Vergano

At Newly Discovered Water Temple, Maya Offered Sacrifices to End Drought

Ancient people sacrificed offerings to water god at edge of sacred pool.

By Dan Vergano, National Geographic

Above image - Exploration of Belize’s Cara Blanca pools has revealed an increase in rain god offerings during a time of drought.  PHOTOGRAPH BY TONY RATH PHOTOGRAPHY

“Nestled in a quiet forest in Belize, a deep aquamarine pool holds ruins from a time when the ancient Maya turned to a “drought cult” and hurried sacrifices to a water god to stave off the fall of their civilization.

At the Cara Blanca site in Belize, archaeologists report the discovery of a water temple complex: a small plaza holding the collapsed remnants of a lodge and two smaller structures. The main structure rests beside a deep pool where pilgrims offered sacrifices to the Maya water god, and perhaps to the demons of the underworld.

The find paints a picture of drought-stricken devotion during the collapse of the Maya. The pyramid-building civilization thrived across Central America for centuries, only to see most of its cities collapse after A.D. 800. (See “New Evidence Unearthed for Origins of the Maya.”)

Beneath Cara Blanca’s white cliffs, pilgrims sacrificed pots, jars, and bowls to the temple pool’s depths. The sacrifices came from both near and far, pointing to the ruin as a place where people from across the region came to pray for rain.

“It was a special place with a sacred function.”

“The pilgrims came there to purify themselves and to make offerings,” says University of Illinois archaeologist Lisa Lucero, who led the team that explored the ruins. She has plumbed the depths of the cenote, or natural pool, for four years, finding long-lost offerings of ceramics and stone tools in its depths. “It was a special place with a sacred function,” she says.

But the temple wasn’t always so busy, a paucity of early offerings suggests. That may point to the time when the Maya’s need to placate Chaak, the rain god who lived in the depths, grew dire. In an upcoming Cambridge Archaeological Journal report on the temple, Lucero and archaeologist Andrew Kinkella of Moorpark College in California note that offerings picked up at the shrine only after widespread drought had engulfed the ancient Maya world.

Divers explore sunken trees amid clouds of particulate matter in a pool at the Cara Blanca site, where Maya pilgrims once sacrificed pots, jars, and bowls.

PHOTOGRAPH BY TONY RATH PHOTOGRAPHY

Drought Cult

But Chaak and the evil gods of the underworld set the Maya up for their fall, with the rain they gave and then withheld. Penn State anthropologist Douglas Kennett and colleagues have reported thatstalagmite records show that high rainfall likely led to a Maya population boom that lasted until A.D. 660. That in turn undermined the kingdoms when the rain stopped.

Repeated droughts unseated the Maya kings, their cities collapsing starting around A.D. 800 throughout Central America. The rain shortfall may have also sparked a “drought cult” of people who, eager to placate Chaak, left a spate of sacrifices at caves and cenotes across the suddenly desperate Maya realm. (Learn more about Chaak, the ancient Maya rain god, in “Secrets of the Maya Otherworld” in National Geographicmagazine.)

“Caves and cenotes were both entrances to the underworld.”

“Caves and cenotes were both entrances to the underworld, the same thing, to the Maya,” says archaeologist Holley Moyes of the University of California, Merced. Surveys of caves, and now the cenote shrine, point to “tempestuous times,” when pilgrims felt the need to make more sacrifices to the water deity. (See photos of other Maya underwater secrets.)

Near the large Maya city of Caracol in Belize, for example, Moyes and her colleagues have explored the ruin of Las Cuevas, with support from the National Geographic Society. Beneath one of the site’s largest pyramids, a large cave mouth opens. The cave’s huge entry chamber also has a cenote, as well as an underground river, that likely served as a ceremonial site.

Watery Underworld

Scientists collect wood samples for carbon dating from trees at the bottom of a pool at Cara Blanca.

PHOTOGRAPH BY TONY RATH PHOTOGRAPHY

Even in good times, the Maya deposited offerings in caves and bodies of water, says archaeologist Brent Woodfill of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. They also transplanted stones and other odds and ends from caves, he adds, intended to imbue ball courts, temples, and other ceremonial structures with sacredness.

Similar sacred qualities might explain why the water temple at Cara Blanca appears to be partly constructed from the cenote’s tufa stone. During its construction, the floors of the shrine were sprinkled with a blanket of sacrificed potsherds and fossil teeth or claws dredged up from the pool, as well. Small water jars predominated among the ceramics. Some were painted with a water motif of wavy lines and spirals, and one bowl was painted with a jaguar, associated with water and caves in Maya mythology.

The offerings largely date from the “terminal” era of the ancient Maya, the study says, when cities were largely abandoned.

