Sunday 28 April 2013

A Journey Into the Mayan Underworld

A lot of archaeological sites and remains have been given World Heritage status by UNESCO. Exactly a year ago today a site in Guatemala submitted a proposal to have that status given to a cave system containing many Mayan cave drawings. These drawings depict the whole of Mayan life and culture, including images of child sacrifice, ritual bloodletting and (according to Dr. Karen Olsen Bruhns of San Francisco University’s Department of Anthropology) the “only genuine depiction known of male-male erotic interaction” in Pre-Columbian America.

How the caves were discovered sounds like the opening of an Indiana Jones film. In the steaming hot summer of 1979 Bernabé Pop, a hunter of peccaries (a type of jungle pig), took his dogs out hunting in the jungle near his home village. Chasing after his dogs down a ravine he came across a cave entrance at the bottom of a rock face, almost hidden behind hanging vegetation. Venturing into the darkness little did Bernabé know that he had stumbled across the location of the biggest collection of subterranean Mayan inscriptions, drawings and artefacts, including several tombs, ever discovered.

The caves were given the name Naj Tunich (pronounced Nah too-neech) which means “stone house” in the local Mayan language. Over the next few years archaeologists worked hard to explore the whole cave system and stop robbers from looting the precious ancient artefacts. A big problem was how to preserve the cave drawings. With the frescos of Pompeii the problem is the outdoor atmosphere eroding the paint away. In Naj Tunich the problem is the pigment itself. It doesn’t dry out like paint and smudges when touched. Many of the cave drawings have been damaged by visitors touching them.

Some of the cave drawings date back to 100 BC and other drawings and artefacts show that it was used by the Maya continuously for the next 9 centuries.

The drawing mentioned above by Dr. Bruhns is one dating from the 700s, redrawn for you here. As you can see it shows two men who are clearly in a sexual embrace. The archaeologists, most notably Dr. James E. Brady of the University of California, the scientist who has studied the caves the most, describes the man on the right as the younger of the two. The young man also seems to be wearing his hair in the style of the Mayan Moon Goddess. It has been suggested that this man is a shaman, an androgynous priest, hence the Moon Goddess’s hairstyle. It is believed that these shamans “helped” in sexual matters within Mayan marriages, passing on the divine sexual energy of the gods to the people – they could interact with the community on a physical as well as spiritual level.

As with other cultures around the world the Mayan connected caves with entrances to the underworld and regarded them as places where rituals and ceremonies took place. The Naj Tunich drawings may depict the type of ceremony carried out in the caves. So what does the picture of the two men tell us? The drawing is surrounded by others depicting ritual blood-letting. This was common in Mayan culture, particularly among the ruling classes, to indicate their virility and fertility.

We could interpret the scene as that of a young shaman, on the right, in an act of ceremonial sex with an older man on the left, possibly a Mayan ruler, who is thus acquiring symbolic youth and virility from the shaman before offering his own blood to the gods.

Perhaps we’ll never know what’s really going on, but if the drawings are to survive another thousand years a lot of conservation has to take place. Thankfully, Dr. Brady and his team of scientists has photographed all the images, and even multispectral imaging technology has revealed previously hidden drawings.


  1. Hello. I was wondering. Are you the author of this article? Where does that quote by Karen Olsen comes from?

    1. The quote comes from and has been repeated on other websites since 2011. Connell O’Donovan is a historian and genealogist. He gives no source for the quote. Though he has no professional qualification in archaeology I have found that the research on his web is reliable. Dr. Karen Ohlsen Bruhns is a highly respected archaeologist who specialises in ancient cultures in Central and Southern America, and in the archaeology of gender. She is also an expert in uncovering fakes, smuggling and looting of artefacts. If she is quoted as saying something is genuine I, for one, have no reason to believe she didn’t. I’ll keep digging to try to find an exact source and publish it here if I find it.

    2. Thank you Tony. I managed to talk to Conell about this. Thanks for your help