Inch by excruciating inch, Guillermo de Anda, an archaeologist from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), drags himself face down through a dark, dank subterranean tunnel. It’s little more than 1 foot high. Hours later, he emerges into a chamber filled with ancient Maya relics. And the discovery reduces him to tears…
In fact, the cryptic cave system explored by de Anda might soon transform our understanding of Maya civilization, its mysterious rise and fall, and more specifically, its ritual use of caves and other underground spaces. Thought to be up to a millennium old, the artifacts he found are priceless.
At an INAH press conference in Mexico City in March 2019 that National Geographic reported on, de Anda described his reaction to the discovery. “I couldn’t speak, I started to cry,” he said. “I’ve analyzed human remains in [Chichén Itza’s] Sacred Cenote, but nothing compares to the sensation I had entering, alone, for the first time in that cave… You almost feel the presence of the Maya who deposited these things in there.”
In fact, Maya civilization once dominated one third of the geographic area of Mesoamerica – a culturally dynamic region that corresponds to Central and Southern Mexico, and Central America as far as the north of Costa Rica. Maya civilization wasn’t homogeneous, though. Instead, it consisted of a network of city states with shifting allegiances, much like Classical Greece.
The achievements of the Maya included the most advanced class of writing seen in pre-Hispanic America and a body of astronomical knowledge so sophisticated that it correctly predicted the occurrence of eclipses centuries in advance. With a conceptual understanding of the notion of zero, their mathematics were more complex than those practiced by the ancient Greeks or Romans. And their calendar conceived of time on an epochal scale of tens of millions of years.
The objects discovered by de Anda and his colleagues appear to date to the Terminal Classic (or early Post-Classic) period of Maya history. Starting in 2000 B.C., Maya civilization evolved gradually for more than two millennia. Then, in the 4rd century A.D., it entered a period of high culture and urbanism known as the Classic era. This lasted until the 9th century A.D. – the start of the Terminal Classic period – when Maya civilization mysteriously declined.
The political breakdown of Classic Maya civilization appears to have been accompanied by a northward shift in populations, specifically towards the Yucatán Peninsula. Essentially the remnants of a vast, prehistoric coral reef, the Yucatán Peninsula is a large, flat limestone shelf at the southeast tip of Mexico. On one side lies the Caribbean Sea, on the other the Gulf of Mexico.
Of course, under the corrosive action of rainwater and naturally forming acidic solutions, limestone has a propensity to form spectacular cave systems. From Egypt to Babylon, great civilizations tend to rise on the banks of great rivers. But in the Yucatán Peninsula, a sprawling, subterranean network of caves and sinkholes known as “cenotes” supplied the water resources for Maya cultural florescence.
In the dry north of the Yucatán Peninsula, the decline of Classic-era Maya power-centers further south marked the ascendance of the city of Chichen Itza, a regional powerhouse until its decline in the early post-Classic period (900-1200 A.D.). In fact, Chichen Itza was a vast settlement with a profusion of ornate temples, pyramids and palaces, including what is believed to be an astronomical observatory oriented towards Venus.
The most famous structure at the site is El Castillo, a square-based pyramid dedicated to Kukulcan, a widely revered feathered serpent deity known as Quetzalcoatl to the Aztecs. On the equinoxes, the play of sunlight on the pyramid’s northern staircase creates the illusion of a giant, writhing snake, a remarkable sight that continues to draw large crowds to this day.
The cave system explored by de Anda is located a little under 2 miles from El Castillo. Known as the cave of Balamku – which translates as “Jaguar God” in Yucatec Maya – it lies approximately 80 feet underground. Although the jaguar has special importance in Maya religion and iconography, the name of the cave appears to be a relatively modern assignation, so its true historical title remains unclear.
A causeway known as a sacbe – meaning “white road” in Yucatec Maya – connects the cave to Chichen Itza, indicating its high standing among the city’s inhabitants. Sacbeob, as they are known in plural form, weren’t merely designed for transportation. They had deep mythological, ritual, religious and political significance as well.
