altars, gorgeous stalagmites, impressive food sacrifice chambers and compelling human sacrifice remains.

Velasques, our guide, explained that the ancient Mayans believed caves were part of the underworld, or Xibalba, which means place of fright. The underworld was also home to Chac, the Mayan rain god.

In times of drought, Mayans performed food and human sacrifices in the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave to petition Chac in his own domain. Mayans used Actun Tunichil Muknal for food and human sacrifices between 1 and 1000 A.D. However archeologists believe the cave was most frequently used between 800-1000 A.D., a time of extreme drought.

Despite the news that we would be entering the Mayan place of fright, I welcomed a break from the intense jungle heat. Warned to watch out for snakes, we had walked for about an hour in the jungle heat, wading waist-deep across three rivers before arriving at the cave’s entrance.

Thoughts of self-preservation were put aside as I dove into a deep pool at the cave’s entrance and swam 10 meters to enter Actun Tunichil Muknal. Once inside the cave, we turned on our headlamps and marvelled at the stalactites.

Alternatively wading, swimming, or walking on wet rock, we moved further in and further up the five kilometer-deep cave.

At a sandy beach (yes they exist inside caves!) we stopped for lunch. During our meal, Velasques explained why archeologists say Actun Tunichil Muknal is one-of-a-kind. Actun Tunichil Muknal is home to a high number of human sacrifice remain victims: seven adults and seven children. (Human remains found in other nearby caves are thought to be from ceremonial burial–not human sacrifice.) Rare cave altars are another distinctive feature of Actun Tunichil Muknal. During water ceremonies, Mayan elite would cut themselves with sharp stones in front of stelae (upright ceremonial rocks). Their blood would collect in pots below the stelae and be offered as a gift to Chac. Two stelae are found in Actun Tunichil Muknal, one shaped like the spine of a stingray and the other in the form of a blade.

While some of my fellow spelunkers saw translucent cave fish, I experienced only cold stone, wet walls and a growing feeling of sadness and eerie anticipation.

Our first landmark was a chamber where food sacrifices were offered to Chac. To reach the chamber, we climbed about 100 meters up slippery rock. At the top of a steep wall we took off our boots so as not to accidentally disturb sensitive artifacts. Moments later we entered an enormous chamber, about the size of a basketball court, with extraordinary stalactites and an abundance of food sacrifice artifacts. Scattered haphazardly around the chamber were ceremonial cooking pots, always cracked. Mayans broke the pots at the end of a ceremony to release the pot’s spirit–otherwise the spirit would be eternally trapped. Pots were often found in groups of three, arranged with one pot sitting straight up, one completely upside down, and the third tilted on one side. Archeologists believe this was part of the Mayan’s carefully orchestrated ceremonies, but the exact symbolism is not known.

We slowly made our way across the food-sacrifice chamber to several side caverns that held the Mayan human sacrifice remain victims. In the first chamber we saw the well-preserved skeleton of a male victim lying on his back. A crack in the skull suggested he died from a blow to the head. We were told that Mayans also beheaded their victims, broke their vertebra or pulled out their heart.

The first victim also had a flattened forehead and modified teeth, suggesting he was a member of the Mayan elite. Ancient Mayan high fashion called for a flattened forehead, brought about by attaching a board to the forehead of a child while their skull was still soft. The Mayan well-to-do also drilled holes in their front teeth to hold precious stones. Mayans believed that the higher the social standing of the sacrifice victim, the better the chances of getting Chac’s attention–and his favour.

Aaron Juan, another Mayawalk guide told me later that all fourteen victims in Actun Tunichil Muknal were members of the Mayan upper class.

The “angel chamber” held the chilling remains of a 10-year-old child. Most of the bones and pottery we saw were preserved by calcite (crystallized calcium carbonate) which drips from overhanging stalactites. Finally we arrived at the cave’s namesake, the Crystal Maiden. Approximately 20 years old, the Crystal Maiden lay on her back with her right hand bent up 90 degrees at the elbow and her left arm bent 90 degrees down at the elbow. A single crushed vertebra suggested she was killed by a blow to her back. The Maiden was beautiful. She commanded respect and admiration. I felt an overwhelming sense of loss.

We retraced our steps, slowly navigating through the cave and the jungle and back to the Range Rover that brought us here. I felt euphoric and numb at the same time. As the sun set over the Belizean jungle, I wondered if the Mayans who traversed the cave so long before me had felt the same.