Posted by: Johan Normark | September 24, 2010

The political importance of caves

Roughly two thirds of the karstic features in the Cochuah region are surrounded by settlement. Most of the remaining karstic features also have traces of human activity. Throughout the Maya lowlands ome caves were connected with the divine status of rulers and their power and lineage was legitimized by the associations to caves (Mirro 2007:13). It is therefore suggested by Brady and several other Mayanists that caves were important for the ritual economy, identity, and politics. These are also some of the reasons why Spaniards saw caves as threats to their mission.

Ishihara (2007:5) suggests that microscale ritual practices inside caves, in her case the Main Chasm at Aguateca, articulates with the macroscale political history of the site or polity. Mirro argues that caves distant from Late Classic centers in western Belize were politically appropriated. He focuses on the ceramic samples from the Barton Creek Cave and suggests that the cave was affiliated with a polity in the eastern part of the Belize Valley. It appears that some caves have been affiliated with one single polity through time, others have changed affiliations. Some caves have been fairly neutral and used by several polities (Mirro 2007:vi-vii).

Due to the political importance of caves it is important to show how they were treated during and after conflicts. On Tonina Monument 122, the Palenque king K’an Joy Chitam sits as a prisoner with a text mentioning the “Star over Earth” glyph which carries the combination u-CH’EEN-na. The compound is read as “was attacked his cave”. No archaeological evidence suggests that Palenque was attacked, but maybe a cave associated with the king. Looted panels from the Piedras Negras region indicates that an individual by the name Nikte’ Mo’ scattered fire into the cave of K’ab Chante’. The day after this person was beheaded by the owner of the cave. Fire throwing is interpreted as some kind of war event which is revenged by K’ab Chante’. PULUUY U CH’EEN refers to a burning event of the cave of a Yaxhá ruler (Brady and Colas 2005:157-159).

Apart from these epigraphic examples there is some archaeological evidence that caves were attacked in the past as well (although it can be difficult to separate sacking from termination and termination made by the users of the cave or their enemies). A wooden object, shaped like a boat, has been looted from Kayuko Naj Tunich in Belize. The object probably rested on an altar. Heavy burning was noted in the chamber, either from termination or sacking. Ceramics date to the Late Formative, contemporary with the founding of nearby Uxbenká. Maybe the cave was a foundation shrine for this site and hence the target for a possible violent act (Moyes 2007:4-7).

Stone walls closing of cave entrances are known from several places. A passage at Naj Tunich had been blocked by a pile of spelaeothemes. The entrance chamber has seven tombs which all have been looted in antiquity. The entrances to two caves at the Balam Na hill has been blocked and includes looted burials. Cueva de El Duende near Dos Pilas had been blocked. Two m of deep clay had been brought into the cave, covering the artifacts. Below the clay was a blocked passage (Brady and Colas 2005:152-154). In these cases it is not known who constructed the walls. Was it the attackers or the remaining population after the attack? The entrance to the Chechem Ha cave in Belize was also sealed as part of a termination ritual but here it is argued to be part of a more peaceful termination (Moyes et al. 2009).

Wall inside the San Pedro Sacalaca cave

One of my first posts on the blog was about a small site called San Pedro Sacalaca in the ejido of Sacalaca. This cave has an internal wall that was breached sometime in the past. Near the cave entrance is a small building built with large boulders in what could be a Late Formative style. It appears that the building is built on top one of the inner chamber of the cave. Few traces of activity exists inside the cave so if looters have entered the cave they did an almost complete clean up. A test pit excavated outside the cave entrance revealed Middle Formative, Late Formative, Terminal Classic and Postclassic sherds. The Postclassic sherds were from incensarios. Buildings further to the west of the cave dates to the Late Formative and Terminal Classic period. I would speculate that the wall inside the cave was constructed as part of the abandonment of the site in the Terminal Classic. The later Postclassic use of the cave was probably unrelated to the settlement.


  1. Johan,Thank You For Your Effort To Maintain An Excelent,Informative Site.
    Another Name For The Source Of Human Creation Is Wuqub’ Pek Wuiqub’ Siwan”Seven Caves,Seven Canyons” Caves Have Been Perceived As Places Of Creation And Passageways To the Underworld Since Olmec Times.(cf.Miller & Taube 1993:28).
    In Present Day Santiago Atitlan It Is Belived That There Is A Series Of Seven Cave Openings Into The Underworld All Of Which Branch Outward From Beneath The Floor Of The Church.According To Local Myth,The Most Powerful Of These Openings Is The R’muxux Ruchilew”Navel Of The World” A Hole In The Floor Of The Church That Is Uncovered Once A Year And Gives Access To the Realm”Where All The Creative And Destructive Elements Inherent In Nature Gather Together”(Christenson 2001:76-77)
    The Most Sacred Of All Caves Lies In The Mountains Southwest Of The Town And Is Called Paq’alib’al.The Etymology Of The Name Provided By Local Atitecos Pa q’ali-b’al”At The Place Of Revelation Of Appearance”(Christenson 2001:84)
    Paq’alib’al Is Persived Of As A Place”Where The Greatest Of The Saints And Gods Live and Create Rain Clouds”(Christenson 2001:79).This Is How Nicolas Chavez From Santiago Atitlan Described The Cave:
    “All The Great Saints And Nuwal Ancestors Live In Paq’alib’al.Their Spirits Live There In The Center Of The Mountain.This Is Also Where The South Wind Is Born.Strong Rains Come From The Cave Because This Is Where The Clouds Are Formed.There Is Always The Sound Of Wind Coming Out Of The Cave Because This Is Where The Ancients Live.The Enterance Is Guarded By Two Pumas And Two Jaguars And Is Adorned With Abundant Fruits Such As Corozos,Bananas,Melacotones,Plantains,Zapotes,Cacao And Pataxtes To Show That The Heart Of The Nuwals Are Present Inside And That They Have the Power To Give Abundance And Fertility.Inside Is A Gigantic Snake One Meter Thick And Fifty Meters Long That Watches Over The Saints…Near The Cave In A Small Ravine Is A Giant Po’j Tree Where Angels Rest When It Rains,And Inside The Branches Are Clouds…”Christensen 2001:84)
    The Tree At Paq’alib’al Is Strongly Reminiscent Of The Concept Of The World Tree As the Center Of Creation…”(Miller&Taube 1993:57)

  2. Indeed, caves are important in the Maya cosmology and cosmography. The ones you mention are from the volcanic highlands and are manmade. At Utatlan there is a famous passage under the main plaza of the site.

    Brady has proposed the idea that chultuns (subterranean chambers, believed to be water storage facilities) in the lowlands also were symbolic caves, being the center of creation for a household. I am sceptical though since not all households have such chultuns (1/3 of them have chultuns at Tikal). In the region where I work chultuns are very rare, etc.

  3. Click to access MirroThesis.pdf



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