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Go to page: The Maya performed important rituals in many caves and left behind large numbers of artifacts, but there are very few caves that contain murals or hieroglyphic writing on their walls. The Cueva de Jolja' located in the Chiapas highlands has both a wall mural and several inscriptions dating from the Early Classic Period (A.D. 300 - A.D. 600). This cave is still used by the local Ch'ol Maya of the nearby community of Joloniel for their Day of the Cross ceremonies, and attendance at this annual event exceeds 500 people.

Go to page: The name Jolja' ("at the head of the water") reflects the cave's location at the headwaters of the Ixtelja River. The headwaters are situated at the 900 meter mark, halfway up the east side of Misopa' Mountain. In the photograph, you are standing near the village of Los Angeles at the base of the mountain, looking out across a milpa, or cornfield.

Go to page: The darker, vertical line on the forested hillside in the distance is where the headwaters of the Ixtelja River emerge from the cave.

Go to page: Following the dark line up about halfway is a white cliff face. The cave is to the left and slightly up from the white face. (There is another white cliff face to the right almost at the edge of the photograph.)

Go to page: At this location, the river emerges from the cave mouth and cascades down a steep gorge into the valley below. A second cave mouth and passageway is located to the right of the river cave.

Go to page: To the left and slightly higher on the cliff is a third cave. It is this dry passageway that contains the Classic Period mural and inscriptions. The local Ch'ol refer to all three caves as the Cueva de Jolja'. The configuration of three cave mouths is reminiscent of the Cross Group of Palenque that represents the three mountain caves from which the Palenque triad of gods were born (Bassie-Sweet 1991).

Go to page: The closest community to Jolja' Cave is the small village of Joloniel located a kilometer down the mountainside some 300 meters lower in elevation. This is the view back down toward Joloniel from halfway up the mountain climbing to the caves.

Go to page: It is a very steep 75 minute climb from the village to the cave mouth. This is the view up the mountain toward the caves, from about halfway up. Joloniel belongs to the municipality of Tumbala (10 kilometers to the west), and these two communities have installed a concrete wall, fence and metal gate to help protect the cave from theft and vandalism. As the cave mouth is several stories high, this was a substantial undertaking.

Go to page: An early mention of the Jolja' Cave is found in the 1939 Atlas of Chiapas, which notes a cave in the vicinity of Joloniel that contained pre-Columbian pottery and human skulls. The paintings of the cave were first brought to the attention of outsiders in 1961. In that year, Wilbur Aulie, a linguist and missionary working in the Tumbala region, learned of their existence from his Ch'ol friends. He and Trudy Blom visited the cave, and Blom photographed the paintings. In Aulie and Aulie's Ch'ol dictionary there are several references to Jolja' Cave that indicate it has had a long history of ritual use. Ten years later, Carlos Navarrete, Eduardo Martinez and Adolfo Munoz documented and mapped the cave. In a brief newspaper article they noted that several of the inscriptions had been damaged, but their report on the cave has not yet been published.

Go to page: Eric Thompson published Blom's photographs and commented on the early style of the Jolja' Cave material in his 1975 introduction to the reprint edition of Henry Mercer's The Hill-Caves of Yucatan. Drawings based on Blom's photographs were published by Berthold Reise in a brief 1981 Mexicon article. Jose Alejos Garcia visited the cave in 1984 while researching an ethnographic study of the Joloniel area. He published his comments and photographs in a 1994 UNAM monograph. Of particular interest is his illustration of an idol in the form of a dripwater formation. In her important 1995 volume on Maya cave paintings, Andrea Stone (1995) reproduced some of Blom's photographs and published new drawings based on Blom's work and Reise's drawings. She discussed the Early Classic style of the paintings and noted that the six groups did not appear to be contemporary with each other.

Go to page: In the company of members from the Joloniel community, Alfonso Morales (Principal Investigator of the Proyecto Grupo de las Cruces of Palenque), Julie Miller (Project Administrator) and Karen Bassie visited the cave and photographed the inscriptions in January of this year. Although the artwork is in generally good condition, several areas of text are significantly faded and are in danger of being completely lost.

Go to page: Given past looting attempts at Jolja' and the tragic destruction of some of the Naj Tunich Cave inscriptions, it was imperative that a project be initiated to try to record the inscriptions using infrared and digital technologies. With permission from the community and INAH and a grant from Mesoweb, Jorge Pérez de Lara, Marc Zender and Karen Bassie returned to Jolja' in April to begin this project.

