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Child’s Handprints in Mexican Cave Reveal Ancient Maya Ritual

Child’s Handprints in Mexican Cave Reveal Ancient Maya Ritual

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More than one hundred handprints made by children 1,200 years ago on the walls of a cave in Mexico may have been part of a mysterious coming-of-age ritual of the ancient Maya.

Reuters reports that 137 handprints in black and red paint were found in an underground cavern located near the northern tip of the Yucatan peninsula. An analysis of their size revealed they were most likely made by children as they entered puberty.

“They imprinted their hands on the walls in black… which symbolized death, but that didn’t mean they were going to be killed, but rather death from a ritual perspective,” said Archeologist Sergio Grosjean [via Reuters]. “Afterwards, these children imprinted their hands in red, which was a reference to war or life,” he added.

The prints are more than 1,200 years old, which places them at the end of the ancient Maya’s classical zenith period, when major cities across what is now southern Mexico and Central America were at their peak, and art, architecture, and agriculture flourished.

Beneath a Sacred Tree

The subterranean cavern is located below a large ceiba tree, which was sacred to the Maya, not far from Chichen Itza , an urban center famous for its magnificent monuments, including the pyramid El Castillo , the Great Ball Court, and the Temple of Warriors.  The Maya city of Chichen Itza was founded around the sixth century AD and came to dominate the Yucatan Peninsula from about the 10 th to 13 th centuries AD.

One of the factors that led to the establishment of a settlement at Chichen Itza is the presence of several cenotes at the site. These are large, natural sinkholes that serve as a source of water. Considering that the northern Yucatan is arid, and that its interior has no above-ground rivers, cenotes would have played an important role in the survival of the people who lived there. They also had a ritualistic function.  The Maya deposited luxury goods and made human sacrifices at cenotes as a means of worshipping Chaac, the Maya rain god.

The Sacred Cenote is considered one of the largest repositories of offerings in the Americas. ( Subbotina Anna /Adobe Stock)

The Sacred Cenote is considered one of the largest repositories of offerings in the Americas. (  Subbotina Anna  /Adobe Stock)

Searching for a Sacred Well

Archaeologists were searching for a sacred well beneath Chichen Itza when they came across the underground cave with the handprints. The cavern is part of the cave system known as Balamku or “Jaguar God”, located about 1.7 miles (2.75 kilometers) east of the main pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza.

Its was brought to world attention in 2019 by the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico, when they announced the discovery of a sacred cave filled with priceless Maya artifacts, including bowls, plates, boxes, incense burners and braziers, and animal bones.

Within the cavern containing the handprints, archaeologists also found a carved face and six painted relief sculptures dating to between 1,200 and 1,000 years ago, a time when the region was suffering severe drought and the Maya were making offerings to appease the rain god Chaac.

Top image: A representational image of ancient handprints on a rock wall. These are not the handprints recently found in Mexico. Source: Nattapol_Sritongcom / Adobe Stock

By Joanna Gillan

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