In 2018 de Anda was exploring the cave system under Chichen Itza as part of his work for the Great Maya Aquifer Project (GAM). Partly funded by a National Geographic Society grant, GAM is a multidisciplinary project that aims to chart, comprehend and conserve the region’s aquifer. De Anda is one its co-directors.
Of course, caves always had immense symbolic significance to the Maya, as Holley Moyes, an archaeologist from the University of California, explained to National Geographic in March 2019. “For the ancient Maya, caves and cenotes were considered openings to the underworld,” she said. “They represent some of the most sacred spaces… They are fundamental, hugely important, to the Maya experience.”
Indeed, cenotes certainly seem to have played an important role in the culture of Chichen Itza, the name of which is generally deemed to translate as “at the mouth of the well of the Itza.” The Itza were an ethnic group who ruled the city. However, some theorists have instead suggested that the word means “water wizards.” The site itself is home to several large cenotes, both above the surface and below its urban layout.
De Anda was made aware of Balamku by Luis Un, a 68-year-old Maya local. Un knew about the cave because he had ventured inside it 50 years earlier as part of a pioneering archaeological team. He was in his teens at the time, but the experience evidently made an impression on him.
Led by Victor Segovia Pinto, who’s now dead, the team was made aware of the site in 1966 by a group of farmers. However, their exploration appears to have been cursory. After a quick check of the cave’s contents, in fact, Segovia ordered it sealed with rocks. And although he subsequently wrote a report for INAH, there were no follow-up studies.
Why Segovia ordered the cave sealed remains a mystery, but James Brady, who’s an anthropology professor at California State University and a co-director of GAM, thinks the archaeologist might have been overstretched. “[He] may have already been committed to other projects and knew that he did not have the time or resources to do it,” Brady told the science and technology website Motherboard in 2019.
After De Anda had the cave unsealed, he proceeded to crawl on his belly through a network of constricted tunnels. Hundreds of feet and several hours later, he arrived in a chamber containing ritual offerings. Moreover, it transpired that this was one of seven such chambers. As such, Balamku turned out to be one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the region for a generation.
Filled with stalactites and stalagmites, the chambers – which apparently served as shrines – contained hundreds of pristine objects. They included stones for grinding corn, ceramic plates and figurines of the jaguar god Balamku from which the cave takes its name. Additionally, the team located some intriguing forensic evidence, including charred offerings and shards of bones.
Speaking to National Geographic, de Anda explained that it was unprecedented to stumble on so many artifacts in one place. In 1959, for example, archaeologists explored the nearby cave of Balankanché and recovered only 70 items. “Balamkú appears to be the ‘mother’ of Balankanché,” he said. “When you see that there are many, many offerings in a cave that is also much more difficult to access, this tells us something.”
Indeed, the find was most unexpected. Centuries of looting means that much of Mexico’s archaeological heritage has found its way to the black market, in fact, rather than into museums or universities. Moreover, according to de Anda, the artifacts are in “an extraordinary state of preservation.”
And with any luck, the discovery will help to answer some of the big unsolved mysteries of Maya civilization. For example, archaeologists are still unsure about the degree of trade and cultural exchange between Maya cities and other Mesoamerican sites. Perhaps most importantly, though, no one really knows for sure why Chichen Itza fell into decline – or how it was founded.
“Balamku can tell us not only the moment of collapse of Chichen Itza,” de Anda told National Geographic. “It can also probably tell us the moment of its beginning. Now, we have a sealed context with a great quantity of information, including useable organic matter, that we can use to understand the development of [the city].”
Many of the artifacts are adorned with Mesoamerican motifs such as the ceiba tree, a symbol of the universe known to the Yucatec Maya as Yaxche (green tree). Intriguingly, more than 150 ceramic items bear the distinctive face of a rain god known as Tlaloc. Unlike Chaac, who’s a Maya rain god, Tlaloc was principally worshipped by the Toltecs and other Nahuatl-speaking people of central Mexico.
Moreover, Chichen Itza itself appears to incorporate architectural techniques from the same region. For many years, Mayanists believed that this was the result of an exodus or a conquest. However, theorists now think that Chichen Itza might simply have been highly multicultural.
