Actun Tunichil Muknal (Belize): Archaeologist's cave research

More than a thousand years ago ancient Maya went deep inside this cave to perform sacrificial rituals.

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Actun Tunichil Muknal is a giant limestone cave in the jungle of western Belize. Over the past 50 years, archaeologists have discovered vestiges of religious rituals in hundreds of caves throughout the land of the Maya.

In Actun Tunichil Muknal, or "Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre," the remains of a 20-year-old woman known as the "Crystal Maiden" have laid for more than 1,000 years. Archaeologists believe she was sacrificed by a priest as part of a religious ritual. 

Archaeologist Holley Moyes has spent two decades crawling into jungle-choked caves to answer one question: What drove the Maya to make offerings in such dark, remote places?

Read the full story of the Cave of the Crystal Maiden on Discover.

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The hourglass-shaped entrance to Actun Tunichil Muknal, “The Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre,” in Belize.

The ancient Maya believed caves were portals to the underworld, which they called Xibalba. 

Archaeologist Holley Moyes wades through the high waters of Actun Tunichil Muknal to reach artifact-laden chambers within its depths.Ancient Maya may have traveled deep into these caves to conduct ritualistic sacrifices to Chac, the god of rain.

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A 1,000-year-old skull, above, offers evidence of subterranean sacrificial rituals. In dark crevices of the central chamber, Moyes and her colleagues counted 14 human skeletons, some tucked away in corners, others splayed out in the open.

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Moyes examines an ancient ceramic vase in one of the cave’s many chambers. Most artifacts discovered closer to the entrance of the cave dated from A.D. 250 all the way up to the ninth century A.D. However, deep in the darkness of the main chamber, the artifacts all dated from the eighth and ninth century A.D.

Then, as abruptly as they began, the ceremonies ended. There was no sign of the Maya in the caves beyond the middle of the ninth century A.D.

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For more than 1,000 years, the calcite-encrusted skeleton of a 20-year-old Maya woman called the Crystal Maiden has lain where she fell in a chamber deep within Actun Tunichil Muknal. Archaeologists believe she was sacrificed to appease Maya deities as populations plummeted.

The Maya ventured into these caves — in some cases traveling more than a mile underground, swimming down subterranean rivers, climbing precipitous cliffs or lowering themselves into tight hollows.