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Exploring the Maya underworld: Chichen Itza discoveries

The Maya World is still yielding up its ancient secrets and Chichen Itza discoveries continue. Members of the Gran Acuifero Maya (GAM) research expedition led by Mexican archaeologist Guillermo de Anda who are studying the caves, cenotes and underground rivers of the Yucatan Peninsula recently made an amazing find in a cave in Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Their discovery casts more light on the ancient city’s history and its place in the sacred landscape of the Maya.

The archaeologists were exploring a cave called Balamku (Cave of the Jaguar God in Maya) that was once a shrine used by Mayan priests over 1,000 years ago for rituals to honor the rain god. After crawling through a tunnel and through the tiniest of spaces for 450 meters, they found seven offerings of pottery, incense burners, grinding stones, jade and shells in chambers and galleries in the depths of the cave.

Located 2.7 kilometers to the east of the Pyramid of Kukulcan, Balamku was first discovered in 1966 by farmers from the village of San Felipe. They reported their find to archaeologist Victor Segovia who ordered the cave mouth to be sealed up again for reasons unknown.

According to Guillermo de Anda and Professor James Brady of California State University, this is the largest discovery in the Chichen Itza area for decades and will help rewrite the history of Chichen Itza. As the cave was sealed for so long and the offerings left intact through the centuries, it will provide new information about the rise and fall of the city.

The theory of the Gran Acuifero Maya team is that the northern Yucatan was hit by severe drought during the Late Classic (AD 700-800) and the Terminal Classic period (AD 800-1000). The people were desperate, pleading for divine help to bring rain. They ventured into caves, the gateway to the Underworld and home of the gods, to make offerings to the gods of fertility.

The size of the find – including 200 incense burners, many in the likeness of Tlaloc, the rain god worshipped in central Mexico – is evidence proving the importance of Balamku as a sacred site in the Chichen Itza area.

Only a third of the cave system has been explored so far and as part of its research the team is creating a 3D model of the tunnels and the location of the offerings.

The GAM team continues to explore the caves and cenotes in the Chichen Itza area. To date, they have found evidence of ancient rituals at 20 sinkholes in and around the archaeological site.

The Pyramid of Kukulcan lies at the center of four cenotes representing the cardinal points: Holtun (2,600 meters away), Sagrado (400 meters), Xtoloc (500 meters) and Kanjuyum (1,700 meters), possibly symbolizing the world tree or center of the universe for the ancient Maya.

(Source: INAH)

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