The Maya also sacrificed people on their impressive temples. They partially buried them in sacred springs near the temple city of Chichen Itza - where divers have now found them. Image: Jacob Rus,, cc-by-sa license
Reading aloud Among the Greeks, the hellhound Cerberus guarded the entrance to the underworld. In the case of the Maya, on the other hand, small fish and crabs welcome the people who hover at the gates of the afterlife: the gates to the so-called "Xibalba", the "place of fear", lie in the water-filled cave system of the Mexican peninsula of Yucatán. German scientists have penetrated into this underworld of the Maya - a challenge for the archaeologists in the team of Florian Huber, the head of the working group for maritime and limnic archeology at the Christian-Albrechts-University Kiel. Via the sacred springs called "Cenotes", which reach into the rock up to 150 meters deep, the experienced cave divers entered the unique underwater labyrinth. The researchers appeared with great expectations, but also with a rather queasy feeling: The Maya had indeed a highly developed culture, but are also known for their sometimes very cruel sacrifices. "The idea of ​​encountering bones during the dives was scary and appealing at the same time, " admits Huber. "Caves are like time capsules, we enter them like a commissar the scene. Only what we are investigating happened not hours ago, but millennia ago. Nevertheless, little has changed. "

In fact, the researchers found in a branch of the labyrinth on relics of ritual sacrifices: arm and leg bones and a skull plate, next to two 50-centimeter high clay amphorae. In the finds Huber sees further evidence that the Mayans buried victims sacrificed in the sacred springs. In other cenotes, similar but much more gruesome discoveries have been made: true mass graves were found in a well near the temple city of Chichen Itza and in a cenote in the city itself, according to science journalist Bettina Gartner in the April issue of the journal "bild der wissenschaft".

Of the 42 dead in Chichen Itza, half were even children between the ages of three and eleven, whose skulls had holes and their bones had strange cuts and scratches. The statement chills even hard-nosed archaeologists on the back: one had pulled off the children's skin, scraped the meat and smashed their skulls. Despite this cruel treatment, there is uncertainty as to whether the dead, with countless gold and jade additions, were found to be prisoners of neighboring peoples, or of their own people-for the Maya sacrificed friends and, to please the gods Enemies alike. The rituals had it all: torn out hearts, slashed bellies, molts and mutilations were nothing unusual.

Luckily, cave divers must have strong nerves to pursue their passion anyway: panic attacks can easily mean death in the underground labyrinths. Although the caves are connected to the world over thousands of cenotes, making the country look "like a Swiss cheese, " study participant Carmen Rojas Sandoval from the Mexican National Institute of Archeology and History, who accompanied the expedition, reports in "bild der wissenschaft ". But these are often far apart and are not always suitable for entry and exit. display

"There are places where you can hardly get through and others that are as big as cathedrals. For the first few meters you will be accompanied by the sunshine. After that it gets darker than dark. You cross places where the sun has never been and where it will never be, "Huber describes his job on Yucatán. The only connection to the outside world was a nylon rope with directional arrows. If necessary, the divers can feel their way along, if whirled lime dust makes orientation almost impossible.

Fortunately for Huber and his colleagues, the water was clear most of the time, and so they came upon a small sensation after only 20 minutes: the remains of a fireplace - a find that doubly surprises in this place. "The charcoal lay in a big pile, jet-black like on land and draped so nicely, as if it were not wrapped in water, but in cotton wool, " marveled Huber and his team. But whether on land or under water, the procedure that follows such a discovery is always the same: surveying, mapping, photos from different perspectives and, to top it off, a small sample of wood the size of a two-euro coin.

This turned out to be small, but subtle, and revealed to the researchers an even greater secret: It is 8, 400 years old - and thus definitely not from the Maya, whose culture began to develop around 1, 000 BC. Instead, our ancestors in the then dry caves may have lit warming fires. The Stone Age dwellings were flooded only after the last ice age, when the glaciers melted. Luckily for the scientists, because they kept the treasures hidden in them until today. And they in turn hope for more spectacular discoveries in other cave systems, which are often still white spots in the research landscape, not only in Mexico but worldwide.

ddp / Mascha Schacht

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