Mention the Yucatán Peninsula to any laymen, and you’ll usually get that squinty eyed, sounds familiar look. Mention Cancún — the city nestled at the tip of it — and you’ll hear a proverbial toast of Piña coladas. Everyone and their grandma has dreamed of a relaxing trip to the sun-drenched city of luxury hotels and beaches.
The Yucatan region, however, is one steeped in history — some pleasant, some less so — which makes it a premier work location for archeologists. In 2018, one lucky crew heard rumors of an ancient cave sealed off to the public. Knowing what they did about the peninsula’s past, they couldn’t help but ditch their original mission for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity…
When archeologist Guillermo de Anda and his crew arrived in the ancient city of Chichén Itzá on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, their original mission was to better understand the ancient Maya civilization.
More specifically, they wanted to access and study what is called a cenote, a sinkhole the ancient tribes believed were portals of access to the underworld. The cenote they sought was allegedly beneath the Temple of Kukulka.
Their plans changed, however, when a local told them about “The Cave of the Jaguar God.” Besides a totally awesome name, the cave was steeped in a history Guillermo couldn’t ignore.
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See, archeologist Víctor Segovia Pinto had visited the cave in 1966 and, in an apparently unspecific report, noted “extensive amounts of archeological material” hidden inside. Instead of excavating it, however, he curiously ordered the cave sealed up.
Over the next 50 years, most locals of the former-Mayan settlement forgot about Jaguar God. So Guillermo and his crew were delighted by the opportunity to find what Víctor had ignored. They knew what caves meant to the Mayans.
As Mayan expert Holley Moyes said, because of their believed connection to the underworld, “Caves and cenotes… represent some of the most sacred spaces for the Maya, ones that also influenced site planning and social organization.”
So, refocusing their energies on the potential of Jaguar God, Guillermo and his crew recruited a Mayan priest to conduct a 6-hour purification ritual. This would ensure their safe journey into the potential holy hot spot.
Their offering to the cave guardians was modest: honey, a fermented drink called pozole, and even tobacco, but it got the job done. Officially protected in the eyes of Maya, they entered the long-sealed cave.
Kayla Ortega via NPR
Inside was a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare: for well over an hour, Guillermo crawled on his stomach through narrow, twisting tunnels, only a headlamp illuminating the pathway.
Guillermo didn’t seem to mind. “I’ve analyzed human remains in [Chichén Itzá’s] Sacred Cenote,” he said. “But nothing compares to the sensation I had entering, alone, for the first time in that cave. You almost feel the presence of the Maya.”
After an hour-and-half of painstakingly slow crawling, his helmet finally illuminated something curious.” I couldn’t speak,” Guillermo recalled of the moment he finally understood what he saw. “I started to cry.”
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It wasn’t that he’d finally reached a chamber with enough room to stand up in that made him cry, either. Rather, he’d stumbled upon the archeological equivalent of a winning lotto ticket.
Piles of ancient artifacts lay before him: grinding stones, decorated plates, and more, all in “an excellent state of preservation,” despite looking like they were caked in a few billion years’ worth of mud.
Impressively, thanks to centuries of dripping water, stalactites formed around some of the ancient artifacts and ritual objects, like this incense burner. All in all, there were about 150 well-preserved items in that cave!
Kayla Ortega via NPR
“Thinking about Maya in ancient times going there, through those passageways, crawling with a big incense burner and a torch,” Guillermo said, “you see how important these caves were for them.”
Along with giving Guillermo newfound respect for the Maya, the cave and the items inside, he knew, would provide invaluable information on the tribe’s rituals — and more.
Karla Ortega / Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History
“Jaguar God can tell us not only the moment of collapse of Chichén Itzá,” Guillermo surmised. “It can also probably tell us the moment of its beginning.”
Viajes National Geographic
“Now we have a sealed context,” he continued, “with a great quantity of information, including usable organic matter, that we can use to understand the development of Chichén Itzá.”
More than that, though, experts believe further study of the area will shed some light on the region’s climate, and how disastrous droughts possibly led to the Maya’s mysterious first demise.
“By studying these caves and cenotes,” National Geographic archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert said, “it’s possible to learn some lessons for how to best use the environment today, in terms of sustainability for the future.”