In addition, the cave of Balamku might also help to confirm a popular theory that a series of droughts caused the decline of lowland Maya culture. The Yucatán Peninsula has always experienced a high degree of climate volatility, and there is a school of thought that massive deforestation could have contributed to drought conditions as well.
Of course, this may explain the large number of ritual offerings to the rain god Tlaloc that have been found. If the inhabitants of Chichen Itza were indeed suffering the impacts of a drought, it’s likely that they would have sought to rectify the crisis by petitioning the appropriate deities.
Consistent with other religions in the Mesoamerican region, Maya beliefs were predicated on the idea of an unseen otherworld of supernatural entities. In fact, their pantheon was made up of dozens of idiosyncratic deities. Like most other animistic religions of the antiquities, the prime objective of Maya religion was to control the forces of nature upon which agriculture and by extension civilization as a whole depend.
To petition the gods, the Maya routinely made offerings. The rules governing their contents were precise and complicated, but they often included food, drink, incense or cigars. These might be placed at a shrine, in a temple, in a tomb or underneath a building. The most potent offering, however, was life itself, meaning that animal and human sacrifice were part of Maya culture.
Of course, a complete forensic analysis of the seeds, bones, food and other fragmentary remains in the cave of Balamku should offer other useful insights. Specifically, it ought to indicate the types of rituals practiced there, and such an analysis should also help archaeologists to date the artifacts more precisely.
Meanwhile, according to Fredrik Hiebert, an archaeological consultant for National Geographic, the cave of Balamku might offer useful insights regarding the sustainable use of resources. “By studying these caves and cenotes, it’s possible to learn some lessons for how to best use the environment today, in terms of sustainability for the future,” he told the magazine in 2019.
Indeed, research strongly suggests that humanity’s current ecological footprint – that is, the measure of human impact on the environment in terms of demand and supply – is not sustainable. For example, if everyone on the planet consumed at the same rate that American citizens do on average, then we would require four Earths to supply our needs.
In that respect, de Anda thinks archaeology can have practical applications. “It’s always been… a beautiful and interesting field of science, but without a great deal of utility,” he said. “I think that here, we will be able to demonstrate the contrary. Because when we begin to understand these marvelous contexts, we can understand the footprints of humankind’s past… during one of the most dramatic moments in history.”
De Anda and his team are yet to excavate the caves properly, but they have at least completed an initial survey of its artifacts. They think that more items, possibly dating back further than a thousand years, might be hidden within layers of sediment. However, they are proceeding slowly, primarily because their aim is to establish new benchmarks for the archaeological exploration of Mexican caves.
Speaking to Motherboard in 2019, James Brady explained that the site presented unique prospects for research. “We’ve never had an opportunity quite like this where everything is really intact and guarded, and it’s not a salvage operation,” he said. “So, we want to go slowly and make this a model cave project.”
In fact, cave archaeology in the Yucatán Peninsula is a relatively young field of study. Prior to the 1980s, researchers were largely focused on the so-called monumental structures there. Cave systems were mapped without the aid of 21st-century technology, and the physical residues on artifacts were simply cleaned off instead of being properly examined.
Specifically, researchers from the Great Maya Aquifer project see the cave of Balamku as an opportunity to utilize innovative new technologies. And, as an interdisciplinary project, they also intend to consult with specialists from other fields. Indeed, their approach appears to constitute a promising new form of cave archaeology.
One of their initial goals is to make a 3D map of the cave system. In fact, 3D surface scanning is now being used by archaeologists around the planet for a range of purposes. The finished product should offer researchers a complete virtual-reality rendition of the cave of Balamku.
Ultimately, de Anda and his team intend to search beneath the water table, where an uncharted warren of limestone tunnels might stretch for many miles, eventually linking with other cave systems. “It’s never over until you come to the last dead end,” said Brady to Motherboard. “And we’re not there yet.” Indeed, there’s still so much to learn about Maya civilization – and so much to explore.