It was a game of life and death. The “Pok-a-tok” in the the Mayan language was a ball game similar to soccer. It was held during ritual celebrations. The object of the game was to move the rubber ball by bouncing it off the hips or knees without using the hands or feet. The team scores points every time a player throws the ball in a specific location of the field or through a ring of stone set on top of a wall. The loser of the game also lost their life as they were offered as a sacrifice to the God.
The Mayans were once known for their bloody human sacrifices. They were advanced in geometry and astronomy with knowledge of art and science, but had barbaric customs of sacrificing humans.
Scientists believe that in the Mayan religion, human blood was necessary for their God to continue to exist. Many excavations and studies have revealed that the sacrifices of children, men, and women were common. It was thought that men had a permanent debt to the Gods and had to repay it with an offering of human sacrifice. According to the Mayan, the world was to continue to exist in exchange for blood. Every divinity reflected a particular rite. Thousands of war prisoners had their heart tore out so that the sun would rise in the morning, and children were sacrificed by drowning for an abundance of rain.
The bloody religious life has left traces in the water. In fact, many sacred cenotes, including the famous Chichen Itza revealed important clues.
Chichen Itza is the largest and most famous of the Mayan cities with haunted stories and legends of sacrifice. A prosperous city between the 9th and 13th centuries, today it is deeply hidden in a dense forest of the Yucatan peninsula and is one of the leading tourist destinations of Mexico. Many striking illustrations left by the Mayans at Chichen Itza describe a culture that celebrates rituals of extreme violence. There is proof of an undeniable and unpleasant ritual display of extreme savagery. For example, on a wall panel you can see a victorious warrior who was beheaded, knelt beside his skull. His blood scattered everywhere, transforming into the head of a serpent to symbolize that he became a God. The winner was honorably sacrificed and it was thought that he would rise to the world of the Gods.
The Mayan believed that the God Chac, the god of rain and water, lived in natural wells called “cenotes.” In order to fulfill his prophecies, the Mayan sent messengers to these wells but most do not returned.
The American explorer, Edward Thomson, was fascinated by so much mystery and confusion of the sacred well of Chichen Itza, a circular pit with a depth of about 60 meters with walls of 35 meters. Therefore, he proposed to explore the place to lift Mayan objects from the bottom of the well. During the first week, Thomson could find nothing but mud. In search of new artifacts, Thomson decided to dive wearing a pressure suit. “I sank like a stone,” he later wrote in his journal. Thomson’s exploration (1904-1911) has unveiled a number of priceless sacrificial offerings. He also discovered the bones belonging to at least 42 individuals, half of which belong to children. One hundred twenty other skeletons were recovered in the summers in the cenote of Chichen Itza, between 1960 and 1967.
Recent research conducted by Guillermo de Anda, a Mexican researcher at the Autonomous University of Yucatan, and his archaeological team revealed other human remains and thousands of objects in the cenote at Chichen Itza, which appears to be a repository of sacred offerings. This discovery has revealed surprising information about the ritual activity associated with the Mayan Gods. The National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) said in a statement that the excavations have unearthed the bodies of several individuals accompanied by dishes, jade beads and shells, flint knives, bifacials, animal bones and a large quantity of coal.
After four years of excavations and dives, the team of Guillermo de Anda has found a natural niche to access the very complicated site. They are the first to access 21 meters of water level. They plunged to 5 meters deep to enter the niche and continued to move in a horizontal position under water in 25 meters to arrive at the deposit of offerings.
“The offering located in the center area of the cave consists of three main symbolic elements: the skull of a dog, deer, human tibia and a sacrificial knife,” said de Anda. “We do not know what the ritual is yet.” According to the archaeologist, these findings provide a completely new light on the ritual practices of the Mayans and experts are now studying them carefully.
In the same area at the bottom of the cenote, located 50 meters below the water surface, 61 meters below the ground surface, Mexican archaeologists have discovered the bones of at least 20 individuals, a hundred bone fragments, shards of ceramics and sculpture, including a magnificent standard shaped jaguar.
Several bones that were recovered showed signs of sacrifice, such as skin cuts. By analyzing the bones of several skeletons, de Anda noted fine lines probably caused by the removal of the skin. These fine lines look like a sharp knife can separate the skin from the body. This finding corresponds well with chilling tales of Diego de Landa, Bishop of Yucatan in the 16th century, who told stories of human sacrifices.
Accurate documentation at the time of discoveries made it possible to obtain specific information about the purpose of these offerings. Guillermo de Anda thought the Mayans would have deposited their offerings to ask their Gods for rain. In the first approach, scholars have identified two intense periods of drought, taking place in the 9th and 12th centuries A.D. The large amount of coal recovered appears to speak of long and important rituals. De Anda thinks that a potential sacrifice was held to solemnize the offering.
Mayan legends prompted further research into Mexico’s underwater world. The Mayans have very intriguing myths of the underworld called Xibalba meaning “place of fear” and is of great importance in the “Popol Vuh,” the written record of Mayan mythology. Mayan legends mention the stories of mysterious caves hidden deep and terrifying gods who reigned there, thirsty for human blood. The Mayans believe in an afterlife. According to the “Popol Vuh,” the deceased had to pass through a “torture chamber” a cold and dark place with “rivers of blood” and rooms of “sharp knives, bats and jaguars.”
Relying on the testimony of the Spanish priests of the 17th century, which allude to the existence of a mysterious Mayan temple buried in the jungle, Guillermo de Anda found a series of caves near the village of Tahtzibichen. Intrigued by caves whose entrances were submerged, Anda started the excavation work. “The depth of our research is about 40 to 45 meters, but we know that many caves are deeper than that,” said de Anda in 2007. The researcher believed he has found the remains of an underground temple complex with a road, the ruins of a pyramid, bones, and heads as well as carved stone pillars with inscriptions dating back to the 1900s. He thinks he has found what the Mayans called Xibalba. If it would ever be proven true, it would be a site where legend and reality meet.
Cenotes are natural geological formations which form the largest underground network of caves in the world. Used as a source for fresh water supply and as a place of worship, the sacred wells contain key information about the symbolic and religious aspects of Mayan culture. For several years, the cenotes are the source of a mass tourism resort where you can practice diving, sport games and many underwater activities. Thus, treasure hunting has become one of the unprecedented threats to the protection of underwater cultural heritage. Many of these threats can be eliminated or at least greatly reduced. A program of sustainable management of cultural heritage should ensure and promote public access and preservation.
“It’s so important that people realize that some cenotes are archaeological sites, rich with information on the Mayans. Artifacts, especially from these sites must be protected,” said Guillermo de Anda. “These are not just places where one goes there to swim or snorkel,” he concluded. Guillermo de Anda has conducted scientific research in 25 cenotes and there are nearly 2,500 cenotes in Mexico.
Image: Cenote (c) Yodigo