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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Archaeology meets paleontology in Lol-Tún — the enigmatic flower-stone cave

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we explore the depths of Lol-Tún, the stone flower, one of Yucatán’s most interesting cave systems and enigmatic archaeological sites.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Lol-Tún is a cave and archaeological site located in the municipality of Oxkutzcab, in Yucatán’s south. Given its location near Puuc archaeological sites such as Kabah and Sayil, it is often considered part of the “Puuc touristic route,” despite not truly fitting this moniker architecturally.

The caves at Lol-Tún are illuminated by a special multi-color lighting system designed to enhance the beauty of its geological features. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The name Lol-Tún derives from the Yucatec-Maya words Lol meaning flower, and tún, meaning stone. 

After millions of years, some stalactites and stalagmites in Lol-Tún have joined to create large pillars. The two pictures are said by guides to make a sound when struck that sounds like the name of the cave, with an echoing Lollll-Túnnn. In all honesty, this claim has always seemed a little farcical but is all in good fun. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Archaeological and paleontological discoveries suggest that the human occupation of Lol-Tún goes back more than 10,000 years. These early inhabitants likely belonged to the Clovis culture which covered much of the Americas. Within the cave, researchers have discovered the bones of mammoths, bison, large cats, and deer — some dating as early as the Pleistocene, millions of years ago. 

Cave paintings, tools, and other artifacts dating to the Maya period have also been discovered in Lol-Tún, pointing towards a prolonged period of Mayan occupation.

Ceramic vessels and mortars discovered inside Lol-Tún. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

One of the most interesting archaeological discoveries found at Lol-Tún is a stone head, perhaps previously belonging to a larger sculpture, which is widely believed to be Olmec in origin. 

Accurately dating Lol-Tún’s Olmec head has proven difficult, adding to the mystery of how it found its way into a cave in Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Near the entrance to the site, it is possible to see several stelae. However, their high levels of erosion have made it impossible to glean information regarding the date of their erection or any other details.  

Two badly eroded stelae en Lol-Tún refuse to give up their secrets. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Visitors to the site will also notice large stone phallic sculptures, common to the area in the 5th Century CE. 

As is the case in cultures around the world, erect stone phallic sculptures are considered important signs of power and fertility. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In much better condition is a large circular stone disc with the side-facing portrait of a man. 

The identity of the person depicted on this stone disc remains unknown, but it is fairly safe to assume given the location in which it was found that it represents a local noble. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The time period when the Maya first began to inhabit Lol-tún is a source of controversy. Some maintain that the cave had already been occupied by a small number of people as early as the 12th Century CE, after the abandonment of nearby cities such as Xlapak and Sayil. However, others argue that it was not until the caste war beginning in the 17th century that the Maya took refuge in Lol-Tún. 

When making your way down into Lol-Tún, you will immediately feel the temperature drop several degrees. It is really quite refreshing. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Regardless, ample evidence of barricades dating to the caste war has been found in Lol-Tún, adding credence to the latter theory — though it’s still likely that the cave had been home to small numbers of people before that.

Inside the cave dwell several species of birds, as well as bats. Image of the Zapotec Bat God, known in the Maya lands as Camazotz. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This idea is backed up by the presence of Mayan cave paintings representing human faces, as well as handprints. Similar paintings have been discovered in several other caves and are thought to date to as early as the 8th century CE.

Interestingly, some of the handprints found in Lol-Tún display six fingers on each hand, perhaps a mutation resulting from inbreeding among a royal line. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

If you decide to visit Lol-Tún, you must take part in an organized tour, as otherwise getting lost in a dark damp cave would be inevitable. The cave system is roughly two kilometers long and quite a hike. Make sure to bring good sneakers or boots, as the ground is extremely irregular and very slippery at times. No sandals, I can’t stress this enough. 

Lol-Tún is certainly beautiful, but a decent level of physical fitness is required to traverse the cave. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The facilities at Lol-Tún are quite good and feature ample parking, a small restaurant, and clean bathrooms. The caves are open from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm and tours are offered in Spanish and English, as well as sometimes in French and German. The cost of the tour is 141 pesos. 

A map shows the location of Lol-Tún in southern Yucatán. Image: Google Maps

Please note: As of the writing of this article, Lol-Tún is one of several archaeological sites in Yucatán still closed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Make sure to check if the site has reopened before scheduling your adventure. Lol-tún also tends to close to the public after particularly heavy storms, as sections of the cave inevitably flood.  

A mot mot, or pajaro Th’o as they are known in Yucatán stares at the camera from a branch outside Lol-Tún. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.  
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