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Cavern Holds Mayan Secrets

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We set out from our lodge in the early morning and, after a two-hour trek through the jungle, we arrived at the entrance to a beautiful, hourglass-shaped cave with a small stream flowing from its mouth. Locals referred to this cavern as Actun Tunichil Muknal, which means the Cave of the Stone Sepulchre, and we had come to probe some of the mysteries and secrets of the Mayan civilization.

My daughter, Kelly, and I had already spent a week paddling rivers and exploring ancient Mayan ruins in Belize, which borders both Mexico and Guatemala. After reading about this ancient cavern and its meaning to the Maya, I knew we were in for some excitement.

The realm of the Maya covered much of Central America during the first millennium and included many magnificent cites such as Tikal and Copan. But only recently have archeologists started to appreciate the significance of caves to the ancients, who viewed them as portals to the underworld where the spirits of the dead would dwell. And while the Maya were wary of the underworld, referring to it as "the place of fright," they also used caves for ceremonies and rituals to communicate with the gods.

To gain access to the cave, visitors have to swim across a deep pool flowing from inside the cavern, so we carefully packed our camera gear in waterproof bags. We then double-checked our headlamps. Our guide, Benjamin Cruz, emphasized that we were not to touch the natural or man-made features we would encounter once inside. Cruz was one of just a few guides to be issued permits by the Belize government to lead small numbers of visitors to this site.

We entered the pool and swam about 20 meters into the darkness before the stream once again became shallow enough to stand. From that point, we walked upstream through an elaborate cave system, often scrambling over boulders and under the occasional bat roost. Along the way, we saw many beautiful calcite formations, a few of which had been sculpted centuries ago by the Maya.

After walking close to a kilometer, we veered away from the underground stream and scaled a vertical four-meter rocky shelf. At that point, Cruz asked us to take off our shoes so as to minimize our impact. We were now on sacred ground.

In a few minutes, we came to magnificent chamber. As we directed our lights across the dome-shaped opening, it became apparent that the room's smooth rock floor was laden with Mayan relics.

It was a breathtaking site. We saw pottery of all sizes and, while some pieces were shattered, many remained intact. In addition, there were tools, ceremonial items and an assortment of vessels dating back well over 1,000 years. There were also many ceramic jars that were probably used to hold water. This has led to the hypothesis that this chamber was the setting for rituals to the Rain God, particularly during the ninth and 10th centuries when severe drought plagued this region.

Unlike other Mayan caves that have been either looted or had their relics removed and placed in museums, the archeologists who discovered this cave several years ago decided to leave everything just as they found it. For that reason, visitors feel as if they've traveled back in time and our own experience was unlike any we've had.

After taking dozens of photographs, we decided to move on through a narrow passage to the final chamber. Cruz and my daughter went first and, just as I was entering behind them, I heard a gasp from Kelly. I rushed ahead to find her staring in disbelief at the complete skeletal remains of a young girl who had apparently been sacrificed almost 1,200 years ago in an effort to appease the gods and bring rain.

She was lying on her back, her skull fractured from a severe blow and her bones covered with a fine layer of calcite that had been deposited through the centuries. Our guide referred to her as the "crystal maiden." And while this was an eerie and surreal site, we soon discovered she was but one of 14 full or partial skeletons scattered throughout this section of the cave.

Whatever the reason for these deaths, it appears to have been in vain. Sometime around 950AD, drought and famine ultimately led to the Maya's demise. From that time on, this cavern became a forgotten place, not to be rediscovered for another 10 centuries.

Mark Angelo is head of the BCIT fish, wildlife, recreation department and a recent Order of Canada recipient for his river conservation work.

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