Maya Cultural Landscapes and the Subterranean: Assessing a Century of Chultun Research


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Publication Date

January 2018


The function of chultuns, man-made subterranean chambers, in the southern Maya lowlands has been debated for over a century, with food storage being the most widely accepted proposal. Experimental archaeology shows, however, that none of the major Maya subsistence crops can be stored in chultuns because of their high humidity. Maya archaeology is currently at an impasse, espousing a storage function that is refuted by the data. Cave archaeology, with its intimate knowledge of subterranean space, has a decidedly different view. Ethnohistorical sources and ethnography document the fact that holes, even those dug for mining, are seen by the Maya as being caves, so one should expect chultuns to have had a religious function. Furthermore, in actual practice, there is considerable overlap between chultuns and caves, with a number of chultuns being identified as natural caves exhibiting an artificial entrance carved into them. Additionally, a number of chultuns are large enough that they could be classified as man-made caves. Religious functions have been repeatedly overlooked because of archaeologists’ insistence on a utilitarian function and further exacerbated by ignorance of Maya religion and ritual. It is shown that many chultuns have cosmological alignments, being placed along center lines or centered under structures or plazas. In proposing that chultuns functioned as sites of household ritual, considerable evidence is mustered to support an explanation that is more in accord with a realistic anthropological view of the Maya. The implications for sacred landscapes are profound in that thousands of sacred landmarks would be added to every site.


Cave, Chultun, Maya, Religion, Ritual, Sacred Landscape




International Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 6, no. 1 (2018).