Xibalba was a Maya name for the underworld, home of the gods of death and disease. Caves, not the lofty pyramids left behind by the ancient Maya, were the entrances to Xibalba. And here, in caves like this one, they left sacrifices — plates, bowls and captive’s remains — as offerings to the gods.
“One of the things that Maya would do, particularly when they made offerings in caves, was smash things, because to the Maya, things that we consider inanimate, they consider animate. And if you use them in a ritual it was important to smash the vessel to release the spirit,” says archaeologist Jaime Awe, director of Belize’s Institute of Archaeology. He was standing in the cave before an array of bowls, broken or incised with holes, just as they had been left a thousand years before.
AUDIO: Sounds of the cave
For more than four millennia, Maya conducted rituals in caves like Actun Tunichil Muknal, where Awe led teams to explore starting in 1993. The descendants of the ancient Maya, who abandoned their pyramid-adorned ceremonial centers by 1050 A.D., still perform rituals today in caves in Mexico’s Yucatan. In a recent paper in the Latin American Antiquity journal, Awe and colleagues presented evidence from caves like this one that drought played a role in the famed collapse of the ancient Maya. “We’ve had to map everything in these caves,” Awe says.