Lauren and I recently went to Belize for two weeks. I was surprised by the wild mix of cultures there—I encourage you to read about the country's history here. Belize today has Creole, Maya, Garifuna, and Mestizo cultures; there are also Mennonites who are of German descent. Every bus we went on blared out a mixture of reggae and calypso music. The staple food is rice and beans with Jamaican style jerk chicken (we ate this a lot). Queen Elizabeth II is still the symbolic head of state, and sits on the currency, but Belize became an independent nation in 1981. The people we met seemed grateful for Britain's continued involvement, especially in fending off the Guatemalan government's threats (it has been trying to claim Belize since its independence).
On May 12 (Lauren's 29th birthday, no less) we decided to go underground, into the depths of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave in Western Belize, near San Ignacio. Actun Tunichil Muknal translates as "Cave of the Stone Sepulcher." If you are thinking about Indiana Jones already, then just wait. The ATM is an hour's drive from San Ignacio, or 45 minutes from a fabulous hostel we stayed at called Lower Dover (hands down the best place we stayed and tastiest meals we had on our trip). You pass through a small village called "Tea Kettle" on the way, which made me inordinately happy. Once you park up, it's about an hour trek through the jungle, including two rivers which you have to swim across. This means that you can only access the cave certain times of the year. We saw several snake tracks crisscrossing the trail en route, as well as a massive tarantula in a tree hollow.
Once we reached the cave mouth, there was a last opportunity to pee and soak up a little Vitamin D before plunging into the turquoise waters. Once inside the initial opening, you are mostly wading though knee to chest-deep water all the way through the cave (thankfully the water wasn't too cold). I found all of these pictures on the internet by the way, as we weren't allowed cameras in the cave. For good reason, I might add—in 2012 an ancient skull was broken by a tourist dropping his camera on it.
The cave was rediscovered in 1989, and opened to the public in 1998, although archeological research continued until 2003. Our guide told us that for the Mayan people, caves were seen as a liminal space between life and death, an underworld. You can believe it when you see the gigantic stalactites hanging from the ceilings, bigger than most church organs. We know now how these were formed—through the slow process of calcium carbonate eroding from limestone above and dripping down into the cave below. But to people hundreds of years ago, these structures must have seemed supernatural.
At a certain point, after swimming, scrambling, and squeezing your way deep in the cave, (over 3km) you get to a large boulder and steep ledge (pictured on the right). Our guide helped us climb over it, into the entrance to the inner cavern, where the majority of the archeological finds have been made.
We were instructed to leave our shoes behind, before entering a vast chamber. The room felt like a great hall, or a cathedral, and led into several other large chambers. As we walked through, our guide pointed out the multitude of human bones scattered around.
The cathedral is pictured below. You can see how the water has flown through the chamber, forming the undulating pattern on the floor. We were told to walk on the ridges as these are harder deposits of calcium carbonate, and the troughs between them are where many artefacts have been found.
We know that human sacrifices were performed in the cave. Fourteen complete skeletons have been found to date; seven adults and seven children, and many more partial remains. Most were killed with blunt blows to the head. It is believed that these were ritualistic killings performed in an attempt to please the gods during a particularly brutal drought. Geologists have found that there was a 60-year period preceding 811AD during which almost no rain fell in the region. It's estimated that Belize had a population of about two million people prior to that time; now, it has fewer than 400,000. The landscape was likely much more deforested than it is today, and geologists surmise this may have had an impact on the sudden lack of rainfall. A more detailed discussion of this history can be found here.
Whilst other factors such as disease could have been involved, the severe drought was likely the main cause of the collapse of the Mayan civilisation. Imagine entering the cave during that time to find water still percolating through the ceiling and dripping all around. You can see why they equated the cave with a life-giving force.
One particularly gruesome skeleton is the "crystal maiden"; she was an 18-year-old whose heart was removed (or at least that's what it seems like as two of her vertebrates are broken apart). Over time, she has become covered in beautiful, fine sparkling calcium carbonate deposits. This photo doesn't do it justice. I couldn't help but think of Indiana Jones in there—it was surreal, and there are few barriers between you as a tourist and these crystalline bones.
Whilst these skeletons are hard to accurately date, we do have other human evidence left behind. Pots! Of course! Only a fool goes wading into the depths of the earth without a picnic. I had heard before we went that there were pots down in the cave, and that was a main reason for going, but I was not prepared for the amount of pots or the scale of them. There were shards of pots all over the main hall, I'm not exaggerating. Archeologists have found and cataloged over 14,000 artefacts down there. They have been dated to between AD250-909, mostly in the latter end of that age range. This supports the hypothesis of links between the drought and ritual use of the cave as the Mayan civilisation was collapsing.
Mostly the pots were in clusters, around the sooty remnants of fire pits and fireplaces in the large chambers. It almost seemed like campsites left by unruly teenagers, empty beer bottles strewn around for someone else to clear up.
I was fascinated by the pots, not least because of the size of some of them, and how thin the wall thickness of many of them were. They are really nicely made—wood fired, earthenware pots. Archeologists have tested them and found residues of food on the insides.
Having barely scraped my way into the cave, I can't imagine how they got these pots full of corn or rice or other supplies into the cave in one piece.
Quite a few of the pots were complete and in very good condition. We saw them placed all around the chamber, often underneath stalactites, presumably to collect water. We tried some of this water at one spot (upon our guides suggestion) and found it quite delicious—filtered through the earth and limestone.
Many of the pots appear to have been intentionally broken and are marked with "kill holes," suggesting that they were used in sacrificial rituals, too. Here is an article about kill holes—basically they are pots with intentionally pierced holes in them, though we're not entirely sure why. It would seem silly to me to carefully juggle pots and a lit torch into the depths of the cave, only to smash them, but hey, I'm a potter and not a shaman.
I couldn't believe we were allowed to be so close to the artefacts. Unscrupulous individuals could easily take pieces of pots out without anyone noticing. Our guide told us of one person he took in who came out rattling, pockets filled with shards. They need a better protection policy.
Look at the beautiful surface and rim on this pot:
Most of the pots were large, round storage and cooking vessels but there were a few other shapes around, too, such as these bowls:
Possibly the most curious pot in the cave is this one (to the right and below). This monkey decoration has only been found on four pots, located at various sites across Central America.
I was not able to find much information about these monkey vessels—if anyone knows, let me know!
Well, that's all for now. We got out of the cave alive, dried off, and had a delicious lunch of rice, beans, salad, and plantains. Hope you can sleep tonight!