Friday, July 20, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 18: Loltún Cave and its 10,000-year occupation

Loltún Cave was our first stop as we followed the Ruta Puuc. Above, Carole and our Belgian and Spanish tour companions stand in awe before a great gallery lit by beams of light pouring through the fallen limestone ceiling. We were eager to go on the Ruta Puuc tour because the 2-lane blacktop road winds through some of Yucatan's wildest jungle, making stops at a series of ancient Maya sites. Puuc is the Maya word for "hill" and the Puuc culture got its name from a range of hills that cut diagonally across the northwest Yucatan Peninsula.  Although the Ruta Puuc tour visits some of the Maya world's most beautiful ruins, it apparently attracts few people. The tour company would not schedule the trip unless at least four people signed up and we weren't certain anyone else would join us until the last minute. Chichen Itzá and Uxmal are much more famous and tend to draw the lion's share of attention. The result is that, especially in the case of Chichen Itzá, the better-known sites are overrun by mobs of tourists, with other mobs of local vendors nipping at their heels. By contrast, during most of our Ruta Puuc stops, there were not more than ten people present, including the caretakers. At Sayil, our group of five comprised the only visitors at the time. This provided a sense of serenity, solitude, and mystery totally lacking in our previous visits to the larger, more famous sites. For a map showing the Ruta Puuc, click here. If you click on the map itself when it comes up, you can enlarge it.

The Cave Entrance

The entrance to the cave is approached by descending a long series of steps. The steps drop down into a large pit full of trees and jungle vegetation. This particular stop is definitely not for anyone with mobility issues. Even those in good condition should be sure to wear good hiking shoes or boots because some areas of the cave are slippery with mud and algae. The 1000 m (.62 mi.) path through the cave is mostly unpaved and involves climbing through some narrow passageways and up some steep sets of stairs. However, it is definitely worth doing, if you are up to it. Caves had a special meaning to the ancient Maya, who viewed them as openings into Xibalbá ("the place of fear"), the multi-level underworld of the dead. According to the Popul Vuh, the Maya holy book, Xibalbá was ruled by the Lords of Death, who made a point of tricking and humiliating people who entered their realm by requiring them pass through a series of unpleasant and dangerous tests.

The earliest visitors were not human. Scientists have dug pits in the cave as deep as 9.2 m (30 ft), discovering remains of creatures from as far back as the Pleistocene Era, more than 28,400 years ago. The bones above, found outside the cave entrance, are from an Ice Age mastodon, an ancestor of the modern elephant. Other bones from ancient bison, camels, and horses have also been found. All of these were extinct in the Americas at least 14,000 years ago. The first Paleo-Indians didn't arrive at the cave until about 10,000 years ago. (Photo taken at Mérida's Museum of Anthropology and History).

To the right of the cave entrance is a large bas relief carving. Archaeologists named the carving El Guerrero ("The Warrior"). At least one source claims that it shows Olmec characteristics. A study by Anthony Andrews compared this carving with others found in Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala and concluded that this one dates to between 2,200 to 2,500 BC. The artist who carved it lived very early in the so-called Formative, or Pre-classic era. By contrast, Chichen Itzá was not built until almost 3,500 years later.

Carole enters Loltún Cave and begins her descent into Xilbalbá. The cave floor at the entrance immediately begins to descend, although the ceiling remains fairly high. Only a few places in the tourist areas of the cave would require anyone but the very tallest person to duck his head, and some of the galleries are cathedral-like. This was comforting to me, as I am a bit claustrophobic.

Loltún's human occupants

The Manos Negras ("Black Hands"). There are a number of rock paintings in the cave, but I found these to be the most arresting and eery. There are a total of 85 such hand prints within Loltún. A variety of interpretations have placed the Black Hands anywhere from the Paleo-Indians to the Maya of the Classic Era, many thousands of years later. However, both the concept and technique are extremely old. Something in ancient man led him to leave similar hand prints on rock surfaces elsewhere, including Europe and Africa. Some of those paintings have been given extraordinarily ancient dates. The technique is called Negative Painting, a bit like a photo negative. The artist places his hand on the wall and then blows pigment, probably through a hollow tube made of wood or bone, to create an outline. I was transfixed by the idea that these were the handprints of an actual person who may have lived as much as 10,000 years ago. More than encountering a fragment of a spear point or even a human bone, these prints connected me with a particular person across an almost incomprehensible span of time.

Early stone tools found in and around the cave. Tools like these were found in layers of earth which marked the transition from the Pleistocene to the "modern" era, which began about 8,000 years ago. Scientists were able to determine this by flora and fauna found at the same earth stratum. This is one reason why archaeologists despair about looted sites. The context in which the object is found is as important as the looted artifact itself. Man-made objects found at Loltún are the oldest in the Yucatan Peninsula. The stone objects above are associated with butchering animals and cleaning the skins. They are primarily made of silex found in the vicinity of the cave, but others of obsidian and basalt have also been found. Very few objects made of organic material have been found because of the climate.  (Photo taken at Mérida's Museum of Anthropology and History).

An ancient metate and mano. There were a variety of these not far inside the cave in an area called Sala de los Metates ("The Grindstone Room"). Some metates were moveable stone trays like the one above, while others were simply grooved areas in the bedrock. The mano is the rock held in the hand to grind material against the metate's surface. Manos and metates were used to grind food, particularly grains and seeds like maiz (corn). Another function was to powder various materials, perhaps including the pigment used to create the Manos Negras. Finally, they could act as water containers. Manos and metates are among the oldest known food preparation implements, dating back even earlier than the development of agriculture. Even so, they can still be purchased for kitchen use in many Mexican hardware stores.

