Legend says the afterlife for ancient Mayas was a terrifying obstacle course in which the dead had to traverse rivers of blood, and chambers full of sharp knives, bats and jaguars.
Now a Mexican archaeologist using long-forgotten testimony from the Spanish Inquisition says a series of caves he has explored may be the place where the Maya actually tried to depict this highway through hell.
The network of underground chambers, roads and temples beneath farmland and jungle on the Yucatan peninsula suggests the Maya fashioned them to mimic the journey to the underworld, or Xibalba, described in ancient mythological texts such as the Popol Vuh.
Searching for the names of sacred sites mentioned by Indian heretics who were put on trial by Inquisition courts, De Anda discovered what appear to be stages of the legendary journey, recreated in a half-dozen caves south of the Yucatan state capital of Merida.
Archaeologists have long known that the Maya regarded caves as sacred and built structures in some.
There, in the stygian darkness, a scene unfolded that was eerily reminiscent of an “Indiana Jones” movie—tottering ancient temple platforms, slippery staircases and tortuous paths that skirted underground lakes littered with Mayan pottery and ancient skulls.
The group explored walled-off sacred chambers that can only be entered by crawling along a floor populated by spiders, scorpions and toads.
The Spanish were outraged that the Mayas continued to practice their old religion even after the conquest. So they used the trials to make them reveal the places where they performed their ceremonies.
Time after time, the defendants mentioned the same places—but the recorded names changed over the centuries or were forgotten.
Among De Anda’s discoveries are a broad, perfectly paved, 100-yard underground road, a submerged temple, walled-off stone rooms and the “confusing crossroads” of the legends.
Bats are depicted in the ancient texts, and visitors have to duck to avoid swarms of them. There’s the “chamber of roasting heat” which indeed leaves visitors soaked in sweat. Cool currents of surface air penetrating some caves feel almost frigid, just like the legend’s “chambers of shaking cold.”
While De Anda has not yet encountered a specific “jaguar chamber,” jaguar bones have been found in at least one cave.
Subterranean “roads” interrupted by deep pools of water may signify the rivers of blood and pus.