Science and adventure are combined once again in Belize with an intrepid team of scientists working 200 feet below the surface in underwater caves the Maya believed to be gateways to Xibalba, the sacred Maya underworld.
The scientists are working out of Cara Blanca in the Orange Walk District of Belize collecting fossils from cenotes (deep limestone pools)and seeking to determine if the Maya had intensified the making of sacrificial offerings between AD 800 and 900; activities that would indicate the effects of a severe drought on their civilisation.
The study joins others in attempting to unravel the mysteries of the sudden so-called collapse of the ancient Maya civilisation that dominated the Central American region from earlier than 10,000 BC and up to the 16th century AD.
The expedition’s search for Maya sacrifices has been frustrated by ancient underwater clutter consisting of fallen trees and other obstructions, as well as centuries of silt build-up and the impenetrable darkness. The scientists have, however, been more successful in finding fossil samples of megafauna – giant sloths, mammoths, mastodons and other giants that dominated Belize between two million and 10,000 years ago.
According to Lisa J. Lucero, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, who led the expedition, the team consisted of three cave dive instructors, an underwater videographer and an archaeologist. The divers used sophisticated equipment and nitrox and trimix gasses to allow them to explore the cenote bottom and Actun Ek Nen (Black Mirror Cave), a huge cave whose giant mouth is 100 feet below the cenote surface.
While leaving most of their discoveries intact, the team brought pieces of the fossils to the surface for dating and analysis. These are currently housed at the Belize Institute of Archaeology while being prepared for shipment to the US.
Prof Lucero said that Belize’s Dr Jaime Awe, Director of the Belize Institute of Archaeology and a foremost authority on the Maya of Belize, was an integral part of the expedition “My work here would different if it weren’t for Jaime… he has been instrumental in guiding me to where I am today,” she said.
The expedition’s divers collected samples that have never been recorded in Belize before. Palaeontologist H. Gregory McDonald said that weathering of the fossils suggests that they had previously been exposed on land before rising sea levels and the jungle’s water table submerged them.
But did humans inhabit the area the same time as the megafauna? This is another question Prof Lucero’s team is trying to answer.
“Most interesting to archaeology is whether humans were around at the same time as the megafauna. The tropics keep many secrets, including how long ago people lived here — were they here around 10,000 years ago? We know they were in other parts of Belize,” She wrote.
Prof Lucero said that while they Maya were an advanced civilisation who practiced sustainable farming for millennia, they were completely dependent upon rainfall.
“Climate change played a role in the demise of Maya kings by A.D. 900, similar to what we are experiencing at present — intense storms, unpredictable weather and so on. And just as the blanket term “global warming” does not capture the intricacies of changing climate, neither did “long-term drought” for the Maya. In the end, the ancient Maya abandoned hundreds of centres famous for their palaces, temples, tombs and ball courts over a thousand years ago. They even stopped worshiping at sacred places like Cara Blanca”.
But while the Maya elite died out, the Maya themselves, who still number in the millions in Belize, Guatemala, Mexico and other parts of Central America, did not, Prof Lucero pointed out.
“While kings may have disappeared, the people did not. Now that is resiliency,” she said.
Are there lessons for us in studying how the ancient Maya responded to climate change? Many people from around the world will be paying attention as research continues in Belize.
Here at Chaa Creek, the site of an ancient Maya settlement containing over 70 recorded Maya sites including pyramids and plazas, we support and encourage further research into Maya habitation. We also welcome our guests to explore the Maya archaeology of Belize and discover this fascinating, enigmatic civilisation for themselves. Who knows? Future discoveries may well be made by someone who became interested in this fascinating culture while exploring the 365 acre Chaa Creek Nature Reserve and visiting our Natural History Centre.