Loltun Cave Art and Precious Clues to the Lost Mayan Civilization
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. (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.
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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. (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.
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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.”
Petroglyphs in the Loltun cave. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Between 1977 and 1981, archeological research conducted by the National Institute of Anthropology and History revealed that the caves depicted scenes of everyday life on its walls. They also uncovered ceramic items and animal bone fragments such as bison and mammoths perhaps dating as far back as the ice age.
Historians are not sure what the caves were used for but it is believed that this cave was a very sacred place to the Mayans. Based on the items discovered in the cave and in the region near the cave, it is thought that the cave may have served as a place of worship for Mayan deities. Phallic symbols recovered near Loltun, which have been recently relocated to the front entrance of the cave, also seem to suggest that there was a presence of deity worship in the area. The bone fragments uncovered seem to indicate evidence of sacrificial items rather than mere edibles left behind by the Mayan people. Lastly, some of the more prominent cave art displays an entity thought to be a representation of the sky god Itzamna.
Representation, though not from Loltun, of Ixchel (left) and Itzamna (right) on the sacred mountain before the creation of the world. Museo Amparo, Puebla (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Although much still remains to learn about the ancient Mayan civilization, Loltun Caves provides a glimpse into what life was like prior to Columbus and the Spanish conquests. As more discoveries are made in this area, historians are beginning to realize that the Spanish didn’t stumble upon a land of darkness but instead a place rich with history that is still being unveiled with each archeological excavation.
Top image: Caves of Loltun, Mexico (CC BY-SA 3.0)
By M.L. Childs
Stone, Andrea; ‘Regional Variation in Mayan Cave Art’, Journal of Cave and Karst Studies 59 (1): 33-42, 1997.
Available online at: https://caves.org/pub/journal/PDF/V59/V59N1-Stone.pdf
Alston, Chris; Article, ‘ In 1492 Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue, by Jean Marzollo’, 2011.