Many ancient civilizations believed in an Underworld or mythical world of the dead. The Greeks had Hades, the Mayans had Xibalba, which translates to “Place of Fear”. A sacred text known as the Popul Vuh contained information on the route that souls would take to reach Xibalba. The Popul Vuh was written on long scrolls using Mayan hieroglyphic script.
The trip to Xibalba was not pleasant or scenic as travelers would need to pass rivers of scorpions, bat filled houses and lots of blood and pus. According to the Popul Vuh, travelers would be guided along this path by a mythical dog which could see in the dark.
The Mayan civilization flourished between 2000 BCE and 250 CE. They were known for many things including their intricate calendar, their system of writing, and the massive stone structures and temples that they built throughout Central America. Their civilization was centered on southern Mexico in areas such as Chiapas, the Yucatan Peninsula and other areas further south. Their influence was felt in civilizations that were spread out through a much wider geographical area. Even after the Spanish arrived they continued to be an influence on the region before vanishing around 900 CE.
Now, archaeologists have found a series of stone temples that they believe may have been constructed by Mayans as a way to reach Xibalba. A total of eleven sacred temples were found tucked into underground caves in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. They were discovered and excavated in 2008. Archaeologists were forced to wear scuba gear in areas as many of the caverns were filled with water. Other caverns had dry chambers in them. Many of the tunnels that led from cavern to cavern were very narrow, making it difficult for archaeologists to move from one cavern to the next. The group of temples even included an underground road that was approximately 330 feet in length.
The temples were not the only thing found in the underground caverns. Archaeologists were able to locate examples of Mayan stone carvings and ceramic offerings that were left for the dead. The system of caves and temples also included human remains as well. It is believed that not only did the series of caves act as a route to Xibalba, they were also used as a repository for human remains due to the sheltering nature of the caves themselves. This would have been especially important after the Spanish arrived.
It appears as though the site was used for some time. One ceramic vase that was found in the system of temples was 1900 years old although the majority of the artifacts were dated to between 700CE and 850CE.
The cave system found in the Yucatan is not the only one of its kind. Others were discovered in cave systems located in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. Although they are similar, in that there is a series of temples they have different characteristics that are mainly due to cultural differences. All of the sites found used cavern systems that were located deep in jungle areas as a location for temple complexes.