Caves, Sinkholes and Chultuns: New Evidence for the Importance of Earth Openings in Ancient Mesoamerica Religion

Part of: Society for American Archaeology 80th Annual Meeting, San Francisco, CA (2015)

When Mesoamerican cave archaeology began to take shape in the 1980s and 1990s an early consensus formed around using the term “cave” in the sense of the Maya word ch'e'en which indicates not simply a cave but also a large number of other holes that penetrate the earth. Additionally, indigenous peoples show far less concern for whether the hole is of a natural or human origin. Recent reach continues to demonstrate that traditional caves are important landmarks in the landscape but, additionally, archaeologists have begun to show that many more features were marked by ancient peoples as having sacred significance. This session brings together fresh perspectives on the subject.

Other Keywords
MayaCavesCaveRitualSacred GeographyCave archaeologyMexicowindTeotihuacanMesoamerica

Resources Inside This Collection (Viewing 1-15 of 15)

  • Documents (15)

  • An Analysis of Lithic Production at the La Milpa Sinkhole (RB-25-A5) (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Richard Nicolas.

    Caves are prominent earth openings in Maya sites that are widely recognized as being important sacred landmarks. There is a wide range of earth openings at sites, however, that are rarely recognized as possible landmarks and this can impact the interpretation of associated artifacts. Investigation of the La Milpa Sinkhole (RB-25-A5) is a case in point. Investigation in 2012 classified the feature as a trash pit. The recovery of large quantities of what were thought to be chert flakes led to the...

  • Architectural Ambivalence: An Interpretation of the Nohoch Tunich Bedrock Outcrop Complex, Pacbitun, Belize (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Jon Spenard.

    Archaeological investigations of the Nohoch Tunich Bedrock Outcrop Complex (NTC) located near the pre-Hispanic Maya site of Pacbitun, Belize, revealed a karst landscape that was heavily, yet subtly modified during the Terminal Classic period (A.D. 700-900). Analysis of construction techniques reveal that the modifications were made to conform to a purposefully crude aesthetic aimed at maintaining and enhancing the wilderness essence of the outcrop, while transforming it into a cultural space....

  • Architectural Caves and Glyphic Stepped Platforms (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Mario Giron-Ábrego.

    Natural and man-made caves are clearly attested to in myth, iconography and the glyphic corpus as powerful features for the ancient and contemporary Maya. Caves are paramount for they function as entrances into the sacred earth, the most powerful entity of the sacred Maya universe. A third and less explicit category of these subterranean features, although extensively documented (Brady 2011; Rivera Dorado 1993; Tate 1992) in the Maya area, are architectural caves. This latter category, due to...

  • Hallowed (under)Ground – Ancient Maya Dark Zone Use Patterns in the Subterranean Realm of Yaxcaba, Central Yucatan, Mexico (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Donald Slater.

    Cave explorers and scholars classify the different light zones of underground spaces into three categories – light, twilight, and dark. Despite the practical challenges ancient people faced while traveling into and through dark zones (those entirely devoid of light), it is common across the Maya region to find rich evidence that demonstrates that these spaces were heavily utilized during Precolumbian times. Research conducted during the 2009 - 2011 field seasons of the Central Yucatan...

  • Integrative 3D visualization for spatial analysis and interpretation of rock shelters in Quintana Roo, Mexico (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Aliya Hoff. Dominique Meyer. Michael Hess. Fabio Esteban Amador. Dominique Rissolo.

    The integration of multimodal and multiscalar 3D imaging and visualization techniques can be used to explore ritual and non-ritual uses of rock shelters by analyzing potentially meaningful relationships between natural and constructed features. Situating rock shelters within the greater context of Maya subsurface ritual practice may in turn help further define the Maya concept of caves. LiDAR and SFM can be integrated with traditional mapping techniques and ArcGIS to rapidly and precisely...

  • Landscape Archaeology in Northern Belize: The Need for a Critical Reassessment (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only James Brady. Lili Taleghani-Nia.

    Michael Smith and Katharina Schreiber note that, "For the Classic Maya, studies of sacred landscapes are dominated by research on caves." Unfortunately, northern Belize lacks large caves that have attracted archaeological interest and no large cave survey has been conducted in the region. Lacking such studies, archaeologists appear to be at a loss on how to engage sacred landscapes. An underappreciated aspect of the Petexbatun Regional Cave Project was its articulation of an explicit model of...

  • Little Finds Big Results: The Utility of Small Artifacts in the Spatial Analyses of Looted Sites (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Holley Moyes. Shayna Hernandez. Lauren Phillips.

