In a remote jungle on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, a hidden underground cave lies nestled beneath a nearly 50-foot-tall Ceiba tree. More than 1,200 years ago, reports Reuters, Maya children left an enduring trace on this subterranean space’s walls: 137 red and black handprints that remain visible to this day.
Researchers from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) first discovered the spectacular painted art about two decades ago. But as Karina Andrew Herrera notes for Mexican broadcaster Noticieros Televisa, archaeologist Sergio Grosjean only began publicizing the find recently.
Grosjean tells La Jornada Maya’s Itzel Chan that the researchers kept their discovery quiet to prevent vandalism. According to Reuters, other finds in the cave include a carved face and six painted relief sculptures dated to around the same time period as the handprints.
“In this case, … we made a methodological record of the entire cave, and until conditions are in place to give access to the public, we will keep the location of the cave a secret,” the archaeologist says to La Jornada Maya, per Google Translate.
Researchers analyzing the handprints theorize that they were made by children due to their small size. The youngsters may have created the works as part of a ceremony commemorating puberty and the transition into adulthood.
Some Maya people (and many other Indigenous Central American cultures) consider the Ceiba tree—known as ya’axche in Yucatec Maya—sacred, writes Yucatán Today. This cave’s location near a Ceiba tree could explain why it was singled out for religious or ceremonial use, says Grosjean.
Archaeologists place the handprints’ creation near the end of the so-called Classic Period of Maya civilization, which lasted from roughly 250 to 900 A.D. According to the University of California’s MesoAmerican Research Center (MARC), this era in Maya history was associated with the development of distinctive writing and calendar systems, multicolored ceramic artwork, advancements in astronomy and mathematics, and major public architecture like the majestic temples at nearby Uxmal and Chichén Itzá.
In general, reports Reuters, major cities across Mexico and Central America thrived during the Classic Period. But trouble arose between 800 and 1000 A.D., when widespread severe droughts may have led to the collapse of major cities—and a significant shift in Maya culture, per NOAA.
The children who left their mark on the underground cave were living through a period of intense change in Maya society.
They might have “imprinted their hands on the walls in black, ... which symbolized death, but that didn’t mean they were going to be killed, but rather death from a ritual perspective,” Grosjean tells Reuters. “Afterwards, these children imprinted their hands in red, which was a reference to war or life.”
As the Yucatán Times reports, painted handprints such as these recur as a theme in other Maya art and architecture, most notably in buildings at Chichén Itzá. Researchers have yet to determine the markings’ precise symbolism.
“[Handprints] were used by the ancient Maya as a part of a written language. It is important to point out [that] they are not there at random,” says Marco Antonio Santos, director of the Chichén Itzá archaeological site, to Noticieros Televisa, per Google Translate. “… [T]hey are denoting a communication code that for us archaeologists is still unknown.”