Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM Cave, Belize

Human Sacrifices in a Mayan Cave

Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM Cave, is an archaeological cave located in the Roaring Creek Valley in the Cayo District of Belize. It is approximately 5 km long and contains a perennial stream that runs through it. Several areas of remains of ancient ritual activity including a ledge with two stelae and a large chamber full of intact human remains and whole pots are found throughout.

The name translates to "Cave of the Stone Sepulcher" and was given in reference to the number of deceased found within.

ATM cave is now a national park co-managed by the Institute of Archaeology and Belize Audubon Society, and is one of the major tourist attractions in the country drawing hundreds of tourists everyday.

History of Exploration

Canadian geologist Thomas Miller first reported this cave in 1989. It quickly drew the attention of National Geographic, which produced a documentary on it in 1992 titled, "Journey Through the Underworld". Belizean archaeologist and now Commissioner of Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology in Belize, Jaime Awe guided the National Geographic team through the cave. The following year, Awe and his Western Belize Regional Cave Project (WBRCP) began full-scale archaeological investigations in the cave that ran as a research program and archaeological field school through 2000. The cave was opened up full time for tourism soon after.

Archaeological Findings

The use of this cave spans the Classic Period, roughly between AD 250-900.

The earliest artifacts occur near the entrance of the cave, while the later material occurs deeper within. The archaeologists believe that the Maya felt a need to perform their rituals deeper in the cave because it was more sacred and possibly closer to the rain god, Chaak. These rituals were necessary because at the end of the Classic period the rain patterns had changed causing a long-term drought in this area of the Maya lowlands.

There are two main areas of ritual significance in the cave. The first is a ledge located above the stream that contains two slate stelae, one carved in the shape of an obsidian blade, and the other of a stingray spine. The stelae are propped up with cave formations and broken pottery, a few obsidian blades, and another carved piece of slate are scattered throughout the area. These objects suggest that the Maya were performing bloodletting rituals at this location. The second area of significance in the cave is the "Main Chamber" located approximately 1 km from the entrance. The remains of 14 individuals were recorded there, including a young adult female that the cave has since grown over, except for one spot on her head. Nearly half of the individuals left here were children with some head trauma, suggesting that they were sacrificed. Thoughout Mesoamerica, children were commonly sacrificed to the rain gods in the Post Classic and Colonial periods. Other artifacts found within this chamber include ocarinas, manos and metates, as well as large jars and pots, all of which suggest agricultural rituals were performed here.

    Bibliography and Further Reading

    This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Mesoamerica , and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

    Awe, Jaime J., 2006, Maya Cities and Sacred Caves: A Guide to the Maya Sites of Belize. Cubola Productions, Benque Viejo del Carmen, Belize.

    Awe, Jamie J., Cameron Griffith, and Sherry Gibbs, 2005, Cave Stelae and Megalithic Monuments in Western Belize. In In the Maw of the Earth Monster, edited by James E. Brady, and Keith M. Prufer, pp. 223-248. University of Texas Press, Austin.

    Miller, Thomas E., 1989, Tunichil Muknal. The Canadian Caver 21.

    Moyes, Holley, 2001, The Cave as a Cosmogram: The Use of GIS in and Intrastie Spatial Analysis of the Main Chamber of Actun Tunichil Muknal, A Maya Ceremonial Cave in Western Belize. Unpublished Master's Thesis, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL.

    Moyes, Holley, 2002, The Use of GIS in the Spatial Analysis of an Archaeological Cave Site. Journal of Cave and Karst Studies, 64:9-16.

    Moyes, Holley, 2005, Cluster Concentrations, Boundary Markers, and Ritual Pathways: A GIS Analysis of Artifact Cluster Patterns at Actun Tunichil Muknal, Belize. In In the Maw of the Earth Monster: Mesoamerican Ritual Cave Use, edited by James E. Brady and Keith M. Prufer, University of Texas Press, Austin, pp. 269-300.