Mayan Caves: Places of Sacred Rituals

Mayan Caves: Places of Sacred Rituals

This segment explores the significance of caves for the ancient Mayan people. Archeologist Fatima Tec Poole investigates a newly discovered cave in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, and discovers evidence that it was once an important site of Mayan pilgrimage and ritual.


5 - 12+


Anthropology, Biology, Earth Science, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, World History

Anthropologists and archaeologists thought Maya culture originated in the northern reaches of what is now Guatemala about 600 B.C.E., migrating north to the Yucatan Peninsula beginning around 700 C.E. 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 B.C.E. 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 Muslims, Christians, and Jews, the city of Jerusalem, Israel, is an important pilgrimage site.

For the ancient 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.

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Hannah Herrero
National Geographic Society
Anne Haywood, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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