face still haunts me five years later. I can still see the image
of her crystal-encrusted skull with the jaw open, frozen in a
silent scream. The rest of the skeleton was perfectly preserved
in stone, arms askew above her head and legs spread apart. The
preservation was so complete that you could make out the individual
bones of the fingers. Above her head lay a beautifully carved
jade axe. Was it used in her murder?
was she? Why was she there over a mile into a cave? What
desperate conditions existed during her life that would
lead to her sacrifice? My image was of the skeleton of
a young Mayan girl in Actun Tunichil Muknal, Cave of the
Stone Sepulture. We knew she was a teenage girl because
of the bone structure of her skull and pelvis. Her age
at death was determined by the growth areas of her femur
that could still be seen. Associated artefacts in the
cave placed her death during the Late Classic Period,
around 800-900 A.D.
Recent archaeological investigations have revealed the
importance of caves to the ancient Maya. The Mayans believed
that to get to heaven you had to pass through the nine
levels of the underworld. Strange rituals were conducted
by kings and religious leaders in the caves of Belize.
They believed that sacrifices in the underworld would
bring their people better crops and rain.
I. Minkin, M.D., is a practicing hand surgeon from Asheville,
North Carolina. He has been caving since he was 9 years
old, and has been a member of the National Speleogical Society
since 1960. When he was 16, the Mexican government of Campeche
invited him to help excavate some Maya burial caves in the
jungles of the Yucatán, starting him on a lifelong
quest for adventure.
graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in
physical anthropology, then attended medical school. Throughout
his studies and practice, Bruce has continued his interest
in the outdoors, and his passion for archaeology and caving
led him to the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance
project in 1998. Even though he is not a professional archaeologist,
he was accepted as a crew member because of his experience
with vertical caving and anthropology. The next year he
returned with his son Erik, who did his senior project on
Maya cave archaeology.
Actun Tunichil Muknal was a major ceremonial site to the Maya.
Mapping, documenting, and preserving the remains in the cave has
been an on-going process by archaeologists for the last 6 years.
The cave was named for the stone altar discovered over ½
mile into the cave. On a ledge forty feet above the underground
river, an altar was constructed over 1000 years ago. Two slate
stelae or monuments were placed upright within a grouping of broken-off
cave formations. The four foot long stelae represented objects
used in the bloodletting rituals, obsidian blades and stingray
spines. In ancient Mayan times, the high priest would puncture
a body part and let the blood drip onto a piece of bark inside
a bowl. The bark would then be burned so that the smoke would
rise to the heavens as homage to the gods. The objects of this
ceremony were found scattered around the altar, obsidian blades,
elaborately decorated bowls, and faces carved into slate slabs.
A mile further into the cave, you crawl through a small crevice
that opens into a huge chamber over three football fields in
length and one hundred feet in height. The entire floor of the
room is covered in sparkling white flowstone. You take off your
shoes so that you don't soil the crystalline floor or crush
artefacts. Everywhere you look there are pottery vessels, human
bone and artefacts embedded in the floor. Whole skulls are laying
in the open, white calcite covering the face like a sugar coating.
A jade axe is wedged into a crack in the wall. The tiny bones
of an infant's skeleton lay on a ledge. Large boulders have
holes carved into the sides to represent human skulls. Ollas,
or large storage jars, rest in-situ on the floor. Some are so
big that you could crawl through them.
the far reaches of the chamber, you climb vertically twenty
feet up to an alcove. It is here that you gaze upon the girl's
skeleton. You can't help but be mystified by the sight. Everyone
quietly leaves the chamber, wondering what happened at this
site a thousand years ago.
Tunichil Muknal is now open to the adventurous public. This
wondrous underground archaeological site is now a living museum.
The human remains and artefacts would not have as much importance
if removed to a display cabinet. By seeing these objects in
their original context, the ecotourist can appreciate what it
meant to the ancient Maya.
You must have a certified guide to lead you into the cave, not
only to protect you from dangers but also to preserve the delicate
cave formations and artefacts. It is not a trip for the weak-at-heart.
It is over an hour hike through the jungle to get to the entrance.
Exploring inside involves swimming, climbing, crawling, and
slithering over a mile into the cave. But the effort is worth
it when you see her face. It conjures up the mystery of the
Maya that you'll never forget.
photos provided by Dr. Bruce Minkin. All rights reserved.