Though music is now most commonly used as entertainment, for the ancient Maya, music held a more specific purpose. Discoveries made at the ancient sites of Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit in southern Belize serve as keys to uncovering the true nature and value of music to the ancient Maya.
Lubaantun is Belize’s largest Maya site of the southern districts. Discoveries dating back to the 1920s at Lubaantun reveal that the site was home to players of a wind instrument known as an ocarina.
Researchers suggest that the ancient Maya used ocarinas to produce music for daily ceremonies. Ocarina music may have served as the ceremonial accompaniment for both birth and burial, along with other rituals to inspire fertility and abundance.
At the nearby city of Nim Li Punit, a more recent discovery links us again to the ceremonial use of music in the quest for abundance. In 2015, Geoffrey Braswell of UC San Diego unearthed the second-largest jade object ever to be found in Belize*.
About the Jade Pendant
Now known as the Nim Li Punit Wind Jewel, this massive jade pendant is formed in the shape of a T, and a T is carved into its face. This T shape represents the Maya glyph ik, meaning wind and breath. The back of the pendant is inscribed with hieroglyphs which tell the story of an incense scattering ceremony conducted by an ancient Maya King who wore the pendant. Braswell argues that the use of pendants like this one during the ceremony served to connect the ruler with the Maya God of wind and music that brought the monsoon rains, thus making agriculture possible.
* The first largest is the famous Jade Head of K’Nich Ahau, discovered at Altun Ha.
† The inscriptions further show the King came to Nim Li Punit from the west, likely Cahal Pech, and also has ties to Caracol.
Maya Rain Songs
The sounds of rainstorms, the rushing winds and beating thunder, were music to the ears of the ancient Maya. They counted on the rain, and to inspire its arrival, they emulated its sounds. They used instruments such as ocarinas, flutes, trumpets, rattles, and drums. Rulers wore jewelry to connect with the elements and scattered herbs and incense as offerings to the wind and rain.
It is not entirely clear what caused the downfall of the ancient Maya civilization, but many suspect a massive drought is to blame. Today the rains have returned to Southern Belize and the jungles around Nim Li Punit and Lubaantun are lush and vibrant. In the nearby village of Punta Gorda, the drums of the Garifuna people beat passionately at the seaside, while the spirits of Maya ancestors at Nim Li Punit and Lubaantun sit back, quietly enjoying the sounds of the jungle rain.
Lubaantun in modern Maya translates to Place of the Fallen Stones. Lubaantun is one of only a few sites that did not use mortar between the stones in its structures. Some say the stones fell from the heavens, perfectly aligned so as not to need mortar. Others claim the name describes the current state of the site, where many stones have toppled, the result of shifting terrain over many years. These toppled stones, however, might also be linked with the use of dynamite as an excavation technique employed by Thomas Gann, one of the first to excavate Lubaantun.
Lubaantun + The Crystal Skull
Many know Lubaantun for the famous faux-discovery of a mysterious artifact known commonly as the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull. As exciting as a find like this might be, the story has been repeatedly debunked, though it still received direct mention in the Hollywood classic film series, Indiana Jones.
Both Nim Li Punit and Lubaantun are a short distance (roughly 40 minutes by car) from the Village of Punta Gorda in Belize’s Toledo district. They are accessible from the same road off Belize’s Southern Highway.
If you’re looking to make a day of it, you can see both sites in a couple of hours and then head to a beautiful nearby waterfall known as San Antonio Falls.
Finally, don’t forget the essentials: mosquito repellent, comfortable clothing, water, and snacks. If you’re heading to the falls, pack a picnic. You will be glad you did.
Article Written by Michael Bowen