Friday, February 17, 2017

The Ancient Mayans Were Disgusting...Yet Terribly Fascinating

I'm in a cave, standing over the bones of a murdered baby...

Disturbing? It's not quite as gruesome as it sounds. Well, in some ways it is. Let me explain.

Inside the Mayan pyramids of Caracol near Tikal
Silhouette in the pyramids of Caracol, Belize
The murder took place over 1,000 years ago. The cave is a sacred Mayan sacrificial chamber in the deep Belizean jungle. Still, this knowledge makes that sad, broken skull no less innocent and tiny. 

It is the ATM cave in central Belize. Voted by National Geographic as #1 on the list of their top ten sacred caves of the world. We had to hike, swim, climb, crawl, and, worst of all, pay to get here. And all shoeless, by the way, out of fear our careless feet could crush a priceless artifact. 

This pitiable figure at my feet, this busted skeleton once belonging to a child no more than one year of age, was innocent to whatever misguided notion led to such a brutal act. Sadly, it was not the only murder victim here. Not even close. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of others alongside him. And yes, him is correct. As far as archaeologists can tell, every single one of the sacrifice victims in the cave are male. 

Staring agape at the gruesome, crystallized remains, I can't help but think: the Ancient Mayans were profoundly disgusting....

Humbled in Caracol

Mayan temples in Belize near the border of Guatemala
Mayan pyramids at Caracol near the
Belize-Guatemala border
The day before, I sat in the back of a sweaty 8-passenger SUV on a seemingly endless ride through the middle of BFE Belize searching for a castle. Yes, a massive stone castle (well, technically a pyramid) 150 feet tall. It is so large, in fact, it is still the tallest man made structure in the entire country. It was once the home of the lords of Caracol. Of course they didn't call themselves lords (they were viewed more as gods) and they didn't name their city Caracol but rather something like "Oxwitza," or "Three Hills Water." The city, whose innumerable structures had faded progressively deeper into the jungle from the time it was abandoned around 950 AD until its accidental discovery in 1937, was once populated by an estimated 150,000 people.

It was over 100 degrees (Fahrenheit, sorry international friends, 100 degrees just sounds more impressive than 37.7 degrees) as we arrived at the lonely outpost of Caracol and scurried across the manufactured lawn to climb the tallest pyramid in the sprawled ruins of this once-great city. The humidity hovered somewhere around 90%. My body was so depleted of electrolytes that my thighs cramped with every ridiculously tall step towards the top.

Why are these steps so massive? I wondered as I brushed a layer of slime from my brow. Were they giants! As it turns out, the ancient Mayans were actually quite small. The steps were tall intentionally, as a way to sort of humble and humiliate the people forced to climb them.

Thighs clenching and lungs spasming, I finally reached the highest stone platform. An endless green and gray sea of ruins and jungle spread in all directions to the horizon. For just a moment I indulged my ego and imagined myself the leader of this vast city, staring down with contempt on the many lesser being scurrying like fire ants far below me. The soaring heights, the giant pyramid, do make me feel a bit like a god.

The Dark Depths of the ATM Cave

Actun Tunichil Muknal. It means "Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre." Gringos shorten this mouthful to simply the "ATM." It is one of the most fascinating places I have ever seen. The ATM serviced the sacrificial needs of the people in nearby cities, like Caracol. There is no doubting its magnificent beauty: the breathtaking stalagmites, the creek cascading over gurgling waterfalls, the cathedral-like caverns larger than my house. 

Sacrificial remains in the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in Belize
The Crystal Maiden in the ATM cave in Belize.
A misnomer since the remains are actually male
But the numerous sacrifice victims strewn almost haphazardly on the stone floors infuse an element of the macabre that stands in stark contrast to the natural splendor. This place is powerful. The tremendous beauty. The horrific death. Having just climbed and swam nearly a mile in the darkness to get back here, I can't imagine being dragged along the same route unwillingly, knowing what fate awaited at the end.

What did await the sacrifice victims? What was the preferred method of execution? Blunt force trauma to the back of the head for most of them, our guides explains. But the others had an even more gruesome death: a hole sliced just below the ribcage and their heart ripped violently from their chest. 

Lunch churns in my stomach.

Apparently they were so skilled with this method they could do it in mere seconds. The gruesome possibility occurs to me that the victims might live long enough to see their own heart still pulsing between the fingers of their murderers. 

My imagination is wild, and slightly ill, with the possibilities.

The ATM is a powerful place, but it's quiet now. Watching the dancing light of our headlamps reflecting on the writhing surface of the creek, it could almost be peaceful. No sacrifices for a long, long time. But it feels as if there's something residual lingering in the walls and the waters. Something ineffable. I don't know if I believe in ghosts, but I don't think I would want to be alone here.

After we pay our final respects to the tiny bones of the sacrificed baby, and his many silent companions, we swim, crawl and downclimb back to the light. It is a somber feeling now. A overbearing sense of humility seems to have fallen over the group, a stark contrast to the levity we felt on the way in. Very little is said as we backtrack through the jungle to the van. We have visited a cathedral, a tomb, a sacred place. It isn't fair for me to judge these ancient people for what they did. I may not understand it, but I didn't feel what they felt or see what they saw. All I know is this place is beautiful. Beautiful and disturbing. Profound and sad.

The Mayans were disgusting... yet, terribly fascinating.

-10 Facts You Probably Didn't Know About the Ancient Mayans

As always thanks for reading. I do apologize for the macabre tone for this post, most of my writing isn't like this. If you enjoyed it, found it somehow enlightening, or just plain want to hate on me, consider commenting below. Better yet, sign up for my weekly mailing list. Not only will I love you forever (unless, of course, you actually do want to hate on me), but I will reciprocate by reading, signing up for and actively commenting on your blog (should you have one, if not, I'll brainstorm another way to repay you.) Generally I enjoy blathering on about anything from the novel writing process to Giant Redwoods to the Fountain of Youth and more.

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  1. Powerful? Fascinating? More like evil. Only an evil being could so coldly murder an innocent child.

    1. Yes it was a powerful experience. Both positive and negative experiences can be powerful. And we can't pretend our culture is so innocent, we've had plenty of errant bombs that killed quite a few innocent children, sadly. Thanks for reading