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Skull in Actun Tunichil Muknal.

Would You Dare to Visit an Ancient Maya Cave of Human Sacrifice? If So, Head to Belize

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Natural Monument, or the “Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre,” in Belize is where archaeologists have uncovered evidence of human sacrifice rituals dating back to 3rd century AD. According to the Belize Audubon Society, the ancient Maya people believed that caves were home to gods who controlled agriculture and rain. The Maya saw caves as portals to the underworld, referred to as “Xibalba,” which translates to “the place of fear or fright.” They often believed that evil spirits, demons, and monsters were guarding the underworld, and therefore only elites and priests would be permitted access to the cave; no commoners were allowed. And yet in modern times the cave is open to any tourist willing to plunge into the underworld.

Actun Tunichil Muknal cave entrance.

Actun Tunichil Muknal cave entrance. (Amber Karnes/ CC BY NC ND 2.0 )

Who was Sacrificed in the Cave?

In the past two decades, archaeologists have unearthed more than 1,400 fragments dating from 250 to 909 AD at the ATM cave. It was first discovered in 1989 and has remained mostly unchanged. In the main room, called the “Cathedral,” seven adults and seven children can still be seen, their bones cemented to the floor over the centuries. The skeletons range in age from one-year-old to 45-years-old.

It is difficult for scientists to confirm how these people were killed, but they know that all the children sustained blunt force trauma and their bodies were left out in the open, allowing them to be sealed into the cave floor over time. Children, in the Mesoamerican tradition, were commonly sacrificed to the rain gods in the Post Classical and Colonial periods. It was seen as an honor to be sacrificed to the gods in Maya culture because the victim would be transported directly to heaven, thus avoiding the nine levels of the underworld. At least five of the victims were thought to have been from the noble class – their skulls had been bound and flattened, a popular practice among the Maya elite.

Modified Maya skull exhibited at the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico.

Modified Maya skull exhibited at the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico. (Maunus/CC BY SA 3.0 )

Human remains have also been unearthed in neighboring caves, but they seem to have been given proper burials, meaning that they may have died of natural causes. It is the presence of these burials that have led experts to conclude that the deaths in the ATM cave were unnatural, perhaps for sacrificial purposes. Within the cave, the “Stelae Chamber” houses two stone markers that are thought to be evidence of human sacrifice. This is where high-level officials would perform rituals to the gods. Sharp rock blades found near the site indicate that these leaders would cut themselves or others to offer blood to the gods.

Ancient bowls found at the site feature “kill holes,” which were used to drain the blood or possibly allow a spirit of the dead to escape. One of the most well-known victims, the “Crystal Maiden,” was murdered (potentially clubbed to death), and subsequently her bones became encased in calcite crystals. She was thought to be between 18 and 20 years old and is a major draw for many tourists to ATM cave.

Photograph of Maya sacrifice taken from within the cave Actun Tunichil Muknal in Belize. This skeleton is popularly known as the "Crystal Maiden".

Photograph of Maya sacrifice taken from within the cave Actun Tunichil Muknal in Belize. This skeleton is popularly known as the "Crystal Maiden". (Peter Andersen/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

One of the Top 10 Sacred Caves

The cave was initially discovered by Canadian geologist Thomas Miller. It quickly drew the attention of National Geographic , which named ATM cave one of the top 10 sacred caves in the world, and also produced a documentary on the site in 1992 entitled, “Journey Through the Underworld.” Dr. Jamie Awe, who has been called a “real-life Indiana Jones,” guided the National Geographic team through the cave. The following year archaeological investigations began, resulting in a field school and research program beginning in 2000. In 2012, Awe sued Lucasfilms, Disney, and Paramount on behalf of Belize for their depiction of an ancient treasure in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull claiming that the crystal skull was based on a relic stolen from Belize by treasure hunters in the 1920s. He sought reparations from the descendants, who never returned the skull, and the production companies that used its likeness. However, the suit was eventually dropped.

A crystal skull at the British Museum.

A crystal skull at the British Museum. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Tours to Actun Tunichil Muknal

In 2004, the area was designated a natural monument and official tours were allowed through. However, getting to the cave is an adventure in and of itself. You have to be in good physical condition in order to embark on the hour-long rainforest hike, a brisk swim to the opening of the cave, and the slippery and steep descent into the darkness of the cave. Also, only two tour operators are permitted to guide visitors to the national monument. In 2012, a tourist accidentally dropped a camera on a human skull which fractured it; the skull was estimated to be about one thousand years old. As a result, all cameras without a permit are banned from the site. Another tourist broke another skull by stepping on it. Because of this, all visitors are asked to remove their shoes and proceed in their socks.

Would you brave the trek into the jungle, swim up to the cave, and take a plunge into the Maya underworld? Or is this the making of a nightmare that is best left undisturbed?

Mayan Pottery located in the cave of Actun Tunichil Muknal, Belize.

Mayan Pottery located in the cave of Actun Tunichil Muknal, Belize. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Top Image: Skull in Actun Tunichil Muknal. Source: Michael Daines/ CC BY NC SA 2.0

By Veronica Parkes

Resources

Griggs, Mary Beth. 2014. You Can Visit a Cave Where the Ancient Mayan Sacrifices Humans. [Online] Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/you-can-visit-cave-where-mayans-sacrificed-humans-180952359/

Maestri, Nicoletta. 2016. Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM Cave, Belize. [Online] Available at:

National Geographic. 2010. Top 10 Sacred Caves. [Online] Available at: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/top-10/sacred-caves/

Noronha, Charmaine. Chills Follow Excursion into ATM Cave in Belize. [Online] Available at: https://www.thestar.com/life/travel/2017/06/08/chills-follow-excursion-into-atm-cave-in-belize.html

Ryan, Rowena. 2014. Actun Tunichil Muknal: the Belize cave of ancient human sacrifices. [Online] Available at: http://www.news.com.au/travel/travel-ideas/actun-tunichil-muknal-the-belize-cave-of-ancient-human-sacrifices/news-story/d9684c4a96867c407c2017fff1913a7b

Strochlic, Nina. 2014. A Cave Where Mayan Sacrificed Humans is Open for Visitors. [Online] Available at: http://www.thedailybeast.com/the-cave-where-mayans-sacrificed-humans-is-open-for-visitors

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