The pilgrims climbed into the cathedral-like main chamber. The floor was already littered with offerings from past pilgrimages. They found an empty niche to place the ceramic pots — out of some, corn spilled onto the ground. The priest sharpened his blades; the young woman trembled. In the glow of the torches, amid a rising prayer, he prepared the sacrifice.
“Just as their world was falling apart,” Moyes says, “they made a last-ditch effort to please Chac.” She calls this influx in subterranean rituals, which were happening all over the Maya world during the ninth century, the Drought Cult.
Since that first field season at Actun Tunichil Muknal 17 years ago, Moyes and her team have investigated more than 50 caves, all in Belize. “It’s still a new theory,” says University of California archaeologist James Brady, one of the pioneering cave researchers in Mesoamerica. “To claim that there was a widespread cult will require more work in the caves.”
Moyes says she plans to expand her work to sites in Mexico and Guatemala.
In some caves, the offerings are so elaborate and painstaking, you can almost sense the desperation and urgency the Maya felt as their world crumbled. On my last afternoon in Belize, Moyes brings me to Las Cuevas, a cave two hours south of Actun Tunichil Muknal, not far from the mega-ruin of Caracol. It is a behemoth of a cave, with an entrance big enough for an ocean liner to pass through. “During the time of the drought,” says Moyes, “pilgrims were coming here from all over.”
At the back of the first chamber, Moyes leads me to a thick stone wall made from bone-hued rocks and chunks of speleothem. Fingerprints are visible in the mortar. In the middle of the gateway is an opening, a passage so low that we have to crawl into the next chamber. The wall dates to the ninth century. “We may be looking at one of the gateways of Xibalba,” Moyes says.
In the Popol Vuh, she explains, the Hero Twins follow a road through Xibalba that brings them through separate compartments of the underworld, each characterized by a harrowing trial or challenge — not unlike the rings in Dante’s Inferno. Each compartment in Xibalba is divided by a gateway. Moyes believes the Maya may have built this gateway to re-create the Hero Twins’ path through Xibalba.