Mesoamerican cave sites
|Classic Maya collapse|
|Spanish conquest of Yucatán|
|Spanish conquest of Guatemala|
|Spanish conquest of Petén|
Mesoamerican cave sites are caves used by and associated with the Maya civilization of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Certain beliefs and observances connected with cave sites are also maintained among some contemporary Maya communities. These cave sites are understood to have served religious purposes rather than utilitarian ones. Accordingly, archaeological artifacts found within caves can inform interpretations of religious ritual and cave studies combined with epigraphic, iconographic, and ethnographic studies can further inform Maya religion and society.
Maya cave sites of great interest for the robbers and invaders during the war, so the entrances to some of them were walled up (James Brady as examples leads immured caves of Dos Pilas and Naj Tunich).
The total number of caves in the Puuc region in the Yucatan is estimated in more than 2000, most of which is not open (the most extensive to date inventory has about 300 caves). In compiled in the fight against idolatry Spanish chronicles 16th century mentioned 17 sites Maya caves and cenotes (of which found 9 caves). In the Relación de las cosas de Yucatán author Diego de Landa described Sacred Cenote. Underground Maya archeology was actively developing starting from the 1980s-1990s. Museo Nacional de Antropología leads two projects to study the Maya caves: Caves: Register of Prehispanic Cultures Evidence in Puuc Region with 1997 year and The cult of the cenotes in the center of the Yucatan. In 2008, a Mayan underground complex consisting of eleven temples, the 100-meter stone roads and flooded labyrinth of caves, was found on the Yucatan Peninsula. The most famous caves are the Maya: Balankanche, Loltun Cave, Actun Tunichil Muknal and Jolja'.
Associations with writing
At the moment it is not known exactly what the sign represents a cave in the Maya writing. According to the hypothesis of James Brady cave means popular in the maya texts «sign entry» or «impinged bone element» (see figure). James Brady proposes to read this sign as CH'EN or CH'EEN. As proof of his hypothesis, James Brady cites three arguments: 1) use of the mark in the sentence denotes to a certain place in which you can enter, sit down or do a burial. 2) visual mark has common features with symbols of death, the underworld and bats. 3) phonetically the mark ends in a consonant «N». In Maya writing this sign is part of the verb «OCH-WITZ» («Go inside the Mountain»)
Association with settlement
A desire to be near the sacred has influenced Mesoamerican settlement. Mountains and caves were important elements in Mesoamerican creation myths. Mesoamerican belief systems liken water to fertility and mountains give flowing water and rainfall through caves. Accordingly, these natural features were considered sacred and were sought out by Mesoamerican migrants looking for a new home. A cave could be considered an axis mundi if it marked the center of a village (Brady and Ashmore 1999: 127). The Late Postclassic site of Mayapan incorporated several cenotes into its ceremonial groups and the Cenote Ch’en Mul is at the site core. At Dos Pilas house platforms were often in front of cave entries and the tunnel went beneath the platform.
Architectural landscapes and themes
Artificial landscapes often mimicked sacred landscapes. Doorways of temples were seen as the cave entrances to mountains. Sometimes these doorways were witz monster mouths. The same was true for the Aztecs, who at Utatlán designed an artificial cave that ends under the central plaza and is designed according to the mythical seven-chamber cave of emergence, Chicomoztoc (this is also seen at Teotihuacan, though somewhat different). and at Muklebal Tzul it appears that an artificial well underneath a massive platform was made to appear like a water-bearing cave. In the Yucatán many Late Postclassic temples had Spanish churches built on top of them after the conquest and so caves and cenotes can still be found near these places today.
Entrances to the Underworld
Caves are often described as entries into the watery Maya underworld. For Mesoamerican groups, including the Maya, life and death occur at liminal zones between this world and the otherworld. Caves then are both associated with life and death; when something emerges from the underworld, that something lives, and when something descends into the underworld, that something dies. Caves are seen as birthplaces where humans and group ancestors were born (and live) and the Maya of the Yucatán even thought that the sun and moon were born out of the underworld.
