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The Caves of Naj Tunich

Date de soumission : 27/04/2012
Catégorie : Culturel
Soumis par :
Ministry of Culture and Sports
État, province ou région :
Department of Petén, Municipality of Poptún
Coordonnées N16 16 32 W89 15 35
Ref.: 5739

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The Caves of Naj Tunich Archaeological Park is located in the village of La Compuerta, in the municipality of Poptún.  The Park lies southeast portion of the Department of Petén on the southern edge of the Maya Mountains, 35 kilometers away from the municipalities of Poptún and San Luis, 7 kilometers from the Belize border, and located within the Maya Mountains/Chiquibul, sector III Biosphere Reserve.

The caves of Naj Tunich are proposed as cultural heritage for its outstanding prehispanic rock art.  Naj Tunich in the Mayan language of Quiché means "stone house" and it is actually a single cave with a number of branches.  The front portion is quite wide providing an impressive access point that greets its visitors. This cave was used by the ancient Maya of southeastern Petén as a center of worship and as a result many clues to this civilization’s magical and religious beliefs have been acquired. Its geological formations are of exceptional beauty and the painted images date back 2,000 years.

The property proposed for inscription has an area of 2,000 hectares and an elevation of 600 meters. It is a karst cave formation and its physiographic and geological features are of the classic limestone or chalk caves. They consist of stalactites, stalagmites, stone banks, dam arches, draperies, domes, landslides and holes.

When the cave was first discovered it was surrounded by tropical rainforest which now has sadly been lost with the settlement of newcomers to the vicinity.  Naj Tunich’s entrance is facing south, it has 2.6 kilometers of corridors, it is approximately 40 to 50 meters wide, and on average, reaches 15 meters in height.  It is widely recognized by the art embodied in its walls, painted with supernatural designs, human figures, animal pictures and hieroglyphic texts with dates indicating when they were visited.  It also has architectural modifications made during Pre-Hispanic times by the ancient Maya. It is regarded as a bastion of rock art and according to the dating that has been obtained, it may have been in use between 400 BC and 900 AD.  Some of the images are 80 centimeters high and more than 40 centimeters wide, and all are directly painted on the limestone surfaces of the cave.

Upon entering the cave a "balcony" is found 50 meters to the east, following this “balcony” is a passage called the Principal Passage, which is oriented to the north and is a total of 350 meters long.  To the west is another passage, the West Passage, which is a bit shorter measuring 200 meters in length and ends in a room called the Crystal Room. The Principal Passage eventually veers off and becomes the North Passage, which is also 350 meters in length.  This passage then splits off into two branches, one to the east and the other to the west.  To the east the branch ends in an area called “Paso Silencios” or “Quiet Way”.  To the west the branch splits off into two areas, K'u Multun (Stacking Stone) and Mictlan Ch'en (Cave of the Underworld).  Mictlan Ch'en is then connected back to “Paso Silencios” by a stretch called the Naj Tunnel, which is 200 meters long and is orientated east to west.

For many centuries before the Spanish Conquest, Naj Tunich was a ceremonial cave that was of great importance to the Maya people.  In fact it was an exceptionally well-known pilgrimage site and sanctuary during ancient times, much like the Chinchen Itza cenote of Mexico.  Inside several pottery vessels and thousands of pottery fragments were discovered as well as a variety of other artifacts made from jade, shell, obsidian, flint, and other materials.

In the trunk or body of the cave 14 fire sites of significant size where discovered.  Their groupings show two areas of concentration, in areas that served as intersections and entrances. These fire sites however seem to have no relation to the mural paintings on the cave surfaces, but are indicators of ancient human activity.

The rock art found within the cave consists of five groups of petroglyphs (images carved in stone), four areas with positive impressions of handprints (80 in total) and 97 paintings. The images and purposes are varied, while some show calendar dates others exemplify humans, mythological creatures, birds and faces of male characters with beards.

