The Maya believed that caves, especially those that extend for several kilometers underground, are entries to the underworld or Xibalba, the “place of fear”, where the evil lords lived. The Maya people dreaded the underworld, and felt it necessary to appease the terrible gods that lived down there by performing sacrifices, the highest form of which is the sacrifice of humans. One such cave where the Maya performed ritual sacrifices is located in the heart of Belize near San Ignacio in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve.
The Actun Tunichil Muknal, conveniently abbreviated as “ATM”, was first explored in the late 1980s. The entrance to the cave is shaped like an hour glass and is flooded with water. Remains of ceremonial offerings begin just inside the cave mouth, starting with snail shells and growing stranger and more abundant as one moves deeper into the cave. About a quarter-mile from the entrance is the main chamber where one can see the remains of fourteen human skeletons including the calcified remains of what is named the Crystal Maiden.
The Crystal Maiden was a 20-something-year-old woman who was sacrificed by an ancient Maya priest as part of a religious ritual more than 1,000 years ago. She lies on her back, her mouth open and her entire skeleton covered in glittering calcite, created by deposition of minerals, hence the name “Crystal Maiden”. The cave itself was named after her, or rather her tomb. Actun Tunichil Muknal means “Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre.”
Other skeletons were either tucked away in corners and crevices, or splayed out in the open. These ranged from one-year-old infants to adults in their thirties and forties. Everywhere there are ceramic pots, musical instruments, jewelry, small sculptures and stingray spines, which were used for bloodletting. Many of these artifacts and remains are completely calcified to the cave floor. The Maya also sculpted the cave formations to create altars for the offerings, or create silhouettes of faces and animals or to project a shadow image into the cave.
Recent research on the ancient climate of Mesoamerica has revealed that drought might have played an important role in the collapse of the civilization, and might be the purpose of these sacrifices which were found to be made with increasing frequencies in the ninth century, just before the Maya perished. According to Maya mythology, one of the dwellers of the underground was Chac, the god of rain, and these sacrifices and offering might be made at him.
Most of the artifacts discovered in Actun Tunichil Muknal are left in the condition they were found in, making it one of the best preserved caves containing Maya sacrificial objects.