Legend says the afterlife for ancient Mayas was a terrifying obstacle course in which the dead had to traverse rivers of blood and chambers full of sharp knives, bats and jaguars.
Now a Mexican archaeologist using long-forgotten testimony from the Spanish Inquisition says a series of caves he has explored may be where the Maya tried to depict this highway through hell.
The network of underground chambers, roads and temples beneath farmland and jungle on the Yucatan peninsula suggests the Maya fashioned them to mimic the journey to the underworld, or Xibalba. “It was the place of fear, the place of cold, the place of danger, of the abyss,” said University of Yucatan archaeologist Guillermo de Anda.
Searching for the names of sacred sites mentioned by Indians who were put on trial for heresy, De Anda discovered what appear to be stages of the legendary journey, recreated in a half-dozen caves south of Merida.
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De Anda spent five years combing the 450-year-old records of Spanish Inquisition trials. The Spanish were outraged that the Mayas continued to practice their old religion, so they used the trials to make them reveal the places where they performed their ceremonies.
Armed with clues from trial records, the archaeologists asked locals for caves with similar-sounding names.
The Mayas used the sinkhole caves, known as cenotes, as places of worship and depositories for sacrificed humans.
At the center of one of the underground lakes, De Anda's team found a submerged altar with carvings indicating it was dedicated to the gods of death.
In some of the chambers, it is almost impossible to move without slashing one's skin on stalactites and stone formations projecting from the walls and ceilings, leading De Anda to believe they are a representation of the feared “room of knives.”
Visitors must duck to avoid swarms of bats, depicted in ancient texts. There's the “chamber of roasting heat” which indeed leaves visitors soaked in sweat. Cool currents of surface air penetrating some caves feel almost frigid, just like the legend's “chambers of shaking cold.”
While De Anda has not found a specific “jaguar chamber,” jaguar bones have been found.