The paintings are a distinctive component of this body of art. There are a variety of representations that can be grouped into 35 different hieroglyphic texts, 18 faces or human heads and 44 human figures. This rock art is extremely unique for its naturalism and the amount of writing included.  The text amounts to some 500 glyphs in total, much of which could not be deciphered in its entirety, and 21 different dates that were recorded on a calendar wheel, but seem to have no relation with the Initial Series (Stone, 1991).

The paint used for the creation of rock art is a dark pigment similar to coal. The internal walls of the cave where most of the paints are located are of polished limestone.  The polishing being a result from the water that formed in the cave over the thousands of year.

History and Development

A hunter named Bernabé Pop discovered Naj Tunich in mid 1979.  His dogs chased a peccary into the cave and when he followed them in, he discovered Naj Tunich.  Bernabe and his father Emilio explored the cave in many subsequent visits, discovering the rock art and inscriptions deep inside. The Pop family revealed the existence of the cave to an American named Mike Devine, a Poptún resident, who served as a guide on several occasions to tourists and scientists interested in visiting the site. Later, James Brady led a team of cavers through the site, creating topographic surveys and ensuring proper recognition.

The earliest evidence of religious or ritual activity within the cave dates back to 200 BC when the Mayans used it for religious ceremonies and a place to portray its rock art and paintings.  However a few shards of evidence have also been linked to the end of the Middle Pre-Classic period. One of the most important discoveries in the caves of Naj Tunich was distinctive pottery from Copán and the inscriptions left by important figures that came from Ixtutz and Cancuen inGuatemala, and Lim Ni Punit Caracol inBelize. This demonstrates the long reaching symbolic importance of the cave and the many ritual visits to this area.

Justification de la Valeur Universelle Exceptionnelle

This representation of pictorial art is unique in its kind in the Maya world, not only for quality but also quantity. Furthermore, the capricious formations of nature have made stalactites and stalagmites, creating a magical world within the multiple rooms and meandering branches of the cave.  Among its visual representations are approximately 90 images among which anthropomorphic characters, animals, deities, musical instruments and hieroglyphic texts are represented.

criterion (i): The collection of paintings, rock carvings and hieroglyphics that are housed within the cave are unlike anything else found in the world and demonstrate the level of technical and artistic development reached by the ancient Maya. Furthermore, the quantity and quality of the artifacts discovered in Naj Tunich are far superior to anything else found in other caves in the Maya area. In Naj Tunich the human figure is a constant, its anthropomorphic representations highly stylized and well accomplished.  It is even possible to ascertain the sex of the characters and special features including their clothing, ritual dress, etc.

criterion (iii): The paintings represent the ritual tasks that took place within the cave.  Also present are a few circular figures, a stairway, also some human face rock carvings in low relief, a few handprints on the walls, and the representation of the divine twins of Popol Vuh. The artistic demonstrations and rock art of Naj Tunich is of exceptional quality and of greater quantity, than that found in any other cave. The use of charcoal, manganese oxide, other minerals and organic materials such as chalk and/or pigments for use with brushes in the finer works are the result of learning processes and acquired pictorial techniques, accumulated and transmitted by the Maya and used to draw in their caves.        

criterion (v): Glyphic texts reveal that the Maya culture was responsible for the conduct of these paintings and engravings, appropriating them geographically, topographically and geologically, to represent both its ideology and its art.  The end result was an exquisite blend of the two.The symbolism of the cave has played an important role in the use and recreation of this sacred space.  For centuries pilgrims and shamans have interacted with the rock formations of the cave and the element of water present within, believing it linked with the underworld and the realm of the dead.

