National Geographic Features Belize’s Sacred Maya Caves
Chaa Creek’s resident Mayanist Joe Awe said he’s not surprised that the National Geographic’s recent feature article of “The Top Ten Sacred Caves” of the world listed Belize’s Actun Tunichil Muknal Maya ceremonial cave as number one on its list.
“I’ve been with experienced cave explorers, archaeologist, anthropologists, spelunkers and other caving aficionados on tours of the ATM, and every one, without exception, has said it’s the most amazing cave experience they ever had. I’ve always thought that was remarkable,” Mr Awe said.
Actun Tunichil Muknal, which means “Cave of the Stone Sepulchre” and is often referred to simply as the ATM, is an important ancient Maya underground ceremonial area not far from Chaa Creek in the Cayo District of Belize. It was discovered in 1992 by a geological survey team who alerted archaeologists to the find, and is now considered to contain one of the most well preserved examples of ancient Mayan culture in Mesoamerica. ATM was opened to the public in 2000, but only under the close supervision of licensed guides. It is still widely studied and was the subject of a National Geographic documentary, Journey Through the Underworld.
The National Geographic’s recent article was extracted from their book, Sacred Places of a Lifetime, and lists their top cave destinations from around the world, including caverns in India, Sri Lanka, Greece, China, Malta, France, Ethiopia and Italy, as well as Belize.
Mr Awe said he believes that researchers have just barely scratched the surface, so to speak, of Belize’s sacred Maya caves, which exist within a vast network of naturally formed caves, underground rivers and cenotes, or deep sinkholes.
The ancient Maya considered caves and cenotes to be portals to a cosmological underworld and revered them as places where their priests and rulers could communicate with and send offerings to appease their deities and to petition them for divine assistance.
Actun Tunichil Muknal, for instance, features impressive altars and ceremonial areas and is packed with pottery and shards as well as numerous implements and artefacts made of jade, obsidian, bone and other materials. It’s most well-known feature is the famous “Crystal Maiden”, the intact skeleton of a young sacrificial woman that, due to an accumulation of calcium carbonate over the years, sparkles eerily in torchlight.
Another Belize sacred Maya cave, Barton Creek cave, was featured in a May 16th Mother Nature’s Network website article titled, “Nine of the World’s most beautiful and unusual cave destinations”
“Mayanists, archaeologists, anthropologists and other researchers love the Maya caves of Belize because they contain such rich, well preserved examples of the Maya’s spiritual rituals. I think it’s great that we’re now seeing more mainstream interest in the caves as they really open up another aspect of this incredibly rich culture, ” Mr Awe said, adding that ATM tours through Chaa Creek are all conducted with the highest regard for safety, education and cultural respect for the Maya.