Archaeologists hunting for a sacred well beneath the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula have accidentally discovered a trove of more than 150 ritual objects—untouched for more than a thousand years—in a series of cave chambers that may hold clues to the rise and fall of the ancient Maya. The discovery of the cave system, known as Balamku or “Jaguar God,” was announced by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in a press conference held today in Mexico City.
After its initial discovery by farmers in 1966, Balamku was visited by archaeologist Víctor Segovia Pinto, who wrote up a report noting the presence of an extensive amount of archaeological material. But instead of excavating the site, Segovia then directed the farmers to seal up the entrance, and all records of the discovery of the cave seemed to vanish.
Balamku remained sealed for more than 50 years, until it was reopened in 2018 by National Geographic Explorer Guillermo de Anda and his team of investigators from the Great Maya Aquifer Project during their search for the water table beneath Chichén Itzá. Exploration of the system was funded in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society.
De Anda recalls pulling himself on his stomach through the tight tunnels of Balamku for hours before his headlamp illuminated something entirely unexpected: A cascade of offerings left by the ancient residents of Chichén Itzá, so perfectly preserved and untouched that stalagmites had formed around the incense burners, vases, decorated plates, and other objects in the cavern.
“I couldn’t speak, I started to cry. I’ve analyzed human remains in [Chichén Itzá’s] Sacred Cenote, but nothing compares to the sensation I had entering, alone, for the first time in that cave,” says de Anda, who is an investigator with INAH and director of the Great Maya Aquifer Project, which seeks to explore, understand, and protect the aquifer of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
“You almost feel the presence of the Maya who deposited these things in there,” he adds.
To access just the first of seven ritual offering chambers identified so far within Balamku, archaeologists must crawl flat on their stomachs through hundreds of feet of tortuously narrow passages. In the original report on the cave (recently located by archaeologist and GAM investigator James Bradyof California State University, Los Angeles), Segovia identified 155 artifacts, some with faces of Toltec rain god Tláloc, and others with markings of the sacred ceiba tree, a potent representation of the Maya universe. In comparison, the nearby cave of Balankanché, a ritual site excavated in 1959, contains just 70 of these objects.
“Balamku appears to be the ‘mother’ of Balankanché,” says de Anda. “I don’t want to say that quantity is more important than information, but when you see that there are many, many offerings in a cave that is also much more difficult to access, this tells us something.”
Why Segovia would decide to seal up such a phenomenal discovery is still a matter of debate. But in doing so, he inadvertently provided researchers with an unprecedented “second chance” to answer some of the most perplexing questions that continue to stir controversy among Mayanists today, such as such as the level of contact and influence exchanged between different Mesoamerican cultures, and what was going on in the Maya world prior to the fall of Chichén Itzá.
“For the ancient Maya, caves and cenotes [sinkoles] were considered openings to the underworld,” says Holley Moyes, a University of California, Merced expert on the archaeology and religious use of Maya caves who was not a part of the project. “They represent some of the most sacred spaces for the Maya, ones that also influenced site planning and social organization. They are fundamental, hugely important, to the Maya experience.”
But until the concept of cave archaeology began to take shape in the 1980s, archaeologists were more interested in monumental architecture and intact artifacts than they were in analyzing the residues and materials found in and around objects. When Balankanché was excavated in 1959, caves were still mapped by hand in the dark and artifacts were routinely removed from their sites, cleaned, and later put back. Of all the incense burners found in Balankanché that were filled with material that could have provided definitive evidence related to the chronology of the site, for instance, only one was ever analyzed.
Investigators of the Great Maya Aquifer Project see the (re)discovery of Balamku as a chance to implement a totally new model of cave archaeology, one that employs cutting-edge technology and specialized fields such as 3-D mapping and paleobotany. These new insights could give us a much more detailed idea of what was actually occurring in Maya cave rituals, as well as the history of the great city of Chichén Itzá, which declined for unknown reasons in the 13th century.
“Balamku can tell us not only the moment of collapse of Chichén Itzá,” says de Anda. “It can also probably tell us the moment of its beginning. Now, we have a sealed context, with a great quantity of information, including useable organic matter, that we can use to understand the development of Chichén Itzá.”
Further study of the site will also shed light on the intimate details of the catastrophic droughts that likely provoked the collapse of the Maya civilization. While this area has always been prone to drastic cycles of climate variability, some researchers have suggested that excessive deforestation in the Maya lowlands, which was once home to some 10-15 million people, could have exacerbated the problem and made the entire region uninhabitable.
Understanding these past cycles can have an added benefit for modern life as well, says National Geographic archaeologist-in-residence Fredrik Hiebert. “By studying these caves and cenotes, it’s possible to learn some lessons for how to best use the environment today, in terms of sustainability for the future.”
In this sense, de Anda believes archaeology has the potential to become a much more “useful” science.
“It’s always been considered the opposite—a beautiful and interesting field of science, but without a great deal of utility,” he says. “I think that here, we will be able to demonstrate the contrary, because when we begin to understand these marvelous contexts, we can understand the footprints of humankind’s past, and what was happening on Earth during one of the most dramatic moments in history.”