Scientists discover underwater Mayan shrine

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

In the middle of the first millennia AD, Mayan civilization was being ravaged by a series of droughts that would ultimately lead to the collapses of major Mayan cities. Many Mayans responded to these droughts by asking their gods for rain and conducting ritual sacrifice.

Researchers have recently found evidence of one such “drought cult” at a site called Cara Blanca in Belize. According to an upcoming report on the discovery, the Mayan shrine includes human remains, pottery shards and other offerings resting at the bottom of a subterranean pool.

The study team, set to publish their work in an upcoming edition of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, said Mayans from around the region came to pray and make offerings at the Cara Blanca site, which includes an underground pool and nearby temple.

“The pilgrims came there to purify themselves and to make offerings,” team leader Lisa Lucero, a University of Illinois archaeologist, told National Geographic. “It was a special place with a sacred function.”

Lucero and her colleagues have explored the shire at the bottom of the cenote, or underground pool, for four years. In their explorations, the team found numerous ceramics and stone tools. The researchers noted that early offerings at the shrine were sparse compared to later time periods. This suggests that droughts were getting more extreme and the Mayans were getting more desperate in their appeals to the rain god, Chaak.

Previous studies have shown that the Maya went though decades of heavy rainfall up until around 660 AD, which led to a population boom. However, this level of rainfall was unsustainable and the subsequent droughts hit the Maya particularly hard. The droughts spark discontent among the populace, led to the unseating of kings and the eventual collapse of cities around 800 AD.

The turmoil may have led to the formation of so-called drought cults, which intensified their activities as the rain shortages continued. The study team noted that a temple at Cara Blanca seems to be partly made out of the cenote’s tufa rock. During its development, the flooring of the shrine had been sprinkled with sacrificed pottery shards and fossil teeth or claws extracted from the cenote. Small drinking jars were among the ceramics, and some had been painted with a water theme of curly lines and spirals. One bowl was painted with a jaguar, affiliated with water and caves in Maya myth.

“This is the first example I’ve seen where people were actually pulling out rocks and fossils from the bottom of pools and cenotes to incorporate into temple architecture,” said team member Brent Woodfill, an archeologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “This is fascinating, and once again shows how closely caves and pools were related in the Maya worldview.”

The team said other similar sites also feature similar pottery shards and offerings. While some members of the research team said human remains in the cenote were from ritual sacrifice, others speculated that the underground pool was simply a sacred burial site for society’s elite.


Follow redOrbit on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.