The Horrifying History of the Midnight Terror Cave in Belize
The Midnight Terror Cave is an archaeological site located in the Cayo District, which is in the west of the Central American nation of Belize. The cave is situated to the south of Belmopan, the capital of Belize, and is not far from the Mennonite community of Springfield. The Midnight Terror Cave has been associated with the Maya civilization and is a site that plays a very important role in understanding ancient Maya culture.
Naming a Terrifying Sight
The Midnight Terror Cave got its present name in 2006. In December that year, a looter had fallen into an explored cave near Springfield. In one account, the looter is said to have tumbled 18 meters (59 feet) into the cave, whilst another claims that it was only half that height, or at most several meters more.
The accounts also differ as to how the looter’s rescuers came across him. In one version of the story, the looter’s rescuers are said to have heard his cries for help, while another asserts that the looter had an accomplice who went seeking help. In any event, some Mennonite farmers from Springfield came to the looter’s assistance and got him out of the cave.
Map of the Midnight Terror Cave with pathways indicated by bold lines. ( James E. Brady & C.L. Kieffer )
Whilst rescuing the looter, a Mennonite farmer who went into the cave discovered something unusual. He saw that the cave floor was littered with human bones. The looter was then sent by the farmer to a nearby hospital for treatment. It has been said that this farmer was responsible for giving the Midnight Terror Cave its name, calling it ‘Mitnacht Schreknis Heel’, which is the Plautdietsch (the Dutch-German dialect used by the Mennonites in Belize) version of that name.
Archaeological Investigations Begin
The discovery of the Midnight Terror Cave was soon known by archaeologists, who were naturally attracted to the site. Hence, the cave began to be studied in the spring of the following year. One of the main researchers was Dr. James Brady, a professor of anthropology at California State University. Over the years, researchers have catalogued around 10 000 pieces of human bones, and about thrice that number of pottery fragments.
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Some pottery fragments as they were discovered in the Midnight Terror Cave. ( Mario Giron-Ábrego and James E. Brady )
About 100 of these bone fragments are said to be teeth, which included molars, canines, incisors and bicuspids. Incidentally, the looter had lost several of his teeth when he fell into the cave, and these were found by the site’s investigators too.
Returning to the ancient bones, it has been revealed that a significant portion of the teeth (about 25 %) exhibited little signs of wear and tear. From this observation, it has been suggested that they once belonged to children.
A skull found in the Midnight Terror Cave, Belize. ( YouTube Screenshot )
The teeth were also used by the researchers to discover were the people whose remains were in the Midnight Terror Cave had come from. By analyzing the tooth enamel, it was found that some of the victims came from as far as 322 km (200 miles) away, from an area beyond the borders of modern day Belize. Whilst this distance seems to be unremarkable today, it was quite extraordinary during its time, especially when one considers the possibility that the children were brought to the cave for the sole purpose of being sacrificed.
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Evidence for Sacrifice and Questions of Human Trafficking
The idea that the children were sacrificed in the Midnight Terror Cave is supported by the fact that none of them had died of natural causes. Additionally, they were not buried, and the bones showed signs of perimortem cut marks, blunt force trauma, and traces of blue pigment.
During the 1980s, it was generally agreed that the Maya had used caves for habitation. With the discovery of the Midnight Terror Cave, as well as other such sites, this view has been revised, and these places are now believed to have served largely a ritual function, including that of human sacrifice. The Midnight Terror Cave is one of two examples of a Maya site where child sacrifices were conducted on a large scale, the other site being an underground cave at Chichén Itzá in southern Mexico.
Bones on the floor of the Midnight Terror Cave. ( Cal State L.A. )
There are many questions that have been raised by the discovery of the Midnight Terror Cave. One of the biggest of these concerns the way that the children were brought to the cave, as many of the victims are shown to have been brought from outside the region. One possibility that has gained a substantial amount of attention is the possibility that they were victims of a ‘human trafficking’ network, and were traded as commodities.
Featured image: Bones found in the Midnight Terror Cave. Photo source: Cal State L.A.
By Wu Mingren
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Available at: http://www.calstatela.edu/academic/anthro/midnight-terror-cave
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