Openings to the Underworld: The Ancient Maya May Have Dug Caves with Spiritual Abandon

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, May 18, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Openings to the Underworld: The Ancient Maya May Have Dug Caves with Spiritual Abandon


Bower, Bruce, Science News


For more than 100 years, archaeologists have hacked through jungles in Mexico and Central America in a quest to uncover pyramids, temples, and other majestic ruins of Maya civilization. James E. Brady of California State University, Los Angeles appreciates the backbreaking work that goes into finding such monumental structures, but he has his sights set lower. As he's probed the ancient Maya's sacred landscape, he's come to realize that this group's belief system invested immense supernatural power in caves and the mountains that surround them.

Brady heads up a growing band of researchers who are piecing together this subterranean, spiritual perspective. In their view, a supernatural terrain permeated pre-Columbian religious life from central Mexico through much of Central America and still inspires faith in many native groups.

Caves occupy the focal point of this archaeological project. In initial research, Brady discovered that some of the largest Maya outposts of the Classic period, which lasted from A.D. 200 to A.D. 900, were strategically oriented on and around natural and humanmade caves (SN: 1/24/98, p. 56). As entryways through sacred, living earth into an underworld of gods, mythical creatures, and ancestors, caves served as spiritual landmarks. In these dim chambers, rulers conducted ceremonies vital to maintaining their power.

New discoveries from before and during the Classic period indicate that caves had considerable spiritual standing in rural as well as urban areas and among common folk as well as rulers. In some locales, caves also show signs of having been visited regularly by religious pilgrims. For example, clues point to cave visits by Maya scribes, the artisans who recorded the royals' exploits.

Cave supply responded to the intense spiritual demands, Brady says. Rather than rely on a limited supply of natural caves, the Maya created new caves in huge numbers. "Artificial caves were constructed according to fairly regular plans and should be considered a formal architectural type of the ancient Maya, just like their ball courts and pyramids," Brady contends. "I suspect there are thousands of these artificial caves that have yet to be discovered"

Artificial caves assume particular prominence in the researchers' latest fieldwork, which Brady and others described this March in Denver at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology.

Maya farmers living far from the madding crowds of major cities excavated their own caves out of dirt or rock apparently to serve as the religious heart of their communities. In some areas, pits that represented caves were dug in houses for family-based rituals, according to Brady.

Moreover, from about 1500 B.C. to A.D. 1400, rural Maya buried their dead in specially designated rock shelters and caves, often dug out of hills or mountains by the sweat of many brows. Among the Classic Maya and their non-Maya contemporaries in central Mexico, a tradition of cave burials may have prompted the construction of pyramids, as symbols of sacred mountains, encasing deceased royalty in cavelike tombs.

SEVEN CAVES OF CREATION Around 1,000 years ago in central Mexico, the Chichimec people founded a town known as Acatzingo Viejo. In the center of the site, settlers excavated seven small caves out of a steep limestone slope. This cave array represented Chicomoztoc, seven mythical caverns from which Chichimec ancestors were believed to have first emerged, says Manuel Aguilar of Cal State, Los Angeles.

The group of caves also put a spiritual stamp of approval on Acatzingo Viejo and affirmed the legitimacy of its new rulers, Aguilar proposes.

He and his coworkers found stone altars, ceramic incense burners, and other evidence of past ritual activity in the six surviving caves at the Mexican site. Local residents told the researchers that the seventh cave had recently been destroyed to make room for a new road.

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