The ancient Maya drought cult: Late Classic cave use in Belize

Holley Moyes, Jaime J. Awe, George A. Brook, James W. Webster

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Caves were used as ritual venues by the ancient Maya from the Early Preclassic to the Postclassic period. These sites have been intensively investigated, but little research has been devoted to changes in cave use over time. Work at Chechem Ha Cave in western Belize investigates transformations in ritual practice occurring between the Early and Late Classic periods using an explanatory framework that incorporates high-definition archaeological research with a paleoclimate reconstruction derived from speleothems. This is one of the first projects to directly link these data to the archaeological record. We also introduce new methodology to evaluate changes in ritual practice using use-intensity proxies and artifact patterning. These data demonstrate that Late Classic transformations were coeval with climatic drying. The phenomenon was identified in this case study, and the pattern is prevalent throughout the eastern lowlands suggesting that an ancient Maya drought cult was initiated at this time. We provide the first evidence that there was a failed ritual response to environmental stress, implying that a loss of faith in Maya rulership contributed to the downfall of political systems. This is an important finding for collapse theories that include ideological causations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)175-206
Number of pages32
JournalLatin American Antiquity
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • History
  • Archaeology


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