Breathless in the Underworld: The Effects of Low Oxygen, High Carbon Dioxide, and High Carbon Monoxide on Cave Ritual
Author(s): Allan Cobb
This is an abstract from the "Studies in Mesoamerican Subterranean Archaeology" session, at the 84th annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology.
The Maya explored caves with torches and burned copal with wood fires during ceremonies. These activities, in a confined space such as a cave, used up oxygen and produced carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. The effects of high carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide on the human body are well studied by OSHA and documented in environmental and medical research. These effects include shortness of breath, dizziness, mental confusion, blurred vision, and weakness, producing a trance-like state. Studies show the effects of high carbon dioxide have been compared to the effects of alcohol and the presence of carbon dioxide increases the uptake rate of alcohol by the body. The decreasing oxygen levels during ceremonies would also set a time limit on rituals, as torches would cease to burn when oxygen levels reached about 18%.
The air in caves is already higher in carbon dioxide than outdoors. The mild effects of it are immediately noticeable and could have been part of the experience the Maya were looking for during ceremonies. Caves with carbon dioxide levels that were too high would prevent use due to torches not burning but caves with slightly lower carbon dioxide levels would speed the process of reaching an altered state of consciousness.
Cite this Record
Breathless in the Underworld: The Effects of Low Oxygen, High Carbon Dioxide, and High Carbon Monoxide on Cave Ritual. Allan Cobb. Presented at The 84th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Albuquerque, NM. 2019 ( tDAR id: 451102)
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min long: -94.197; min lat: 16.004 ; max long: -86.682; max lat: 21.984 ;
Abstract Id(s): 24702