Posted by: Johan Normark | July 16, 2009

Climate and the ”Maya collapse” pt 8: Changes in cave use in western Belize

In earlier posts I have been critical to Mayanist cave research since they often rely on an arborescent model where ethnographic analogies are used to explain archaeological remains. The use of such an “essential” Maya culture is very clear in most of the Mayanist cave research. There are, as always, exceptions. Some of the most interesting cave studies around are the ones done by Holley Moyes. In her most recent published article she develops ideas she put forward in an earlier article and this time the article has some co-authors.

Moyes studies the changes in cave use in western Belize and in particular Chechem Ha cave. These Late Classic changes are correlated with what she calls a “Maya drought cult”. This “cult” is ultimately connected to the “Maya collapse”. She largely follows the so-called “lost in faith theories”, meaning that people simply left the sites due to their lost in faith of the old royal ideology. However, no archaeological evidence that connects the loss of faith with the drop in agricultural production known from other studies has been documented before her study (p. 176).

Ceramics at Chechem Ha

In contrast to many other Maya cave specialists Moyes emphasizes how and when a cave was used instead of trying to interpret its cosmological meaning. Hence, she focuses on use-intensity. Rites of intensification occur when people attempts to tackle environmental crisis, epidemics, or war. Thus, climatic stress could produce increasing ritual use that either intensify existing rituals or introduces new rituals. Rituals are repetitive and are so in prescribed ways and therefore their material correlates will continue to be the same until the ritual changes. Ritual use-intensity is studied by focusing on a material signature correlated with an activity. There are direct signatures where materialities are part of the ritual itself and indirect signatures are associated with the ritual but not the actual ritual (p. 181-182).

She focuses on ceramics (direct signatures) and charcoal flecks (indirect signatures). The charcoal flecks are the remains from pine torches used to light up the tunnels. These produced a steady rain of charcoal flecks that are good indirect proxies since if there is no major change in the number of participants, the carrying of torches is not likely affected by changes in the material manifestations of the rite itself. These flecks are also in situ which ceramic vessels may not be, due to cleaning, reuse, scruffage and looting (p. 183). The charcoal flecks come from a passage in a chamber where people passed to access an inner chamber where ceramic vessels are found in greater density. It is argued that the ceramic vessels are offerings to the rain god Chak. In Maya art rain is often poured from a container. On page 30a of the Madrid Codex the rain deities Chak Chel and Chak pour water from jars and these deities are usually associated with caves (p. 179).

There is a discrepancy between the ceramic and charcoal proxies in the Chechem Ha cave. In the Early Formative/Middle Formative there are substantial amounts of charcoal but very little ceramics. This means that the cave was intensively used but it did not require the import of ceramics. There is low amount of both charcoal and ceramics in the Late Formative. Both proxies increase during the Early Classic. In the Late Classic, ceramic data suggest an increase in use where ceramic deposition became the major activity of the cave ritual (p. 188). 51% of the ceramics in dated to the Late Classic Spanish Lookout complex (AD 700-900). Charcoal flecks in the same area and period show little use-intensity. Chechem Ha was not used in the Postclassic period as is common in Belize. Just some Postclassic sherds are found at cave entrances, but not deep inside the cave (p. 184-187).

The major change in cave use therefore occurred in the Late Classic. During this time, people passed through the tunnel leaving no great charcoal density. This means that they did not linger in the tunnel like in the Early Classic. There is also a change in the ceramic assemblage. In the Early Classic there are few complete or partially intact vessels. In the Late Classic there are at least 51 complete vessels and many partially intact vessels. Most of these vessels contained visible residues, the vessels themselves were apparently the offering. Activity areas shifted from the floor of the tunnel to high ledges and remote areas. This change in ritual use occurred after AD 680. The sparse deposits of charcoal at this time suggest that a small group of people brought in the vessels. Other caves in western Belize show similar patterns (p. 189-197).

Since the ceramic vessels are associated with rain, climate change is a possible explanation for the change in cave use. The Macal Chasm lies only 15 km from Chechem Ha. It has provided the first speleothem climate data in the Maya area. These have fine-grained palaeoclimate records that can be correlated with archaeological data and they indicate local precipitation levels (p. 177). James Webster has analyzed a 92 cm long stalagmite from the Macal Chasm. It is 3,300 +/- 310 years old. The relative rainfall was determined by evaluating variations in petrography, stable isotopes, grayscale color, and luminescence. Dry periods occurred around 780, 910, 1074 and 1139. These are the driest conditions in the 3,300 year record. The dry conditions peaked at 754, 798, 871, 893-922, and each increased in severity. A ritual response to drier conditions may have begun around 700 when the rainfall declined or when the first period of dryness reached its peak around 780. Although Chechem Ha may have been used as late as 960, it is believed to have been closed around 850, at the same time as many surface sites were terminated (p. 198-200).

This is partially a challenge to my own research since I focus on how climate change is a too simplistic explanation for the changes in the northern lowlands. However, Moyes work in the southern lowlands with little Colonial history, a history that for several reasons has become important in the drought models. This post is already too long to develop these ideas, so I finish this topic in a later post.

Moyes, Holley, Jaime Awe, George A. Brook, and James W. Webster (2009). The ancient Maya drought cult: Late Classic cave use in Belize. Latin American Antiquity 20(1): 175-206.



  1. That’s really interesting. Did they always use pine? Maybe during those hundreds of years they learned to use pottery to hold burning material to light the way. Then the charcoal residue wouldn’t be there even if the number of ritual participants increased.
    Do the archaelogists dig down in the cave the way they do above ground? Do they find the earlier material beneath the more recent material?
    It would be fun to see what the ancient Maya did in those caves. And it would even be fun to see what the archaeologists do in those caves.

  2. Christopher Morehart has analyzed most of the organic materials found in the caves of western Belize. He suggests that pinewood probably was a controlled trade good and it dominates the wood charcoal at for example Aktun Nak Beh. In the smaller rural caves, hardwoods outweigh pine.

    Archaeologists usually cannot excavate inside caves since longer tunnels often lack deposited materials (apart from bat guano). Most artefacts is located directly on the cave floor. The area where they found the charcoal flecks is an exception to this. Here they found evidence of cave use that predates ceramics (1320-820 BC).


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