In a remote part of the jungle on the Yucatan Peninsula, a hidden underground cave lies tucked under a 15-meter-high cotton tree. More than 1,200 years ago, Mayan children left a visible mark on its walls today – 137 palm prints in red and black.
Scientists at the National Institute of Anthropology and History discovered this intriguing example of cave art about two decades ago, but they hid it for fear of vandalism. Archaeologist Sergio Groshean has only recently begun publishing the discovery.
Other finds in the cave include a carved face and six painted relief sculptures dating from approximately the same period as the handprints. “We have documented material from the entire cave, but until the conditions are created to open it to the public, we will keep its location secret,” Groshean said.
As the palm prints are small, the researchers assume that they were made by children, as part of the ritual of transition to adulthood.
For some Mayan cultures, as for many other tribes of Central American natives, the cotton tree is sacred. The fact that the cave is located near that tree could explain why it had a religious or ceremonial purpose, states Groshean.
The collapse of the classical Mayan civilization
Archaeologists believe that the footprints in the cave were left at the end of the so-called classical period of Mayan history, which lasted from approximately 250 to 900. The classical period is the pinnacle of that civilization, and is characterized by the development of its own writing and calendar system, colorful pottery, advances in astronomy and mathematics, and significant works of public architecture, such as the magnificent temples of nearby Uxmal and Chichen Itza.
Major cities throughout Mexico and Central America prospered during the Classical period. However, problems arose between 800 and 1000, when continuous droughts probably caused the collapse of large urban centers in the southern lowlands and led to a significant change in Mayan culture.
Symbolism of palm prints
The children who left traces in the underground cave lived in a time of intense changes in the Mayan society. Groshean notes: “They may have imprinted their palms in black, which symbolized death, but that did not mean that she would be killed, but rather referred to death from a ritual perspective. Then they left prints in red, which meant either war or life. “
Colored palm prints like these are repeated as a theme in other works of Mayan art and architecture, and above all on buildings in Chichen Itza. Researchers have yet to determine their exact symbolism.
Marco Antonio Santos, director of the Chichen Itza archeological site, states: “The ancient Maya used palm prints as part of their written language. It is important to emphasize that they are not on the walls of the cave by accident. They signify a communication code that is still unknown to us archaeologists. “