Ancient Maya ritual cave use in the Sibun Valley, Belize

Polly Ann Peterson
Department of Archaeology, Boston University
March, 2006


A survey of settlement and caves in the Sibun Valley of Belize, Central America, investigated past interactions between people and their landscape and demonstrates how the ancient Maya manipulated, and were influenced by, the world in which they lived. The karst topography of the area makes it rich in caverns, and so a key component of the Xibun Archaeological Research Project is a cave site study.
Between 1997 and 2001, the cave study resulted in the documentation of fifteen caves and two rockshelters and revealed patterns of ritual utilization spanning the period from the Middle Formative to the Spanish Colonial period (1000 BC--AD 1798). Large caves were appropriated by elite members of the society while small caves and rockshelters appear to have been used by the general populace.
Artifacts surface-collected from Xibun caves share similarities with ceremonial assemblages from caves throughout the Maya region, and may be compared with offerings for agricultural and hunting success as described in ethnographic and ethnohistoric documents and depicted in the Postclassic Maya codices. Cave deposits contribute to the redefinition of ritual assemblages, and identifying characteristics are proposed by this study. Furthermore, materials analyses have shed light on the possible functions of artifacts---including grinding stones, ceramic jar sherds, and stone tools---in the cave context and challenge previously held assumptions. The regional nature of the project allows cave use to be evaluated within the larger context of settlement patterns. Just as people and objects moved from surface sites to caves, cave materials were brought back to settlements and incorporated into ritual architecture.
This study presents the most extensive evidence compiled to date for the reciprocal nature of cave/settlement interaction.
Finally, the unique topography of the central Sibun Valley, with settlements generally restricted to a narrow alluvial terrace on the west and karst hills with caves located on the eastern side of the river, presents an ideal case-study to explore models of the dichotomy between nature and culture.