criterion (vi) :For the Maya, death was not the ultimate end of existence, rather it was believed that the deceased were transferred to the Underworld, called Xibalba by the Quiché and Metnal by Yucatec, among the many names assigned by each of the many Mayan groups.  Regardless of the name, it was believed by all that this "other world" was located in the bowels of the earth, under the forest and beyond the masses of water and was ultimately the region of the dead, the realm of the gods and ancestors, where when one died they became gods themselves. The representation of the Underworld is a constant in the artistic expressions of the Maya, on stelae, tomb tablets, friezes, vases, plates, etc., many of the artifacts depicting scenes of gods or rulers emerging or entering the Underworld.  Even the Popol Vuh, the Council Book of the Quiché Mayas, traces the journey of the twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque through the Underworld.  During this trip they run through various scenes full of dangers, not surprisingly, since according to the account, terrible Xibalba inhabitants dominate it.  Other Mayan texts, such as the Chilam Balam of Chumayel, mention other gods who also dealt in the land of the dead.  The ancient Mayan cosmology was also been transmitted in oral and written history and the caves and cenotes were identified by the people of the ancient Mayan culture as "Sacred Places" and remain still to this day as heirs of this identity.

criterion (vii): During the Pre-Hispanic era it was believed that the caves of Naj Tunich were one of the magic portals to descend to the entrance to Xibalba. The fall is not easy, but in small openings will increasingly introduced into the depths on the earth, walks slowly passages, chambers with spectacular stalactites and stalagmites as draperies and profiles of figures. It was also the site that one would bring offerings and special requests and where different ceremonies, most likely propitiatory in nature, would take place.  During this time visitors and priests left on the walls and along the passageways testimonies of their activities, which were quite varied according to what has been deduced from the different representations, some pictures are even of a sexual nature. Today many of these Mayan cultures and traditions are still alive and Naj Tunich is still the center and the destination of such pilgrimages and ceremonies.

Déclarations d’authenticité et/ou d’intégrité

Naj Tunich is a naturally formed cave used in ancient times by the Maya of southeastern Petén as a place of worship and to practice religious and magical traditions. Today it is a National Monument vital in the process of establishing a national identity and preserving the environment.

Because of its pictorial record Naj Tunich is a cultural asset that can be considered unique and of exceptional value and as cultural heritage for humanity.  Found inside are ancestral gestures as well as ideological and religious manifestations that represent human figures, gods, animals and painted hieroglyphic inscriptions and groupings of offerings have been found commemorating different events. Further, outside there was a small archaeological site, which may have been a place of residence for those who were responsible for the care of the cave, their maintenance and protection.

The artwork and content of the works found inside Naj Tunich is unique and incomparable, the materials for its implementation, although known and used since ancient times represents a unique manifestation of the transmission and exchange of human knowledge and the use of natural resources.

The architecture associated with the paintings was made and adjusted to the natural conditions of the cave.  This shows that it was tailored to the needs of the particular rituals practiced and as a result the architecture has a number of features that make it quite unique.  Also, as an added bonus, the caves of Naj Tunich are a source of "virgin" water used for religious rites and spiritual practices.

The environment in which the paintings and rock art of Naj Tunich are found is authentic, unique and of exceptional natural beauty. There are many caves in the world and in Guatemala there are about 40 known karst, including cenotes, sinkholes and caves.  11 of which are located in the Department of Petén, but each has its own unique characteristics and geomorphological features, as is also the case with Naj Tunich.

Comparaison avec d’autres biens similaires

Naj Tunich is considered by specialists to be one of the caverns where the magical and religious traditions of Maya who inhabited the lowlands of southeastern Petén are more idealized.  For the artistic quality and degree of conservation of the rock art, Naj Tunich can be regarded as World Heritage of Mesoamerica, comparable to Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France.

Examples of caves that have been declared as World Heritage Sites:

  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, United States.  Designated a World Heritage Site in 1995.
  • La Cueva de las Manos in Rio Pinturas, Argentina.  Designated a World Heritage Site in 1999.
  • The Caves of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain.  Designated a World Heritage Site in 1985.
  • Seventeen caves with rock art located on the Cantabrian coast, divided between Cantabria, Asturias and the Basque regions. Designated a World Heritage Site in 2008 and becoming a part of the declaration of the Altamira Cave, achieved in 1985.
  • The Prehistoric caves of Yagul and Mitla in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca.  Designated a World Heritage Site in 2010 were also included in the category of Cultural Route.

Common features of these designations are unique karst formation and serving as host for cultural evidence of rock art, in which Naj Tunich meets and mirrors these necessary elements.