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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Scientists Discover the Mayan Road to the Land of the Dead

Map of Riviera MayaImage via Wikipedia
By Linda Patterson

The concept of an underworld, a region inhabited by spirits, supernatural beings, and the souls of the dead which could be found by literally descending into the bowels of the earth, is a nearly universal one amongst ancient cultures. From the myths of ancient Greece, to the legends of Japanese Shinto, to the prevailing modern concept of the Christian Hell, the deeper regions of the world have been shrouded in mystery and regarded with unease, if not outright terror, since the dawn of human thought. However, no scientist has yet unearthed a physical manifestation of Odysseus' portal to the nether-realms a claim that can no longer be made of the underworld believed to exist by the ancient Maya.

It is in the Yucatn that one of the largest such entrances has been found. Archaeologists have uncovered a surprisingly vast network of subterranean passages, temples, and caves used by the ancient peoples who once dwelt on the surface. These caverns are largely covered by water today, and some archaeologists believe they also were during the time of the Maya. The scientists who explored these caves needed scuba gear and modern diving equipment to complete the survey, and so one can only imagine the hardships endured by those who first built these chambers many hundreds of years ago.

The Mayan Historical Record

Stone tablets recovered from Mayan excavation sites outline a dual function for these underground caves. In addition to their ceremonial role, they were apparently also a barrier to isolate floodwater from reaching the cities above ground. Since many of these cavern complexes were constructed near or under large population centers, it's clear that this second duty was no less important than their religious significance. To the Maya, death was less a cessation of life and more of a transformative event. The caves and rivers that wind through these underground spaces were, to their ancient builders and explorers, a literal road by which the souls of the deceased would depart this realm and make passage to the land of the dead.

Their Mortal Remains

Usually, scientists uncover more than just rocks and pottery shards in these underground caverns. Lying buried within the sediment, or crouched by the rim of a glistening obsidian pool, human skeletons can often be seen in these caves, the remains of those dead the Maya laid to rest in hopes of starting them on their journey to the next world. That human remains are so regularly found in Mayan cave passages has indicated to archaeologists the literal meaning that the Maya ascribed to this concept of a road or path that the dead must walk to reach Xibalba.

At least fourteen similar cave sites have been discovered in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. Often, the caves themselves are decorated with huge columns, carved by hand out of the subterranean rock, as well as sculptures, pottery, and other ritual detritus. The ceramics often contain kill holes, small openings in the bottom that were meant to allow spirits to escape from the vessel during a ritual offering.

According to Mayan legend, the path to Xibalba was fraught with danger, and the dead souls would have to be led down these dark corridors on their way to the underworld by helpful spirits, such as a mythical dog with powerful night-vision. The spirits of the departed would endure many tests and trials before being admitted to the land of the dead.

Descending into the Depths

For those who haven't yet been, it's difficult to imagine the eerie sense of transportation one experiences when descending into a Mayan cave. Standing at the end of a subterranean road, gazing into the inky abyss of a pool at the foot of an immense and intricately-carved pillar, with broken shards and human bones strewn about the site, it's hard not to feel both a thrill of fear and a sense of immense awe at the reverence that their creators once held for these sites.

The Mayans' above-ground achievements, like the famous pyramids of Tikal and Calakmul, may be more well known; however, their subterranean construction work is neither less impressive nor less important from an historical perspective. In fact, archaeologists consider the two as halves of the same whole; the caves and their cenote entrances served as important sources of fresh water, without which the cities themselves could never have flourished, as the Yucatan is a region remarkable devoid of rivers or conventional fresh water sources. The Mayans wisely chose to build near the few areas of potable water available to them, and likely thereafter found that the caves were as valuable from a religious and spiritual point of view as they were from a practical one. Many of these sites can be visited today by anyone who can manage a moderately taxing hike.

Fortunately, the secret of these Mayan caves has not been lost to history, and many of them are accessible to tourists. Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) in Belize is a popular site with some extraordinary relics, including the glittering, calcified skeleton of the Crystal Maiden, and can be reached and explored by taking a moderately strenuous day-long adventure hike. If you travel to Central America, be sure to reserve a day for a descent into the Mayan Underworld.

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