Famous for their architecture, mathematics and astronomical beliefs, the Mayans date back more than 4,000 years and many of their impressive constructions still stand today in the jungles of southeast Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and western parts of Honduras. In the Mexican state of Yucatan is the region of Puuc – an area which includes the “forgotten” town of Kiuic – abandoned by the civilisation 1,200 years ago. First documented in print in the 19th century, National Geographic’s ‘Lost World of the Maya’ series headed to the region to get an update on a temple site of interest to experts, but while there, they learned of a breakthrough made at an undisclosed location nearby.
The narrator said: “Getting to this discovery is no easy task, it’s 230 feet underground in the bottom of a cave.
“The tunnel is narrow and only one person can fit through at a time.
“Local residents knew about this cave for years but had no inkling of the treasure hidden inside.
“Through a pitch-black maze of tunnels, they come to the remnants of a wall.”
Archaeologist Fatima Tec Poole detailed how they reached a passageway to a “sacred space” before heading inside.
The narrator added: “As Fatima enters the sacred chamber she notices something curious.
“It appears that countless torches and ritual fires once burned here.
“The Maya believed caves were the dwelling place of gods, Maya priests made the pilgrimage here on special religious holidays, consuming hallucinogenic plants to commune with the deities.
“The chamber is cluttered with broken pottery.”
The Maya expert explained her theory on the shattered remains.
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Ms Tec Poole added in December: “What’s striking about this painting is that their representations are not of living beings – they are in the underworld in the world of death.
“Look at the body of the jaguar, it’s skinny it hasn’t been well-fed and it has a deliberate mark in the middle.
“We think these marks represent illness.”
But the paintings could also challenge archaeological understandings of the civilisation.
The series explained: “Fatima has studied art in many Maya caves, but has never seen paintings like these.
“They are clearly Maya, but their unusual style suggests that whoever painted them was not part of the Maya civilisation of the south.
“Stylistic analysis of the paintings and the ceramic offerings in the chamber indicates the murals were painted around 100BC, that makes them among the oldest Maya paintings ever discovered in Mexico.
“The paintings date to the dawn of the Maya civilisation, scholars call it the pre-classic period.”
While the Archaic period saw the first developments in agriculture and the earliest villages of the Maya, it was not until the pre-classic period that complex societies were thought to have been established.
The first Maya cities developed around 750BC, and by 500BC these cities possessed monumental architecture, including the large temples seen today.
Hieroglyphic writing was not thought to have been used in the Maya region until the third century BC, so the paintings could challenge long-held beliefs among experts.