The door to the Mayan underworld that hides in an amazing cave in Belize

The cave is located deep in the jungle

Under the eerie red glow of the flashlights, we could see cracked pottery on the damp clay floor of the cave. Our guide shined a white light on the stalactites and stalagmites, illuminating the broken stone metates – tools used by the Mayans to grind corn – and the large clay pots.

Then the beam of light caught the gleam of a human skull half buried in the clay; his front teeth were broken and the bone had long since crystallized into calcite.

It was the main chamber of Actun Tunichil Muknal (known as the ATM cave) in the jungle of western Belize, and for the Mayans, this eerie and fascinating cavern was a sacred entrance to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld.

For more than 1,000 years, the 5 kilometer long underground cave system remained unexploited and undisturbed. Locals rediscovered the entrance in 1986, and soon after, hydrologist and speleologist Thomas Miller found skeletons inside.

In the decades that followed, the unusually pristine ATM cave became the subject of much study, offering scientists and intrepid travelers a glimpse into Mayan religion and society between 700 and 900 BC.

theater for the gods
Thanks to research in this and other places in Belize, archaeologists knew that the Mayans entered the caves to connect in some way with their deities, but the details of those ceremonies and rituals – and their reasons – remained a mystery. .

Then, in 2021, two of the leading archaeologists who had been involved in ATM cave excavations since the 1990s came up with a new methodology to unravel those mysteries.

In their article, Professor Holley Moyes of the University of California and Belizean archaeologist Jaime J Awe explained how they had been able to build an intricate picture of religious ceremonies by studying the spatial arrangement of skeletons and artifacts left behind.

They were able to learn where the Mayans stood while the ceremonies were taking place, what mythical stories they represented, what gods the Mayans personified in rituals, and how the unfortunate were sacrificed.

There are no first-hand accounts of what went on in Mayan cave ceremonies, but the new theory brings their religious ceremonies to life on a human level that, until now, was not understood. Moyes and Awe assert that the Maya staged elaborate theatrical and deadly performances of the Popol Vuh, the Maya creation myth, and that they did so as a way of goading their gods into forcing a “rebirth” of the world in the period just before the Mayans. drought and political turmoil brought about the end of their civilization, known as the Mayan Collapse, in the 10th century.

Restricted access

“It is probably one of the most important archaeological caves in the world, due to its level of conservation and archaeological value. Mainly because it wasn’t looted,” Moyes said.

“And it is an adventure to get there: you cross the jungle, you cross the water and you experience the path that the Mayans took to get there,” he added.

The entrance to the 8-meter-high ATM cave is hidden behind a vine and thick foliage deep within the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve.

The trailhead is an hour’s drive from San Ignacio, a city near the Guatemalan border.

From there it’s a 45-minute hike through the jungle and a series of knee-deep and even waist-deep river crossings. Here the path ends and the only way to enter the cave is by swimming.

“The Mayans used to make this journey with lit torches,” says Héctor Bol, a guide from the local Mayan community who has been leading visits to the ATM cave for 18 years.

Our small group of five tourists switched on their flashlights and left the daylight behind as we followed him, fording the river that wound its way through the limestone.

Caves are a key element of the Mayan cosmovision. Moyes explained to me that the caves were at the bottom of a three-tiered cosmos, with the terrestrial human world above and the gods in the sky.

“The Mayans began to use the caves around 1200 BC, when they began to enter Belize,” he added.

When we reached the main chamber, Bol motioned for us to remove our shoes. “In the Mayan underworld you always lose your sole,” he joked.

Using his torch as a pointer, he highlighted the clay pots balanced on ledges and the heavy stone metates that lay in calcified pools on the floor.

When its light distinguished the unmistakable silhouette of that crystallized skull, we all fell silent. Almost 1,500 objects and fragments, and 21 human skeletons, have been registered so far.

damaged offerings

In the creation myth of the Popol Vuh, two divine figures known as the Hero Twins travel to the underworld to appease the Lords of Xibalba and challenge them to a game of ball. The twins lose and are immediately sacrificed.

Another group of Hero Twins follows them to avenge their father (one of the original Hero Twins), and they ultimately win.

Their avenged father is reborn as the Corn God, from which all human life is created, and the Hero Twins punish the Lords of Xibalba, who from then on can only receive offerings that are damaged in some way.

Evidence from ATM Cave suggests that it is this myth that the Maya enacted in a desperate attempt to fight the Lords of Xibalba, just as the Hero Twins did.

“The Mayans must have believed that the evil Lords of Xibalba somehow triumphed during droughts,” Moyes said, referring to the natural disaster that experts believe contributed to the civilization’s downfall.

“The Lords of Xibalba are not allowed to have nice things, and almost everything we found in the cave is broken, which makes me think that they must be offerings to the deities of the underworld.”