Interesting Facts

The Crystal Maiden of the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave

Located in Belize, there is a cave where the remnants of ancient Maya human sacrifices can be witnessed. However, reaching the back of the cave system requires swimming, wading through a cave river, and crawling through narrow, uneven rocky passages in darkness. Once there, visitors can walk among the numerous corpses of sacrifice victims, including The Crystal Maiden, an 18-year-old whose skeleton has become calcified to the point of sparkling.

This jungle cave, which was discovered in 1989, is located in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. To get there, take an hour’s ride from San Ignacio, Belize, and then walk through the jungle and across shallow rivers for an additional hour. At this point, the Actun Tunichil Muknal, or “ATM,” cave mouth, is reached. One must swim into the cave and then wade up the cave river for an additional kilometer in order to enter the cave.

The skeletons of the ceremonial sacrifices the Maya made to their gods more than a thousand years ago can be found at the back of the cave system by walking another kilometer and a half through the cave, past massive boulders and large rooms, one of which is called “The Cathedral.”

The Crystal Maiden of the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave 1
Image Credit : Bernard DUPONT – CC BY-SA 2.0

The age range of the skeletons is one year to adulthood. Four of those sacrificed are young children, some of whom were crammed into small adjacent caves and cracks. They range in age from one to three. There’s a fifteen-year-old (who looks like she was bound before she was killed), a twenty-year-old, and a large number of adults between the ages of thirty and forty-five. Numerous younger skeletons exhibit “skull shaping,” or cranial deformation, which gives the heads of these individuals an oddly elongated appearance.

The majority of them died from blunt head trauma; some had their entire skulls crushed. The majority of the pottery discovered at the site dates from between 700 and 900 AD, which is probably the time when bodies discovered here were sacrificed, even though it is challenging to date skeletons precisely because they are essentially cemented to the cave floor by calcite.

The Crystal Maiden of the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave 2
Image Credit : Bernard DUPONT – CC BY-SA 2.0

Most famous of these long-dead Maya is probably the skeleton of a 17-year-old boy known as “The Crystal Maiden,” which is located farther into the cave. Although the owner of the skeleton was first thought to be female (due to its small size and slight frame), closer inspection of the bones has revealed features that suggest they were male. (There are reports that certain tour guides call it “The Crystal Prince.”)

The positioning of the skeleton and the fact that two vertebrae are crushed make it unique. The person’s body has been lying on the ground for at least the past 1,100 years, and researchers think that before being hurled or tossed, this person may have died in a particularly violent way. Because the skeleton has been there for so long, the bones have completely calcified, giving them a sparkling, slightly plump appearance that gave rise to the nickname “crystalline.”

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The purpose of the sacrifices is unknown, but some people think it was to placate the gods of the underworld or the rain god Chac. Another theory holds that these were believed to be witches (possibly suffering from some kind of mental or physical ailments) and that leaving them unburied in the cave would ensure that their spirits were trapped there.

Additional artifacts discovered within the cave comprise of ceramics bearing “kill holes” and Maya-carved animal and facial silhouettes. Amblypygi, or “whip spiders,” and other predatory spiders can also be found in the cave.

Very little has been taken from the cave since it was discovered, largely because of its inaccessibility and the calcification process that has preserved many of the relics exactly as they were left. (A few items were taken early on.)

The Crystal Maiden of the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave 3
Image Credit : Bernard DUPONT – CC BY-SA 2.0

Translating to “Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre,” Actun Tunichil Muknal is also called “Xibalba” by the locals, who named it after the Mayan underworld. Traditionally, the Crystal Cave was thought to be a portal to hell, a large crack in the ground that was home to scorpions and rivers of blood. This was the underground court of the Lords of Xibalba, home to the Mayan death gods. These twelve gods, often called “demons,” went by titles like “Skull Staff” and “Stabbing Demon,” and they plagued people with a variety of ailments like pain, illness, and terror.

The Crystal Maiden of the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave 4
Image Credit : Bernard DUPONT – CC BY-SA 2.0

Only a select few tour guides are authorized to lead tours of ATM Cave, one of the few protected areas in all of Belize. Be very careful, however, as none of the skeletons or pottery are roped off, and one tourist has already accidentally stepped on and broken one of the skulls.

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