Nestled in a quiet forest in Belize, a deep aquamarine pool holds ruins from a time when the ancient Maya turned to a “drought cult,” archaeologists suggest, and hurried sacrifices to a water god to try to stave off the fall of their civilization.
At the Cara Blanca site in Belize, archaeologists report the discovery of a water temple complex: a small plaza holding the collapsed remnants of a lodge and two smaller structures. The main structure rests beside a deep pool where pilgrims offered sacrifices to the Maya water god, and perhaps also to the demons of the underworld.
See aerial footage of the newly discovered Maya water temple.
The find paints a picture of drought-stricken devotion during the collapse of the Maya. The pyramid-building civilization thrived across Central America for centuries, only to see most of its cities collapse after A.D. 800.
Beneath Cara Blanca’s white cliffs, pilgrims sacrificed pots, jars, and bowls to the temple pool’s depths. The sacrifices apparently came from both near and far, pointing to the ruin as a place where people from across the region came to pray for rain.
It was a special place with a sacred function.
“The pilgrims came there to purify themselves and to make offerings,” says University of Illinois archaeologist Lisa Lucero, who led the team that explored the ruins. She has plumbed the depths of the cenote, or natural pool, for four years, finding long-lost offerings of ceramics and stone tools in its depths. “It was a special place with a sacred function,” she says.
But the temple wasn’t always so busy, a paucity of early offerings suggests. That may point to the time when the Maya’s need to placate Chaak, the rain god who lived in the depths, grew dire. In an upcoming Cambridge Archaeological Journal report on the temple, Lucero and archaeologist Andrew Kinkella of Moorpark College in California note that offerings picked up at the shrine only after widespread drought had engulfed the ancient Maya world.
But it would seem that Chaak and the evil gods of the underworld set the Maya up for their fall, with the rain they gave and then withheld. Penn State anthropologist Douglas Kennett and colleagues have reported that stalagmite records show that high rainfall likely led to a Maya population boom that lasted until A.D. 660. That in turn set up their kingdoms for a fall when the rain stopped.
Repeated droughts unseated the Maya kings, their cities collapsing starting around A.D. 800 throughout Central America. The rain shortfall may have also sparked a “drought cult” of people who, eager to placate Chaak, left a spate of sacrifices at caves and cenotes across the suddenly desperate Maya realm.
Caves and cenotes were both entrances to the underworld.
“Caves and cenotes were both entrances to the underworld, the same thing, to the Maya,” says archaeologist Holley Moyes of the University of California, Merced. Surveys of caves, and now the cenote shrine, point to “tempestuous times,” when pilgrims felt the need to make more sacrifices to the water deity.
Near the large Maya city of Caracol in Belize, for example, Moyes and her colleagues have explored the ruin of Las Cuevas, with support from the National Geographic Society. Beneath one of the site’s largest pyramids, a large cave mouth opens. The cave’s huge entry chamber also has a cenote, as well as an underground river, that likely served as a ceremonial site.
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