NPR via Karla Ortega
For this reason, Guillermo believed his work in archeology was truly saving the world. By studying Maya, he said, “we can understand the footprints of humankind’s past, and what was happening on Earth during one of the most dramatic moments in history.”
But Guillermo’s profession was noble for reasons beyond that which he listed. Thousands of miles from Jaguar God, for instance, archeologists used science to answer a 14,000-year-old question about some of our earliest ancestors.
Specifically, the Heiltsuk people, the First Nation indigenous to British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, have laid claim to the remote Triquet Island for nearly 5,000 years. But archaeologists dismissed their claim of ownership at first for one glaring reason.
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The continental glacier that formed over Canada during the last Ice Age would’ve also covered Triquet Island, making it uninhabitable. But even with the facts stacked against the Heiltsuk, a small group of researchers took it upon themselves to uncover the truth once and for all.
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The archaeologists began an extensive excavation of the remote island in the hope of discovering traces of a past civilization. What they found there not only shocked the entire archaeological community, but it also changed history forever.
Beneath several layers of earth, they found remnants of an ancient, wood-burning hearth. But how could this be? According to researchers, it would’ve been impossible for humans to dig their way through the glacial ice to get to the soil below.
As they continued digging, researchers unearthed additional artifacts, including tools and weapons. This discovery stumped the team as the Heiltsuk people traditionally didn’t use tools of this kind.
The Heiltsuk people had derived their food source from fishing and smoking salmon, utilizing small, precise tools to harvest the fish. The tools and weapons found were much larger and likely would’ve been used to hunt large sea mammals, such as seals, sea lions, and walruses.
What’s more, the team also uncovered shards of obsidian, a glass-like rock only found in areas of heavy volcanic activity. This discovery also puzzled the archaeologists, as there were no known volcanoes near that part of British Columbia. So, how did this rock — and these people — get there?
The historians deduced that whoever left these artifacts must have traversed the land bridge that existed between Siberia and Alaska during prehistoric times. Yet researchers still needed cold-hard facts…
Luckily, a closer inspection of the hearth revealed ancient charcoal remains, which the archaeologists quickly brought to the lab for carbon dating. When they received the results, the researchers couldn’t believe their eyes: everything they knew was a lie.
According to the carbon dating report, these bits of charcoal were an astonishing 14,000 years old, making them the oldest carbon remains ever to be discovered in North America.
Even by global standards, this was an extraordinary find. After all, these simple pieces of charcoal were older than the Great Pyramid of Giza and even predated the invention of the wheel! But that’s not the most remarkable fact about this discovery.
The 14,000-year-old discovery placed the earliest Heiltsuk at Triquet Island 2,000 years before the end of the ice age. Therefore, the island couldn’t have been covered by the massive continental glacier. And that’s not all.
Since Triquet Island was surrounded on all sides by water, the early Heiltsuk would’ve used boats to traverse the open waters. Boats, however, were not believed to have been invented until centuries later.
This meant that the Heiltsuk settled the area 2,000 years before initially believed. If this was the case, then these early men likely crossed paths with some of history’s most formidable beasts.
As the Heiltsuk people made their way south from the land bridge, they likely had to fend off giant creatures like mastodons, woolly mammoths, and giant sloths. But somehow, these humans survived, and it’s likely for one crucial reason.
Thanks to the Pacific Ocean itself, the sea level at Triquet Island remained constant for over 15,000 years. So as the sea gradually eroded the surrounding islands, the great beasts of the Pacific Northwest were kept at bay, leaving the Heiltsuk to a peaceful, secluded existence.
The most astounding realization that’s come to light is the fact that the Heiltsuk people were able to preserve their history orally for nearly 14,000 years. However, they are still being deprived of their history’s legitimacy.
When the media caught wind of the story, they seemed to focus more on what the discovery meant for the scientific community rather than acknowledge the rich history of the Heiltsuk. To many, the media’s portrayal of the nation was seen as highly disrespectful.
As a result, University of Victoria student Alisha Gauvreau — who was present during the excavation — has dedicated herself to shifting the focus of the dialogue toward the Heiltsuk people.
The Heiltsuk claim to Triquet Island stands as one of the oldest land-ownership claims in the world. Not only does this discovery speak volumes about the strength of the Heiltsuk people, but it also represents the indomitable spirit of mankind.
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