It’s a journey even Indiana Jones would have to brace himself for: an hour-long rainforest hike, a swim across an ice-cold stream into the narrow mouth of a cave, and then a slippery descent into the dark, cavernous depths where bats, spiders, and ancient scorpion-like amblypygi lurk in the nooks. But, more than a thousand years ago, these creepy crawlies were practically friendly company compared to the cave’s human occupants, who used the remote location to carry out grisly, murderous rituals.
Today, brave adventurers willing to travel more than a mile underground in less than ideal conditions to reach Belize’s Actun Tunichil Muknal cave (ATM) will find many ancient treasures at the end of their journey.
In the past two decades, archaeologists have unearthed more than 1,400 fragments dating from between 250 and 909 A.D.—the period when the “Classic Maya” kingdoms ruled a swath of Mesoamerica. The Maya ventured deeper into the three-mile-long cave as generations progressed, a path that can be tracked by the remnants they left behind.
Found in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, the cave’s remote location meant that these remains of ancient Mayan culture survived undetected for many years, preserved just as they were when they were deposited in the caverns more than 1,000 years ago. Its name translates to “Cave of the Stone Sepulcher,” but locally it is called by a nickname that means “a place of fear.”
It’s a fitting moniker as the cave serves as the final resting place of at least 14 people who are believed to have been killed in ritual sacrifices. These seven adults and seven children of both sexes range from 1 year old to middle-aged, and were found in what archaeologists believe was a sacrificial site called “The Cathedral” on an upper level. The age of the bones has made it difficult for scientists to determine the cause of death, but they know all of the children sustained blunt head trauma. Their bodies were left out in the open, allowing the bones to seal into the cave’s ground over time. Some are now almost entirely concealed, with only a skull visible.
The ancient Maya believed that the underworld of caves was home to gods that controlled rainfall and harvest bounties. Young children and women were considered to be pure and most desirable to the gods. They were presumably brought down and sacrificed in ATM to help garner favor for a possibly ailing community. Interestingly, at least five of the victims are thought to have been from the noble class—their skulls that had been bound and flattened, a popular practice among the civilization’s elite.
One skeleton in particular has become famous for the brutal way she died and the ethereal way her body was preserved. In a room separate from the other bodies, on a high corner where the floor and walls of the cave meet, the “Crystal Maiden” has lain sprawled in the position she died in for some 1,200 years. She was thought to be between 18 to 20 years old, and killed by a club. Her bones stick up from the ground, and water has sealed them with a sparkling calcite coating.
A theory floated by authors of New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society in 2007 suggests those killed in ATM may have been victims of a witch hunt. They “could have been selected because of a community-wide consensus that a particular person’s death would restore order,” the book posits, “perhaps they represent not just offerings, but punishment for the perceived threat they presented in life.”
Human remains have also been unearthed in surrounding caves, but they seem to have been given proper burials. The haphazard bones discovered in ATM give scientists reason to believe that their deaths were unnatural and the cave was used specifically for sacrificial purposes.
Pottery and sacrificial tools naturally cemented to the ground or hidden around the cave’s stalagmites and layers also offer evidence. The “Stelae Chamber” boasts two stone markers, thought to be where high-level community leaders performed rituals to the gods. Sharp rock blades found nearby indicate they cut themselves to offer their own blood. Ancient bowls feature so-called “kill holes,” possibly to drain blood or allow a spirit to escape. One less sinister piece of pottery, known as the “Monkey Pot” for a primate decoration near the rim, drew attention as one among only four ever discovered in Central America.
The culturally rich cave sat undiscovered by the world until 1989. Ironically, the first archaeologist to explore the cave had a connection to the most legendary fictional explorer. Dr. Jaime Awe, who recently resigned as director of the Institute of Archeology of Belize, has been called a “real-life Indiana Jones,” which made it even more amazing when he filed suit in 2012 on behalf of Belize against Lucasfilm, Disney, and Paramount for its depiction of an ancient treasure in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull four years prior. Awe claimed that the crystal skull was based on a relic stolen from Belize by treasure hunters in the 1920s, and he sought reparations from the descendants, who never returned the skull, and the production companies who used its likeness. (The suit eventually was quietly dropped.)
Crystal skulls may be precious, but the crystalline remains of victims of human sacrifice add another layer to the story of an ancient civilization that continues to fascinate us long after its reign fell. In 2004, the entire area around Actun Tunichil Muknal was designated a natural monument and visitors are now allowed in through official tours. Those wary of dark spaces, afraid of tight squeezes, or haunted by thoughts of the skeletal victims of human sacrifice, should beware.