Image - Cacao Pod Vessel - K6706 © Justin Kerr FAMSI © 2002:
Christopher T. Morehart

Plants of the Underworld: Ritual Plant Use in Ancient Maya Cave Ceremonies
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Figure 17. Kan Bahlum Mo' with nancé tree.

Research Year:  1998
Culture:  Maya
Chronology:  Classic to Contemporary
Location:  Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador
Sites:  Actun Nak Beh, Barton Creek, Actun Chapat and Actun Chechem Ha

Table of Contents

Paleoethnobotanical Investigations
List of Figures
Sources Cited


For the ancient Maya, caves were sacred areas of the natural landscape. Caves were perceived as points of access to the underworld (Awe 1998; Bassie-Sweet 1991; Brady 1989; Brady and Stone 1986; Pohl 1983). Post-Conquest sources, such as the Popol Vuh, refer to the underworld as Xibalba (Tedlock 1985). Xibalba was the home of many powerful gods in the Maya pantheon. Thus, caves were an apt stage for ceremonial activities that were heavily laden with cosmological import. Researchers have proposed a number of interpretations for the kinds of rituals that were conducted in caves. The majority of these ideas focus either on fertility rites, emphasizing the relationship between the underworld and deities associated with rain and agriculture (Awe 1998; Brady 1988, 1989), or on political rituals, examining the role of caves in the transference and negotiation of social, economic, and political power (Brady and Ashmore 1999; Halperin 2001; Halperin et al. 2001; Helmke 1998; Pohl 1983).

Most theories of Maya cave utilization have been based predominantly on observations of durable artifactual assemblages to the virtual exclusion of botanical remains (Brady 1989; Gibbs 1997; Halperin 2000; Helmke 1998; Helmke and Awe 1998; Ishihara 2000; Pohl 1983; Stone 1995). In addition, there have been few investigations of ancient ritual practices at surface sites using archaeobotanical databases (see, for exception, Guderjan 2000; McNeil 2000). In response to the paucity of studies of plant remains recovered from ritual contexts, this paper presents some preliminary results and interpretations of paleoethnobotanical research undertaken in four caves located in western Belize: Actun Nak Beh, in the Roaring Creek River Valley, Barton Creek Cave, in the Barton Creek River Valley, and Actun Chapat and Actun Chechem Ha, in the Macal River Valley (Figure 1) (see Morehart 2001; Morehart in prep.). I argue that the degree of proximity of the cave sites to ceremonial centers resulted in differential patterns in the archaeobotanical record that reflect distinct ritual activities. Unlike other paleoethnobotanical studies, that have examined only the economic potential of archaeobotanical remains, the present work emphasizes the symbolic nature of plant utilization. Ethnographic data justify this perspective. Among the contemporary Maya plants and foodstuffs used in rituals, many are selected due to specific symbolic elements that are associated with them (Flores and Balam 1997; Kintz 1990; Redfield and Villa Rojas 1934:128-147; Roys 1931; Steinberg 1999; Vogt 1976:89-90). Thus, each has its place not simply due to its economic utility, but, rather, due to its cosmological and mythological salience and history.

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Submitted 01/31/2002 by:

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