More than 200 feet (about 60 meters) deep, the pool has been explored by divers who have come up with pieces of jars, pots, and stone tools. (Watch: “Diver ‘Vanishes’ in Portal to Maya Underworld.”)

A school of cichlids swim in a pool once used for offerings to the Maya rain god.

PHOTOGRAPH BY TONY RATH PHOTOGRAPHY

“This is the first example I’ve seen where people were actually pulling out rocks and fossils from the bottom of pools and cenotes to incorporate into temple architecture,” Woodfill says. “This is fascinating, and once again shows how closely caves and pools were related in the Maya worldview.”

Other caves visited by the drought cult are similarly adorned with blankets of potsherd offerings, Moyes says. Human sacrifices also may have started to appear during that time in the deep recesses of the underworld’s caves, the home of Chaak.

Moyes sees the water shrine offerings as dating to the era just before the collapse of the ancient Maya civilization, rather than afterward.

“In the big picture, I do agree this was likely a shrine where ritual practices took place that point to times getting tough for people,” Moyes says. “When you start getting down to actual drought, we are starting to see sacrifices picking up across the Maya world.”

For more on the ancient Maya, read “The Maya: Glory and Ruin” in National Geographic magazine.

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.”

Dan Vergano, USA TODAY staff and Penn State alumnus who earned a degree in aerospace engineering in 1990

SCIENCE STORIES
and SMARTPHONES


“What is happening in a science story is a lot harder to communicate in a one-minute video than the latest discovery of a giant squid. If there were a simple solution to climate change, for example, we would not have gotten ourselves into this mess. A video of a regular guy like an oyster farmer pulling up a dead oyster may be how we deliver science news about the effect of climate change in the smartphone age.”

MORE>>

Proof that praying to a water god won’t help

Renee Twardzik, Global Communications Manager, GE Water & Process Technologies

According to a National Geographic report, a severe drought could have led to the ultimate demise of the ancient city of Maya - removing kings from their thrones, causing the city to collapse, and sending people on pilgrimages to purify themselves and make offerings to the rain gods.

National Geographic author, Dan Vergano, writes “Beneath Cara Blanca’s white cliffs, pilgrims sacrificed pots, jars, and bowls to the temple pool’s depths. The sacrifices came from both near and far, pointing to the ruin as a place where people from across the region came to pray for rain.”

Luckily, today’s society has technology and an optimistic path towards water reuse to help ward off water scarcity and bring this civilization through its own mega-drought.

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For this precious 2-year-old Chihuahua named Oliver, prayers go viral (and then come true). Photographer John Hwang told BuzzFeed News that he heard about Oliver after a friend described rescuing him from a busy highway. Hwang spent some time with the puppy and took some pictures of him. “Then all of a sudden he got up on his hind legs and put his paws together,” Hwang said. “I’ve never seen any dog do that — it really touched me.” Hwang’s pictures went viral and Oliver has since been adopted. Since the pictures went viral, Oliver has been adopted. <3

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This letter was edited and brought to you by Natasha Japanwala, Claire Moses, and Brianne O’Brien. You can always reach us here.

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What's Going On Around The World Today

HERE ARE THE TOP STORIES

Have astronomers found a new planet?

It sounds like a new sci-fi movie: A giant mystery planet is likely hiding far out in our solar system. Far beyond Pluto, an icy world 10 times heavier than Earth might circle the sun once every 20,000 years.

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Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC) / Via CalTech

What’s next?

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A woman in Moscow walks past a board listing foreign currency rates against the Russian ruble, the value of which has fallen to an all-time low.

Vasily Maximov / AFP / Getty Images

For the latest news and stories, download the BuzzFeed News app for iOS and Android.

DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THIS?

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External image

We spoke with BuzzFeed News business reporter Sapna Maheshwari about whether or not we should be saving up for the fancy purse.

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Wait, it’s how much money?!

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For that price, it better be a good investment — is it really?

The bag is a good investment the way a rare antique or a famous painting is a good investment. It could be worth it if you plan to keep it in pristine condition, insure it, and part with it only when the market’s good and not when you need your money back. But it’s not really comparable to putting $10,000 into more traditional investments like stocks, commodities, and bonds. These markets are astronomically bigger than the market for Birkins and they’re regulated. You also don’t have to hinge your future to a brand’s value. Birkins have been cool for the past 30 years, but will they be cool for another 30? You might not want to gamble on that.

External image

This crocodile-skin Birkin bag is $129,000.

AFP / Getty Images / Timothy A. Clary

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External image

Two films to watch out for at Sundance: The Birth of a Nation (top) tells the true story of Nathaniel “Nat” Turner, who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. And Southside With You is a dramatization of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date.

Courtesy Sundance Institute

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External image

John Hwang / Via Facebook.com

This letter was edited and brought to you by Natasha Japanwala, Claire Moses, and Brianne O’Brien. You can always reach us here.

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