The Cave Entrance
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.
Museum of Anthropology and History).
Loltún's human occupants
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 Hall of Columns
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.
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Hasta luego, Jim