Scholar Finds Mayans' Path Through Hell
By MARK STEVENSON
Nov. 9, 2008
TZIBICHEN CENOTE, Mexico
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 the place where the Maya actually tried to depict this highway through hell.
'The Place of Fear'Dario Lopez-Mills, AP5 photos Using long-forgotten testimony from the Spanish conquistadors, a Mexican archaeologist has discovered a series of caves where people from the Mayan civilization tried to depict the journey into the afterlife. Here, the scholar, Guillermo de Anda, examines the underground lake located in Tzibichen on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula in October.
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, described in ancient mythological texts such as the Popol Vuh.
"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 Indian heretics who were put on trial by Inquisition courts, De Anda discovered what appear to be stages of the legendary journey, recreated in a half-dozen caves south of the Yucatan state capital of Merida.
Archaeologists have long known that the Maya regarded caves as sacred and built structures in some.
But De Anda's team introduced "an extremely important ingredient" by using historical records to locate and connect a series of sacred caves, and link them with the concept of the Mayan road to the afterworld, said archaeologist Bruce Dahlin of Shepherd University, who has studied other Maya sites in the Yucatan.
The Associated Press followed de Anda and his team into the caves, squeezing through tiny, overgrown entrances and rappelling down narrow shafts and slippery tree roots.
There, in the stygian darkness, a scene unfolded that was eerily reminiscent of an "Indiana Jones" movie — tottering ancient temple platforms, slippery staircases and tortuous paths that skirted underground lakes littered with Mayan pottery and ancient skulls.