    Ethnographically cave use in Mesoamerica is well-documented and there are many accounts of modern rituals occurring in or near caves. These analogies provide excellent evidence for understanding the meaning of caves and provide supporting evidence to demonstrate that they functioned as ritual spaces in ancient society, yet analogies have little resonance when considering ancient rites occurring deep within caves. For this type of question we are much more dependent on the archaeological record...

  • The Montezuma Canyon Citadel Complex: A Major Prehistoric Religious Shrine (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Daniel Cutrone.

    Spirit Bird Cave created a new model to evaluate Southwestern caves and earth openings in relation to prehistoric Native American beliefs about religion and sacred landscape. This model suggests that such concepts were major considerations in the choosing of settlement locations and foremost in the ideology of the prehistoric peoples. Site 42SA2120 in Montezuma Canyon, which fits this new paradigm, has not been formally described to this point. A survey of the site found evidence that the...

  • Primacy of the Cave at the Sun Pyramid, Teotihuacan (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Rebecca Sload.

    Multiple lines of evidence indicate that the cave determined the definition of the Sun Pyramid. As the earliest monumental construction at Teotihuacan, it is hypothesized that the Pyramid/cave was built within a pan-Mesoamerican worldview that valued the mountain cave, including acknowledging artificial caves as caves, pyramids as mountains, and sacred space as created via engineered spatial relationships. Ceramics and radiocarbon dates indicate contemporaneous construction of and modification...

  • The Ritual Reuse of Maya Cave Shrines after Abandonment (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Brent Woodfill.

    Caves are among the most sacred geographic features in Mesoamerica and have been used throughout history as the setting for multiple ritual events. In this paper, the author looks at several shrines in central Guatemala that were rediscovered long after they were abandoned by the original ritual practitioners and regained importance. The renewed activity often reflects very different functions of the rituals performed there—in caves along a major trade route cutting through the region, for...

  • The Sinkhole as Ch'een: A Closer Look at Ancient Maya Sacred Geography (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Samantha Lorenz. Brandon Lewis. Toni Gonzalez. Bianca Gentil. Joseph Orozco.

    During the 2014 field season, the California State University, Los Angeles Cave Research Project focused its investigation on a sinkhole at the site of La Milpa that had been given a cursory examination by the TRAP in 2012. An initial inspection suggested that the feature might well have been considered a ch’een by the ancient Maya. Ch’een is generally translated as cave but the indigenous term includes a large number of earth openings that were recognized as sacred landmarks. Excavations...

  • Sinking Archaeological Teeth into the Dental Modification Issue: An Examination of Midnight Terror Cave (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Cristina Verdugo.

    Evidence for dental modification practices have been found throughout Mesoamerica since the Early Preclassic Period (Williams and White 2006) and were noted by Diego de Landa in the 16th century. Examples for these practices have been found not only among human remains, but also in iconography and in architecture. Investigations into the aesthetic or ritual purpose for dental modification have yielded a number of possibilities. These possibilities include its use as an indication of social...

  • Some Methodological Problems with the Study of Non-Urban Caves in Northern Belize (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Marilyn Bueno. Ann Scott. Melanie Saldaña. Jocelyn Acosta.

    Cave archaeology in northern Belize is poorly developed because the soft dolomitic limestone does not permit the formation of large and impressive caves. Several studies of small caves associated with public architecture have been conducted within the Rio Bravo Conservation Management Area, Orange Walk District, Belize. These studies suggest that caves played much the same role in the sacred geography that has been documented elsewhere in the Maya area. Nevertheless, there are no systematic...

  • Subadult human sacrifices in Midnight Terror Cave (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Michael Prout.

    Children throughout Mesoamerica were preferred sacrificial victims, especially to water deities. Because caves were associated with rain, ethnohistoric sources mention the sacrifice of children in caves. The importance of children in sacrifice was documented early on my Edward Thompson’s dredging of the Cenote of Sacrifice at Chichen Itza. More recently archaeological investigations of caves have recovered have recorded the skeletal remains of children that have been interpreted as...

  • A Wind from the Depths of the Earth (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Allan Cobb. Jeremy Coltman.

    Among the hundreds of caves I have observed in the Maya area a number stand out in possessing relatively large tunnel systems with restrictions near the entrances. When air is driven from the caves due to atmospheric pressure, the restrictions create a fast moving flow of air that is quite noticeable around the entrance to the cave. Ethnographic evidence suggests that modern Maya are quite aware of such air movements. Because rain was closely associated with caves among the ancient Maya and...