Ritual Cave Paintings in Yucatán Pose New Questions

The discovery of geometric patterns in caves and their connection to astronomy has excited the archaeological community. Photo: Courtesy

The discovery of a likely ritual site within a cave in Yucatán is giving the archaeological community something to think about.

Within the cave, archaeologists discovered the remains of several artworks, mostly characterized by geometric designs, handprints, and several artifacts made of pottery.

Handprints left behind by the Maya were also discovered within the cave, a feature fairly common in the region. Photo: Courtesy

But what has researchers excited is that the geometric designs appear to be lit by rays of sunshine during certain celestial events such as the recent spring equinox. 

The artworks and designs found within the cave are badly damaged due to extreme humidity, but their contours are still clearly visible. Photo: Courtesy

“When we descended, we noticed a phenomenon where sunlight light came into the cave and lit up these designs. Clearly, this was not a coincidence,” said INAH archaeologist Sergio Grosjean. 

These caves were likely used during fertility rituals dedicated to the health of crops and honey production. However, the presence of images depicting warriors and other figures yet to be interpreted raises questions regarding other possible uses. 

Earlier: The best place to experience the autumn equinox is at Dzibilchaltún

Other caves, such as those at Aktún Usil, have been discovered in recent decades featuring similar designs but without the presence of the solar effect. 

It is likely that caves like Usil once exhibited similar astronomical phenomena, but thousands of years of erosion and human activity have modified their ancient design. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Even at archaeological sites where no caves exist, pre-Hispanic peoples like the Maya and Zapotec created similar effects by building structures that reflected beams of light on specific objects or iconography. 

A closeup of Maya petroglyphs painted red on the ceiling of Aktún Usil cave, right at its entrance. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The location of the cave has not been disclosed. Still, given the similarities of the designs with those at other known sites, it is likely that the location lay somewhere relatively close to the archaeological site of Maxcanú, near the archaeological site of Oxkintok

The labyrinthian structure known as the Tzat Tun Tzat in Oxkintok is believed to be a man-made cave, where beams of light illuminate its interior chamber during the equinox and solstice. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

It is not unusual for the location of archaeological discoveries found within caves to be withheld from the public, as their remoteness and delicate condition make them particularly prone to looting and damage.  

During the excavations related to the construction of the Tren Maya, a handful of structures were discovered within caves in Quintana Roo. Photo: Courtesy 
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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.
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