Anthropologists and archaeologists thought Maya culture originated in the northern reaches of what is now Guatemala about 600 BCE, migrating north to the Yucatan Peninsula beginning around 700 CE. Throughout the film Quest for the Lost Maya, a team led by Dr. George Bey discovers that the Maya may have been in this northern region as far back as 500 BCE. New evidence suggests the Maya of the Yucatan had a very complex social structure, distinctive religious practices, and unique technological innovations that made civilization possible in the harsh jungle.

This segment explores the significance of caves in ancient Mayan culture. Archaeologist Fatima Tec Poole investigates a cave in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico that was likely once an important site of Mayan pilgrimage and ritual. Pottery sherds, layers of soot, and distinctive paintings indicate the division of a smaller, sacred space inside the larger public space of the cave.

Throughout history and across cultures, people have designated certain places as sacred and have embarked on journeys to visit them. For example, Muslims try at least once in their lifetimes to make pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca, birthplace of the prophet Mohammed. For Christians and Jews, the city of Jerusalem, Israel, is an important pilgrimage site.

For the Maya, certain caves were considered the holiest places on Earth, part of a mystical underworld outside of normal time and space. Deities dwelled in these caves, and Mayan priests communed with them there.

  1. The cave studied by archaeologists in the film is divided into two distinct spaces. What are these two spaces?

    • Answer

      There is a public space and a sacred space.

  2. What evidence did archaeologists use to identify the cave as a ritual/pilgrimage site?

    • Answer

      They used the soot and ash from torches and ritual fires that blackened the walls of the sacred space. They also found cave paintings and broken pottery.

  3. Why were the caves so sacred to the Maya?

    • Answer

      Archaeologists think the Maya believed caves were the dwelling places of the gods.

  4. Why did the Maya break ceramic vessels inside the caves?

    • Answer

      Breaking the containers was supposed to release the power of the offering inside. After breaking the pottery, worshippers would always take one piece with them.

  5. In what way is artwork in the caves significant to the Maya? In what way is art significant to us today?

    • Answer

      Answers will vary. Fatima Tec Poole suggests that this artwork tells us something about the way the Maya saw themselves and their world. For example, animals were endowed with mystical spirits, and hunting had a religious dimension to it. Art is an important means of expression for human beings, as it communicates ideas through symbols.

ancient
Adjective

very old.

anthropologist
Noun

person who studies cultures and characteristics of communities and civilizations.

archaeologist
Noun

person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.

cave
Noun

underground chamber that opens to the surface. Cave entrances can be on land or in water.

Noun

complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

commune
Verb

to talk to or interact with.

culture
Noun

learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

deity
Noun

very holy or spiritual being.

designate
Verb

to name or single out.

evidence
Noun

data that can be measured, observed, examined, and analyzed to support a conclusion.

jungle
Noun

tropical ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

Maya
Noun

people and culture native to southeastern Mexico and Central America.

Mohammed
Noun

(570-632) founder of Islam. Also called the Prophet and Muhammad.

pilgrimage
Noun

spiritual journey or travel to a sacred place.

public
Noun

people of a community.

ritual
Noun

series of customs or procedures for a ceremony, often religious.

sacred
Adjective

greatly respected aspect or material of a religion.

sherd
Noun

fragment of pottery. Also shard.

significance
Noun

importance.

soot
Noun

particles produced by burning a substance such as coal, wood, or oil.

symbol
Noun

something used to represent something else.

Partner