Nestled in a quiet forest in Belize, a deep aquamarine pool holds ruins from a time when the ancient Maya turned to a "drought cult" and hurried sacrifices to a water god to stave off the fall of their civilization.
At the Cara Blanca site in Belize, archaeologists report the discovery of a water temple complex, a small plaza holding the collapsed remnants of a lodge and two smaller structures. The main structure rests beside a deep pool where pilgrims offered sacrifices to the Maya water god, and perhaps to the demons of the underworld.
The finding paints a picture of drought-stricken devotion during the collapse of the Maya. The pyramid-building civilization thrived across Central America for centuries, only to see most of its cities collapse after A.D. 800.
Beneath Cara Blanca's white cliffs, pilgrims sacrificed pots, jars, and bowls to the temple pool's depths. The sacrifices came from both near and far, pointing to the ruin as a place where people from across the region came to pray for rain.
"The pilgrims came there to purify themselves and to make offerings," says archaeologist Lisa Lucero, who led the team that explored the ruins. She has plumbed the depths of the natural pool, for four years, finding long-lost offerings of ceramics and stone tools in its depths. "It was a special place with a sacred function," she says.
But the temple wasn't always so busy, a paucity of early offerings suggests. That may point to the time when the Maya's need to placate Chaak, the rain god who lived in the depths, grew dire.
Repeated droughts unseated the Maya kings, their cities collapsing starting around A.D. 800 throughout Central America. The rain shortfall may have also sparked a "drought cult" of people who, eager to placate Chaak, left a spate of sacrifices at caves across the suddenly desperate Maya realm.