Ancient water collector in the Sala de los Holtunes. A holtun is a man-made cup in the bedrock at the base of the cave. Its purpose was to collect the water dripping from stalactites hanging from the ceiling. The entire base of the Yucatan Peninsula, except for a thin layer of soil, is a shelf of porous limestone. Rain water percolates down through the stone, eventually creating caves like Loltún and continuing on until it collects in underground rivers. Since there are no above-ground rivers or lakes in NW Yucatan, cenotes and caves became the primary source for human consumption. I found it a bit ironic that an important source of life-giving water was found in Xibalbá, the domain of the dead.

Stone head with possible Olmec features. In one sala, we encountered this carved stone head, mounted on a rock shelf. The accompanying sign gave very little information and my research hasn't come up with much more. In examining the features of the head, I was struck by how un-Maya-like they are. To me, the thick lips and flattened nose seem much more Olmec than Maya. Were the Olmecs here, or did some Maya acquire an Olmec head and place it here? Or, perhaps, a Maya artist simply copied the style from some object that arrived through the extensive trade routes. If anyone has further information on this head, I would be glad to receive it.

Defensive wall from the 19th Century Caste War. From the mid-19th Century through the early 20th, the ferocious Caste War raged between the indigenous Maya and the Yucatecas (Mexican's of Spanish descent and mestizos or mixed-blood people). The Yucatecas were so beleaguered at one point that the Governor of Yucatan almost ordered an evacuation of the Peninsula. After decades of no-quarter struggle, the Mexican Army finally pushed the last remaining Maya insurgents into the remote jungles of southern Yucatan, where they exist today as the Lacandon people. During the war, the Maya used caves like Loltún as refuges, fortifying them with defensive walls like the one seen above. With the end of the Caste War, the last period of extensive Maya use of Loltún ended, closing out 10,000 years of human occupation (except for tourist visits, of course).

The Galleries

Carole and friends pause to admire one of the many galleries. Carole is in the center wearing the red vest. On the right right is our local guide. To the left are two young women from Belgium who joined our group for the cave tour. The "galleries" were large open rooms connected by narrow passageways. Some of the galleries were as big as the inside of a cathedral, with very high ceilings that disappeared into the darkness far above. Others were a smaller, like the one above. There is no set fee for a local guide. They live on the tips they receive from tourists, so we gave generously.

Ceiling formations changed from one gallery to the next. This one looked like some sort of whipped caramel. It all comes from the slow action of water on rock, and the deposit of minerals over the millennia.

Carole asks a question about holtunes at our feet. We found some additional holtunes on the floor of this small side gallery. You can see the small pits in the floor between Carole and the Belgian girls.


Opening to one of many passageways. To move between galleries, we had to pass through much smaller areas, some of them a bit tricky. This one had a broad opening, but narrowed down a bit further on.

Watch your step! The Belgians, followed by Carole, carefully pick their way through this bottleneck. Not only was the footing wet, but it was very uneven. In addition, there was very little light, so we all had to feel our way along. In fact, nearly all the light in this scene came courtesy of my flash. Everybody made it without mishap, fortunately.

Another kind of passageway. In this case, a set of stairs was cut into the wall leading up to another level of the cave. Fortunately there was a railing to grip. Carole stands in the foreground, looking a bit dubious as she watches our companions carefully make their way up.

The Hall of Columns

The "Lot-tún" columns. One of the galleries is called the Hall of Columns because a large number of stalactites and stalagmites that have joined to form columns like these. There are two claims about the origin of the cave's name. The most probable is that Loltún means "Flower Stone" in Maya, and some of the formations definitely resemble flowers. Our guide, however, claimed that the name comes from the two columns shown above. To make his point, he thumped each one, distinctly producing a deep "Lol" sound from the left column and and then a "Tun" from the right. We each took a try and managed credible duplications of the same sounds. The first explanation of the name is probably true, but I like the second better.

Hanging emeralds. Mineral deposits caused the striking green color of these two stalactites. I took dozens of photos of the various interesting formation, but could only include a few in this posting. If you want to see more, you'll just have to visit Loltún.

Columns in formation. Here, you see a complete column where the stalactite (forming from the ceiling) met and joined its stalagmite (forming from the ground up). The stalactite on the right has not yet formed a stalagmite. This is all the product of the deposit of infinitesimal amounts of minerals contained in each drop of water coming down from above.

More columns, stalactites, and stalagmites. Some of these have a distinct phallic appearance. This may account for the phallic cult that played a prominent part in the Puuc culture. Several of the Puuc area sites, including Loltún, contain Maya sculptures of anatomically correct phallae.

A way out? The open-air gallery shown above was one of several we visited where the limestone roof had collapsed, leaving a dramatically lit room. These openings provided the Maya with multiple ways to enter and leave the cave, no doubt frustrating their pursuers during the Caste War.

This completes Part 18 of my NW Yucatan series. In the next two postings on the Ruta Puuc, I'll show you the exquisite Maya city of Labná with its ornate palaces and famous Arch. I hope you have enjoyed this visit to Loltún, one of the more unusual sites I have photographed. I welcome feedback, and, if you'd like, you can leave it in the Comments section below, or send them by return email.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. 6 years I've been living here and the caves have been on my hit list. I have not yet hit them. I now will for sure, your pictures and description are just the push I need.

  2. We visited the caves in Nov. It was the coolest thing I've ever done.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim