Caves of Loltun, Mexico

Loltun Cave Art and Precious Clues to the Lost Mayan Civilization

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There is a kid’s poem written by Jean Marzollo that begins: 

“In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

It goes on speak about the challenges and wonders of Columbus’s voyage to the new lands known today as the Caribbean.  It even goes on to mention Columbus’s blunder in assuming that this newly discovered land was India when in fact it was what we know today as the Bahamas.  In spite of this grave mistake, the poem ends exalting the explorer:

“The first American?  No, not quite.  But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.”

There is a misconception that continues to circulate that before Columbus's arrival and the arrival of successive conquistadors to the "New World," there wasn’t much history or “brightness” in the Americas.  However, this misconception continues to be challenged by findings such as the inscriptions on the cave wall in the Yucatan which prove that history in the Americas before the Spanish conquests is just as old as other known world history.

Landing of Columbus by John Vanderlyn, 1847.

Landing of Columbus by John Vanderlyn, 1847. ( Public Domain )

Mayan Culture in the Yucatan

The last words of the poem above imply that Spain, under the guidance and bravery of Christopher Columbus, brought “light” to a dark continent.  However, the Spaniards weren’t the only intelligent people in this cultural exchange.  Many explorers traveled to this new world after Columbus’ initial encounter to discover a range of well-established civilizations of Native American people.  One such people were the Mayans.  These people had a very well-established society and had been growing since 2500 BC. 

This is an artist's copy of a mural at the Temple of the Murals at Bonampak, a Maya archeological site.

This is an artist's copy of a mural at the Temple of the Murals at Bonampak, a Maya archeological site. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Mayan cultures developed in several stages: The Pre-Classic, The Classic, Post-Classic, and The Contact Period.  The Pre-Classic era was primarily agricultural, a time when the Mayan people cultivated staple crops such as maize and squash. This period was also a time when cities began to develop. 

The Classic period was a time of significant urbanization and construction.  Great cities such as Teotihuacan rose to importance and massive monuments dedicated to gods and goddesses were erected during this time.  Just as there was a considerable rise in growth and development during the Classic period, it also was a period of the great collapse in which most cities were abandoned for no known reason.  Inhabitants in the southern regions of the Yucatan began to move northward.

View of the Avenue of the Dead and the Pyramid of the Sun, from Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan.

View of the Avenue of the Dead and the Pyramid of the Sun, from Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan. ( Public Domain )

The Post-Classic period was a time of resettling other northernmost regions and a fortification of power in which governments became more sophisticated and the centralization of power under one ruler became much more apparent.  During the Contact period, Mayans came in contact with the Spanish under Hernan Cortez.  Most expeditions by the Spanish to the Yucatan region were friendly and mutually beneficial initially; however, with the discovery of gold, these relations became hostile and it wasn’t long before, these ancient civilizations fell to harsh Spanish domination.

Murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco: Mayan warrior fighting against Spanish conquistadors (detail).

Murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco: Mayan warrior fighting against Spanish conquistadors (detail). ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

 Loltun Caves of Mexico

The Mayans abandoned their cities once during the Classic period for unknown reasons but upon encountering the Spanish, there began another period of abandonment within the Mayan society.  This neglect wasn’t due to migration as it had been in the past.  Most Mayan people were either killed by disease or taken as slaves to mine and transport gold back to Europe.  The abandonment of cities in Mayan society during the Spanish colonial period was permanent as Spanish culture began to permeate all aspects of the Mayan civilizations. Today only remnants of their culture remain in the form of great pyramids, monoliths and other great statues of importance in their society.   

One such remaining artifact of Mayan culture is the Grutas de Loltun, or the Loltun caves.  These caves, located in Oxkutzcab, Mexico, seem to reveal a link to ancient history that was previously unknown.  Tucked away in the southwest corner of the Yucatan Peninsula, these large caves are a sight to behold.  The caves are situated within the dense Mayan jungle. The interior of the cave is filled with enormous stalactite and stalagmite rock formations. These formations resemble flowers, hence the reason for the name Loltun, which is Mayan for “stone flower.”

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