The borders that encircle the countries we recognise today as Belize, Guatemala and Honduras mean little in the story of the Maya.
Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave: Sacrificial ritual at the heart of an impending crisis
Then: In Maya belief, ancient ritual sacrifices played an important part in appeasing the gods so that humans could continue to hold their favour. They regularly provided offerings of food, drink and people themselves to their gods. At the ATM cave, they travelled into what they considered the underworld – the dark cave systems that riddle southern Belize and Guatemala. The cave was used by the Maya from 250AD, where evidence of these rituals includes significant human remains, pottery and a priest’s blood-letting altar in a naturally formed high chamber.
Next: The cave was ‘rediscovered’ in 1989 and named for the two huge stone slabs that form a tomb over its most famous archeological find – a completely intact skeleton of an 18 year old girl (christened the Crystal Maiden due to her preservation in tiny sparkles of calcite) sacrificed between 800-900 AD. More recent scientific evidence from stalactite analysis of these caves has confirmed the theory of a severe drought across the area between 900-1300 AD. It seems that sacrificial activity also heightened at this time, probably in an attempt to appease the Maya’s revered rain god; Chaak.
Today: After scrambling in between stalactites, ducking under boulders and swimming against the clear currents of an underwater river I finally saw her: The Crystal Maiden. Maya artefacts aside, the stunning geology of these caves alone is reason to visit. Combined with the archeology on show, it’s easy to see why the Maya may have thought their gods were showing themselves in the looming shadows of ATM’s glistening calcite formations.