One of the most mysterious archeological sites on the planet is located deep within the jungles of Belize. Now known as Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave, this vast underground labyrinth was abandoned and forgotten about for more than 1,000 years. Only accidentally rediscovered in the 1980s, the cave is proving to be a treasure trove of information not just about the ancient Maya but also about climate change.
It’s easy to see why the Spanish and other European colonizers failed to find ATM Cave. The only way to get in is to swim across a spring-fed pool, navigate an underground river, and descend more than 400 meters (a quarter of a mile) beneath the surface. But once inside, a grand treasure revealed itself, an enormous stone sepulcher carved by ancient Maya priests out of the natural rock.
The diverse collection of religious artifacts, pottery, and weapons would be more than enough to excite archeologists, but the greatest secret of the cave lies much further in. Only after more than an hour of navigating one’s way ever deeper into the earth does ATM’s namesake become visible. In the local Maya tongue, Actun Tunuchil Muknal means “Cave of the Crystal Maiden.” In the last chamber of the cave, the remains of more than a dozen people who were sacrificed still lie, including the skeleton of a young woman whose bones have taken on a glittery, crystalline sheen.
Archeologists now believe that the 14 people who were sacrificed, including very young children, gave their lives to appease the Maya gods around the year 900 A.D., a time of vast cultural changes in the Maya world. Experts now believe that the ancient priests led so many people into ATM Cave and through the difficult passages in order to reach the entrance to Xibalba, the Maya underworld or “hell.”
It was believed that sacrifices made directly to the Lords of Hell were more prestigious and thus would be honored by the Maya gods, particularly Chaac, the deity of rain. At the time, the Maya were facing what would now be called climate change, an era of vast and rapid changes in the weather and amount of rainfall. However, despite the human sacrifices, Maya civilization soon collapsed, and most of the stone cities across Belize that were inhabited for thousands of years were then abandoned.