Handprints found in Yucatán cave are the vestige of a Maya ceremony 1,200 years ago

The handprints were found inside a large vaulted area deep within the cave. Photo: Courtesy
The handprints were found inside a large vaulted area deep within the cave. Photo: Courtesy

A team of speleologists and archaeologists have discovered a cave in Yucatán with 137 children’s painted handprints.

Archaeologists believe the handprints to be about 1,200 years old and part of a Maya coming-of-age ceremony.

The site is approximately one hour south of Mérida in an area where cenotes and cave formations are known to be particularly plentiful.

“This seems to be part of a ritual made to mark the beginning of puberty. They would place one hand in black paint, which symbolizes death, and then place the other in red paint, which symbolizes life. The children would then leave their mark on the cave and re-emerge to the surface reborn,” said researcher Sergio Grosjean

Inside the cave, archaeologists also found the carved image of a face and six paintings that make reference to the Mayan underworld, or Xibalbá.

“These finds are very important because they give us a glimpse into the ritual life of the Maya. We may speculate about their precise meaning, but all signs suggest that their placement was deliberate and meaningful,” said Marco Santos, director of the Chichén Itzá site.

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Because of safety concerns and the difficulties associated with preserving archaeological remains on the inside of caves, few are ever open to the public. 

A notable exception is the archaeological site of Lol-tun, in the Puuc region in a cave system of the same name. The site features wall paintings, several stelae, sculptures bearing Olmec features and handprints similar to the ones recently discovered.

Interestingly, some of the handprints found in Lol-tun display six fingers on each hand, perhaps a mutation resulting from inbreeding among a royal line.

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.