13 October 2021

Dr. Luis Alberto Martos López, archaeologist and PhD in anthropology from the National School of Anthropology and History, Hispanic literature graduate and researcher at the Direction of Archaeological Studies of the National Institute of Anthropology and History, gave a presentation on caves and their relationship with solar phenomena among the Maya. Dr. Martos’s presentation focused on the northern part of the Mayan area, more specifically on the Riviera Maya and some parts of central Yucatán.

For the ancient Maya of Yucatán, Dr. Martos explained, the caves were of utmost importance, and they probably thought that they were forged by deities. In many of these caves there are cenotes, so they represented inexhaustible sources of water, of life. Dr. Martos ventured that perhaps in no other region of Mesoamerica were caves modified as much as in Yucatan, where we find many constructions and elements inside them. To exemplify this, Dr. Martos showed a photograph of a water basin found inside a cave; this basin was used to collect dripping water, water that was later used for rituals and ceremonies. Other elements are the offerings, walls, stairways, altars and shrines.

Dr. Martos shared some photographs showing petroglyphs, which are another relevant element that can be found inside the caves. A typical cave relief, he mentioned, are the so-called “caritas,” engraved faces that can be associated with water and fertility. He also showed us paintings. Both petroglyphs and paintings could be of various types: zoomorphic, anthropomorphic, geometric, labyrinthine, among others.

Dr. Martos said that the Maya did not choose the caves at random, but that a hierophany, a manifestation of the sacred, had to take place for them to recognize the presence of the divine and thus erect temples or altars inside particular caves. Different types of rituals could be performed, since the cave is a space that recreates the primordial environment of creation and can therefore be linked to both celestial and terrestrial matters.

Caves were used for both profane and sacred purposes. On the profane side, caves were used to obtain sascab, a building material; to carry out certain economic activities such as basket weaving, which was facilitated by the coolness and humidity of the cave; to use as a dwelling or camp or to store grain. All these domestic or profane activities were carried out close to the light. The sacred, on the other hand, took place deeper inside the caves and only on the precise dates or at precise times for the performance of ceremonies and rituals, and was related to solar events.

Dr. Martos shared photos of the Rotonda Cave in Quintana Roo, showing a large altar, a stepped wall and a stela. When the equinox occurs, the way the light enters the cave causes the stepped part of the wall to project onto the altar and the stela, thus forming a stepped body similar to the phenomenon at the Pyramid of the Castle at Chichen Itza. Dr. Martos mentioned two more examples where solar phenomena occur in different caves at times such as the winter solstice and the equinox, illustrating his explanation with photographs. At such times as the winter solstice and the equinox, the way in which light enters the caves illuminates in particular ways elements such as shrines or paintings on a wall. He also mentioned that in some caves they had found the remains of a tapir and human remains inside what are now cenotes, which seems to indicate that the cenotes did not exist when the great drought of the year 820 CE occurred and that these spaces were probably used for sacrifices or as mortuary deposits.

Dr. Martos concluded his presentation by highlighting the importance of caves for the ancient Maya in both profane and ceremonial-ritual aspects, as well as the deliberate way in which they must have chosen certain caves which, due to their orientation, access layout and natural elements, could be used to mark solar phenomena such as the equinox and solstice, which probably represented propitious moments for the performance of rituals. Finally, Dr. Martos pointed out that this line of research is not yet developed in depth so it is an open field for anyone willing to study it, adding that he personally finds it very exciting. Dr. Martos undoubtedly addressed a fascinating subject about which there is still much to learn.

Mayan caves as markers of solar events-Photo01