Near San Ignacio, Cayo District in Belize, is the site of an ancient cave called Actun Tunichil Muknal that is known to locals as ATM or “the Cave of Crystal Sepulchre”. This cave was believed to be the entrance to hell by the Mayans and the home of the Xibalba, the Mayan god of death.
From inside the cave, the Xibalba would inflict disease, death, and famine on the Mayan people.” What makes Actun Tunichil Muknal such a fascinating cave is what the Mayans left inside. Inside the cave lies the body of the Crystal Maiden, a victim of human sacrifice left to appease the Xibalba.
Anthropologists have determined that the Mayan people had used this cave from around 250 AD to 900 AD due to agricultural offerings like small cobs of corn that were located near the mouth of the cave. For a considerable amount of time, the only offerings that would be brought to Actun Tunichil Munkal were agricultural and pottery; however, there began to be a noticeable shift in sacrificial items left in the cave.
There was a drought in the region, and the Maya began leaving offerings deeper into the cave rather than at the mouth of the cave. The agricultural offerings were replaced with human sacrifices and ritual bloodletting.
The transition to human sacrifices, along with pottery, has been dated by archaeologists to have occurred during 750-900 AD. This time period is significant because it is known that the Maya began to abandon their cities.
Reasons for this abandonment include overpopulation, environmental changes (megadroughts, overfarming, etc.), trade routes shifting away from their cities, and even warfare. It makes sense that with the changes going on and environmental degradation due to long periods of drought, the Maya people would make offerings to the Xibalba, who they believed caused all their misfortune.
The Maya, as well as the neighboring Mexica cultures, were known to partake in human sacrifices to provide nourishment to the gods to appease them. Bloodletting was common, and priests would use obsidian blades to cut their thumbs, the tongue, and in some cases, the foreskin of the penis, and the blood would be rubbed on things like rock formations in the case of ATM.
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The ATM cave shows that the Mayans modified the cave for different reasons. Some modifications are arranged to form altars for offerings to be placed on and created “silhouettes of faces and animals to project a shadow image onto the cave walls.
The Crystal Maiden
The Actun Tunichil Muknal cave is the home of a total of fourteen people’s remains; the most famous are the remains of the Crystal Maiden. The Crystal Maiden earned her nickname because her bones calcified while she lay undisturbed in the cave for over 1,000 years.
The calcium deposits on the bones have a crystal-like sparkle, hence the name “Crystal Maiden.” The cave and the Crystal Maiden were discovered in 1986 by the archeologist Thomas Miller. Miller found the Crystal Maiden’s remains and determined that the remains were of a female who was around 17 years old when she was sacrificed. Miller gave this unknown Maya sacrifice her name of the Crystal Maiden.
The position that the Crystal Maiden is lying in is of significant interest to scholars. Her head is elevated slightly; many who have seen the Crystal Maiden say she looks at the visitors rather than the cave ceiling.
Along with her elevated skull, her body position is atypical. Her limbs are splayed in a manner that suggests the Crystal Maiden’s body was likely tossed or dropped onto the ground where she calcified to the cave. The Crystal Maiden can be found in a part of the cave called the “Cathedral,” and she is not alone.
The Other Remains
The Crystal Maiden is the most well-known sacrificial victim in the ATM cave, but the cave contains the remains of 14 people in total. The remains of six children, all under the age of three, are in the cave.
The remains of the children exhibited signs of artificial cranial deformation, which both the ancient Maya, Inca, and several Native American tribes like the Chinook and Choctaw practiced. In Mayan culture, cranial deformation was a way of indicating the social rank or status in the tribe.
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Individuals of significance (like those who are destined for human sacrifice before or at the time of birth) had their heads shaped into a pointed and elongated shape. The six infant remains in the ATM cave were found stuffed into crevices, but why their bodies were placed into the cracks is still unknown.
Along with the Crystal Maiden, there are remains of another teenager (the exact age is uncertain since the bones have calcified to the cave floor and can’t be removed) and a child believed to be around seven years old. What is unique about this teenager and child is that their remains suggest that both were tied up before their sacrifice and were left bound in the cave.
Along with the children, there are adults who range in age between 30 and 45 years old. Almost all of these sacrificed victims found in the cave indicate the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head, and some of the victims had their entire skulls crushed.
However, the Crystal Maiden shows no sign of head trauma. Instead, she has two crushed vertebrae. Why she was sacrificed by means other than blunt force trauma to the head is still unknown.
Surrounding the Crystal Maiden and her fellow victims were large amounts of pottery. These ceramics indicate that they were used during ceremonial rituals. Many of these ceramics have “kill holes”.
While the name sounds disturbing, considering they were found with the remains of human sacrifices, a kill hole in ceramic pottery was created to release any spirits hiding inside. The Crystal Maiden’s cave also contained an artifact called the “Monkey Pot.” This Monkey Pot is incredibly rare. Only four of these types of pots have ever been found in Central America.
Addendum: The Crystal Prince?
The Crystal Maiden was initially thought to have been a female due to its size. However, the remains are considered to be those of a 17-year-old boy instead of a girl. Many people believe that the name should be changed to the Crystal Prince instead of the Crystal Maiden.
Top Image: The Crystal Maiden, sacrificed to the Mayan god of death 1,000 years ago. Source: Antti T. Nissinen / CC BY 2.0.