Associations with sex and fertility
There appears to be a strong association (and perhaps conflation) between caves and sweatbaths. Caves are often perceived as female and are likened to the womb and vagina. Hence they are a symbol of fertility. Like caves, sweatbaths have also been associated with human fertility and both have strong sexual connotations. Examples of these sexual connotations include the painting of a couple engaged in intercourse at the cave site of Naj Tunich, the contemporary Tzotzil Maya belief that a hypersexual being lives in a cave, and the fact that sweatbaths have been places of illicit sex amongst many Maya groups. Artifacts found at a sweatbath on the periphery of Piedras Negras included a circular mirror and five marine shells, artifacts that have been associated with the watery underworld and the latter of which has been found in the artificial caves underneath the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan.
Speleothems in caves have also been regarded as sacred and have played a role in Maya religion. Caves are considered to be "living beings with personhood and souls". and according to a 41 year old Q’eqchi’ Maya their speleothems "are also alive, they grow and sweat water; they themselves are water". People may take these rocks from the caves and put them on their altars. The Xibun Maya incorporated speleothems into the construction of the ball court at the Hershey site. Ball courts have been associated with the underworld just as caves have been.
Associations with natural forces
Caves are linked with wind, rain, and clouds. The Zinacantecos of the Chiapas highlands even believe that lightning comes from caves. The Yukatek and Lacandon believe that caves and cenotes are where rain deities reside and the Yukatek of the sixteenth century sacrificed humans to appease these deities.
At Dos Pilas the Cueva de Murciélagos rests beneath the royal palace platform. After it rains heavily water rushes out from this cave signaling the beginning of the rainy season and the advance of the crop cycle. This artificial landscape showed that the king had control over water, rainmaking, and fertility, thereby legitimizing his authority.
Caves in art have also been used to legitimize authority and elevate status. Individuals in the mouth of a cave for example are endowed with authority that is often associated with shamanism. Scribal imagery is often associated with a skeletal jaw (maws are often likened to the mouths of caves), which may indicate that caves are where his craft originated. Perhaps this imagery "served to mystify and exalt the scribe's role."
Associations of art and ritual
Caves are often associated with transformation. One artifact in the Cenote X-Coton is a human stone figure that is making an offering and wearing a (possible) jaguar skin with the human's face coming out of its mouth. It appears that in addition to water and sacrifice rituals the cenote may have been used for way transformations.
Human sacrifice to gods connected to caves was widespread. The sacrifice either occurred in the cave or the body was put there afterwards. Children were commonly sacrificed in the Yucatán and child sacrifice was recorded in Highland Guatemala as well.
Archaeologists have found caves that have been sealed such as the Cueva de El Duende. It is possible that the desecration of caves could have been used as a symbol of conquest and political legitimacy. Another explanation could relate to termination rituals that have often been seen in architectural construction.
Agricultural products are common offerings in caves. Modern Maya believe that maize originated beneath the earth, an idea perhaps expressed by Classic depictions of the Maize God emerging from the underworld. This belief gives caves life-giving power as accounts from the Popul Vuh indicate that humans were made from maize dough. Domesticated plants found in lowland caves were probably used in rituals performed for deities related to agricultural fertility. Use of agricultural products in agricultural rituals continues amongst the contemporary Maya.
Jade is a frequent cave offering. The largest amount of jade found at one site is at the Cenote of Sacrifice at Chichen Itza. Metal was a common offering during the Postclassic, the largest collections coming from the Cenote of Sacrifice and "bell" caves in western Honduras. It is possible that the notion of the Earth Lord having lots of wealth in his cave may have come from this tradition.
Mayans believed, that the cave home of ancestral spirits, why do in they burial people. It appears that elite cave burial was rare, but it is possible that common people may have used caves as burial places for their dead such as at the Caves Branch Rock Shelter in Belize. Two tomb structures have been discovered in caves to date. One at the site of Naj Tunich and the other at Quen Santo, both in Guatemala. Lineage founders have also been buried in caves. Elites were able to build their own elaborate burial "caves" and by doing so reinforced their power and status. It seems elites tried to make their tombs look like natural caves. Stalactites found at Tomb 2 of Nim Li Punit provide an example of this.
- Mesoamerican cave sites
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