Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Adult males and females, juveniles, and infants are found in Actun Tunichil Muknal and Actun Uayazba Kab in west-central Belize. Major differences are context (surface or subsurface), evidence for trauma (present or absent), and grave goods (present or absent). Why were people treated differently at death at the two caves?

Were the dead of Tunichil Muknal all innocent victims? Or were some guilty, or at least perceived as being guilty (i.e., witch persecution)? Actun Uayazba Kab, located closer to a settlement (Cahal Witz Na), demonstrates more evidence for funerary rites and the creation of ancestors, who were kept relatively close to the living in a “lineage mountain.” Most individuals were buried beneath a plaster floor, along with offerings. In contrast, Actun Tunichil Muknal goes deeper into the mountain – that is, closer to the sacred – and is dangerous. The dead were not accorded traditional burial rites; they were perhaps killed and then placed on the surface – without offerings. These people were left exposed without any protection from the elements or the perilous underworld. These individuals could have been sacrificial victims; just as vessels were terminated or killed, so too were humans. If this were the case, who was chosen and why? Under what circumstances are human sacrifices necessary? It likely would take something drastic to result in the killing of a person who was a member of the community – not an every-day kind of problem. It also could be that individuals in both caves were left as offerings to the gods of the underworld, or Chac the rain god, or the maize god, especially in times of trouble or misfortune. For example, in colonial Yucatán, Bishop de Landa noted that the Maya would make pilgrimages during famine when they “were reduced to eating the bark of trees” (Tozzer, 1941:180) to the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá to pray and offer sacrifices for rain. Caves may have served a similar purpose, and in some instances infants, children, and some adults may have been selected for sacrifice because of their innocence and purity (e.g., Anda, and Hurtado et al. in this volume; Moyes and Gibbs, 2000).

Some of the adults in Tunichil Muknal, however, could have been selected because of a community-wide consensus that a particular person’s death would restore order – which might explain the evidence for violence and the haphazard placement of the remains. Perhaps they represent not just offerings, but punishment for the perceived threat they presented in life. This is witchcraft persecution: the punishment of someone to bring things back to normal. Their bodies were disposed of in the same place they were believed to have performed the malevolent ceremonies that brought ill fortune to the community. By killing or sacrificing someone, the Maya deactivated their evil power. And just like the Lacandon abandon deanimated pots in sacred caves because they are still dangerous, the same goes for malevolent persons – witches; the evil power with which they – and their bodies – are imbued demanded a similar fate.

By offering such individuals, who perhaps were thought to have acted against the gods, the living condemned their spirits to the malevolent gods of the underworld. Or, just as the hero twins of the Maya creation story killed the “evil” gods of the underworld by refusing to bring them back to life, the same could have been done to “witches” by not allowing their spirits to be released, not allowing them to travel into the “after-life,” thus ending their life all together. Perhaps sending such witches into caves was a way of sending them “back,” or giving them up to some of the potential evil dwellers residing in the underworld.

Or perhaps the Maya wanted to ensure that upon a witch’s death their spirit would go directly to the underworld – the place were souls were believed to have traveled upon death – and not continue wandering around the earth wreaking havoc.

In conclusion, there are thousands of caves in the southern Maya lowlands, and most, if not all, contain offerings. A majority of caves have human remains, some of which were enclosed in urns or subsurface burials, and some of which were not. The physical removal of the dead from the community and the living to places such as caves, also deemed as sacred places in the landscape, separated the individual from their social positions within the community – either emphasizing their importance, or removing them all together and negating their position. Why people were disposed of rather than buried has been the main focus of this paper – to explore the possibility that Classic Maya witches existed. The prevalence of witch persecution and witch killings cross-culturally, including throughout Mesoamerica, past and present, demands that we consider that not all sacrificial victims were chosen for their innocence.

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