The Vanderbilt Upper Pasión Archaeological Cave Survey is a sub-project of the Cancuen
VUPACS began in 2001 to investigate the nature of ritual in the Upper
Pasion Kingdom of Guatemala, a little-understood area of the ancient Maya world
typified by the lack of ceremonial architecture so common in other parts of
Since its inception, VUPACS
has been studying caves and other aspects of Maya sacred geography in order to answer four
1) What was the nature of ritual in the Upper Pasion Kingdom?
2) What was the nature of ancient Maya ritual?
3) How did the ancient Maya understand and utilize sacred geography?
4) What was the nature of settlement and transit through the Upper Pasion Kingdom in the 2000 years before the Classic collapse?
The Maya of the Upper Pasión (a region which includes the sites of
Cancuen [the Late Classic seat of the Upper Pasión], Raxruha Viejo, Machaquila [the Terminal Classic dynastic seat], and Tres Islas[a sacred shrine that makes mention of the Early Classic dynastic seat]) differ from
the rest of the Maya world in several respects. They appear to have had
an important economic role--they sat at the interface between the Classic kingdoms of the
Maya Lowlands to the north and the resource-rich Highlands to the south at the beginning of
the Río Pasión, one of the major trade arteries for the ancient Maya. Jade, quetzal feathers,
obsidian, and pyrite (fool's gold) all traveled down-river beginning here. The region is also
unique because their kings did not rely on the construction of massive
temple-pyramids for the rituals that validated their power. Insead, they appear to have
taken advantage of the impressive pyramidal karst towers that dot
the region. Several of these areas have been investigated--the San Francisco Hills, located several kilometers northeast
of Cancuen, dominating its horizon and that of Tres Islas. Research after 2002 has focused on the Candelaria Caves, one of the largest subterranean systems in Central America, which was a major focus of ritual activity in the Early Classic. In these sacred cave shrines and others, the Maya performed many of the same rituals at the mouths of caves that their neighbors
performed in constructed pyramids.
Although the Maya have been studied intensively for over a century, their ritual and their use of the natural
world only began to be seriously investigated within the last 25 years by scholars such as Dr. James Brady and Dr. Jaime Awe. VUPACS is continuing this tradition, bringing to light
ancient ritual activities and their broader meaning in ancient Maya society.
So far, VUPACS has discovered caves that parallel the use of temple-pyramids, such as Cueva de las Murciélagos, which is located near the top of a large karst tower near the site of La Caoba. Most of the ritual was focused near the large, dramatic entrances, but more private ritual occurred in the interior "dark zones." In 2001, Jon Spenard (Florida State University) discovered a cache of two whole mushroom pots dating to the Protoclassic period (around 200-300 CE).
In the 2002 field season, more examples of ill-caves-as-temples were discovered, as well as a large cave, Kaaminaq So'tz (Dying Bat), which was used for a different type of ritual involving a shaman traversing laberyintine passageways (a symbolic Underworld) and then ascending to a symbolic celestial realm, where public rituals were performed. Polychrome sherds from several hundred smashed vessels, obsidian blades, and other ritual paraphernalia were uncovered near the "celestial" cave entrance, located above
a 50-foot vertical cliff face.
In other caves in the Upper Pasión, we have uncovered other evidence of ritual, including
charcoal drawings and complete ritual assemblages. In the latter case, a vessel was found sitting atop a natural hearth
composed of 3 small stalagmites (shown in the image atop this page), and lying nearby was an obsidian blade. It appears that
someone entered the cave, performed blood sacrifice, filled the vessel with blood, placed it on the hearth, burnt the offering, and ritually "killed" the pot by throwing a stone into it and breaking its base.
One of the most interesting aspects of working in sacred places is that the Maya today still come and perform rituals. The Q'eqchi' enter caves and other sacred places to give offerings to the tz'uultaq'a, a being (actually many beings) who are the "owners" of the land that they use to plant their fields. Every year they enter their houses (caves and other sacred sites) to perform rituals and give them offerings in
return for the use of their land.
VUPACS and the Cancuen Archaeological Project are dedicated to working with the local Maya and making them the stewards of their own heritage. Through the generous support of USAID
and others (as well as viewers like you!), we are developing a sustainable income base for the villagers through community-
run tourism, boating, and sustainable agriculture projects. If you would like to make a donation for either the archaeology or the development project, please contact Brent or