Sacred Secrets of the Caves

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, January 24, 1998 | Go to article overview

Sacred Secrets of the Caves


Bower, Bruce, Science News


The Classic era of Maya civilization, from A.D. 250 to A.D. 900, has yielded majestic remains that jut out of the tropical forests of southern Mexico and Central America. At several dozen major Maya settlements, stairways run up the sides of massive temples, and inscribed stone monuments recount the histories of royal families and their bloody escapades in warfare. Immense plazas, elaborate buildings reserved for powerful officials, and ball courts on which some type of organized game was played appear as regularly as shopping malls in suburban neighborhoods.

Yet new insights into the religious beliefs and economic practices of the Classic Maya may lie beneath the surface of their imposing structures--in caves. Ongoing archaeological investigations suggest that ancient Maya settlements were strategically placed on top of and around numerous caves, both natural and man-made, and that these caverns served as landmarks of political power and spiritual meaning.

Caves located in crucial spots sanctified each Maya site and served as central points in a "sacred landscape," proposes archaeologist James E. Brady of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Kings and nobles used these subterranean spaces in ways designed to fortify their hold on power, Brady suspects.

Moreover, evidence indicates that shamans or other spiritual authorities conducted elaborate rituals in many caves. The ancient Maya also made small- and large-scale pilgrimages to caves. Local economies apparently adapted to and thrived on the pilgrim trade, suggesting that religious and economic life were closely entwined during the Classic era.

"Caves give us windows to look at Classic Maya religious beliefs and to reconstruct ritual practices with concrete data," Brady says. "Archaeology tends to concentrate solely on material finds and has often downplayed their connection to religious life,"

Maya cave archaeology has attracted systematic research only in the past decade. Prior to that, several investigators had theorized that some Classic caves had been sites of ritual activity directed by shamans or priests, but the nature of these ceremonies and their relationship to the wider realm of religious, political, and economic life remained largely unknown.

Brady and several colleagues described their most recent cave discoveries and offered an emerging perspective on their significance in Classic Maya society at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, held in November 1997 in Washington, D.C.

Historical and ethnographic accounts have long noted that Maya groups, including those still in existence, regularly conduct ritual activities in caves near their communities. Maya religion focuses strongly on the earth, Brady asserts. Caves, often in conjunction with mountains and water, embody the earth's fundamental power and lie at the center of a four-cornered universe. Maya caves frequently contain cenotes, openings to underground water sources that further establish the cave's sacred status.

Many modern Maya settlements examined by ethnographers are built near sacred caves, Brady notes. Each cave has a name that the adjoining community adopts. In one region of Guatemala, residents venerate and care for sacred crosses that they place in caves.

Large groups of Tzoltzil and Yucatec Maya regularly go on pilgrimages to a series of caves and cenotes.

Nearly a decade ago, Brady reported uncovering pottery, bone needles, obsidian blades, and other artifacts in a cave at Naj Tunich, a Classic site in Guatemala. Traditional thinking held that such a large number of remains could only have been left by people who lived in the dank cavity for at least short periods.

Brady decided to interpret the finds from a different perspective. He suggested that at Naj Tunich and throughout Classic Maya society, shadowy cave mouths had hosted periodic religious ceremonies led by ritual specialists and attended by crowds bearing offerings.

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