Actun Tunichil Muknal, Cave Of The Stone Sepulcher

The Crystal Maiden of the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave

They say that time stands still for no man, and, certainly, the tides of history have left their mark on Belize. From the initial arrival of Christopher Columbus in the waters offshore of Belize in 1502 to the naval battle of 1798 that saw British forces wrest away Belize from the Spanish, much of the ancient history of Belize has been paved over by modern forces. But long after the ancient Maya clashed with Europeans, a sacred cave in the jungles of western Belize lay forgotten and undisturbed.

Accidentally rediscovered in 1989, the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave in Belize’s Cayo District is one of the most important historical sites in the country. Declared the number one Sacred Cave in the world by National Geographic, ATM is a treasure trove of Maya relics, including numerous weapons and ceremonial vessels that were used by ancient priests to offer human sacrifices.The cave is protected by a spring-fed river that must be swum across in order to gain access to the labyrinth below. The ancient Maya who once ruled Belize believed that caves were a sacred nexus connecting the upper world of the living with the underworld of the gods. After slogging half a mile through a subterranean river, modern visitors will arrive in a series of enormous rooms, including one dubbed “The Cathedral” for its elaborately carved altar. Here, visitors can see ceramic vessels and other artifacts left behind by Maya priests more than 1,000 years ago.

But what continues to draw visitors to this special site are the grim remains of human beings, many of them young children, including an infant. After climbing and crawling into the deepest recesses of the cave, visitors will come across the astonishing sight of a complete skeleton that appears to glow in the dark. Believed to be around 20 years old at the time of their death, the so-called “Crystal Maiden” is a complete skeleton whose bones have fused with the minerals in the cave.

Archeologists believe that the ancient Maya rarely performed human sacrifices. Dating the ceramics and other artifacts, archeologists believe that the children and adults sacrificed in the cave had their lives cut short during a traumatic period in Maya history. Sometime around the year 900 AD, for reasons still fiercely debated, a combination of climate change, social unrest, and incessant warfare led to the collapse of human civilization. All of the bodies in the cave have had their heads crushed as a result of blunt force trauma, offerings to try and appease the angry gods that were causing so much chaos. At least one individual in the caves shows signs of being bound before their death, a gruesome end to a gruesome religious ritual.

Abandoned long before the arrival of the Europeans, it is the undisturbed nature of the cave which has provided such rich clues for archaeologists. The bones and other artifacts found in ATM cave have provided a much deeper understanding of the religion and beliefs of the ancient Maya. In order to protect the integrity of the site, only licensed tour guides are allowed to enter the cave.

If you would like to see the Crystal Maiden of ATM Cave for yourself, Go Maya Belize can arrange for a tour to this amazing sacred site.