The Jolja' Cave corpus consists of one scene with an inscription and at least five other groups of inscriptions. The scene, which is designated Group A, is found near the entrance of the cave high up on a wall. A shaft of sunlight from the mouth of the cave strikes the mural and highlights it.

Go to page: The scene shows two individuals flanking a 9 Ajaw day sign. As noted by Stone (1995), the scene illustrates a Period Ending ceremony. A short hieroglyphic text including an Ajaw sign appears above the figures.

Go to page: A short hieroglyphic text including an Ajaw sign appears above the figures.

Go to page: The use of infrared film has enhanced this text considerably.

Go to page: Although the upper body of the right figure is quite damaged, infrared photography reveals portions of the face, left arm and upper body. The figure holds a flaming torch in his right hand like the pre-Columbian torches that have been recovered from other caves.

Go to page: The left figure stands with his hands at his sides.

Go to page: He wears a headdress that includes a panache of feathers. His face is decorated with white paint on the nose, under his eye and on the crown of his head.

Go to page: The placement of the legs and the shape of the Ajaw sign are in Early Classic style similar to that found on the earliest of Maya monuments.

In Maya mythology, corn seeds were first discovered in a mountain cave under an immovable stone. These corn seeds were the buried remains of the Corn God's wife, who represented the corn ear and its seed (Bassie-Sweet 1998, 1999). The contemporary Maya still refer to corn seed as bone and as being female. In order to access the buried corn seeds, a lightning god split open the stone with a bolt of lightning. The creator grandmother ground some of this corn seed into dough, that was then used to model the first humans. The Corn God also used some of these corn seeds to plant the first corn on the surface of the newly created earth.

Go to page: The symbol used to represent the corn mountain in Maya art is composed of a zoomorphic head nicknamed a kawak monster. Immediately below the Jolja' figures is a small rock shelf and just below this is a drawing of a kawak monster with a split in its head.

Go to page: As noted by Stone (1995), this is one of the earliest examples of a kawak monster. Kawak monsters with various signs attached to them were frequently used in Maya art to represent or name a specific mountain.

Go to page: To the right of the kawak monster is a bar and four dots representing the number nine. Although this number is reminiscent of the nine in the 9 Ajaw date, the number nine is also found in a Classic Period place name associated with caves.

Go to page: For example, on the Palenque Tablet of the Cross, the young Kan B'alam stands on such a place name while performing a pre-accession event at a cave associated with the birth of the sky deity nicknamed GI. This place name is composed of a skeletal zoomorph with a split-open head that has stylized footprints emerging from it, that is, it represents a cave of origin or pilgrimage.

In the Maya calendar, the Long Count calculations were divided into units of 360 days called tuns. Major ceremonies were performed at the end of every k'atun (20 tuns) but the Maya also conducted significant rituals at the end of the fifth, tenth, thirteenth and fifteenth tun. All such Period Endings occurred on days that were named Ajaw. In Maya inscriptions, Ajaw dates without other calendar information invariably refer to Period Endings. Period Endings on the 9 Ajaw date of the Jolja' scene occurred three times during the first part of the Early Classic Period:    9 Ajaw 3 Sak  (Dec 14, A.D. 297)  9 Ajaw 18 Yaxk'in  (Oct 8, A.D. 310)  9 Ajaw 3 Muwan  (Feb 1, A.D. 426)

The early style of the scene indicates that the most likely date is either the k'atun ending or the tun ending. Below the scene is a narrow passageway leading to a small chamber. The chamber contains three modern wooden crosses before which the elders from Tumbala perform the Day of the Cross and rain ceremonies. The placement of the wall mural suggests that the Classic Maya also utilized this small chamber. It is highly probable that the intent of the Jolja' Cave scene was to illustrate the Period Ending ceremony that was performed within this chamber. The kawak monster sign likely represents the ancient name of Jolja' Cave.

Go to page: Further along the main passageway just beyond a huge rock fall, the height of the passageway diminishes from several stories high to a horizontal crack of less than 4 feet. On the other side of the crack, the passageway again opens up into a long tunnel about 12 feet high.

Go to page: The remaining inscriptions are located in this section of the cave on the right side of the wall. Parts of these texts are faded and two groups of texts have already been vandalized. A complete report on the Jolja' inscriptions is in preparation but a few comments can be made.

Go to page: Group B is the first set encountered. It is composed of a cluster of six short inscriptions outlined in thick red paint.

Go to page: Of interest in this group is the left text which can be glossed as "this is the image of Leley Hix, the Lord of Witz" (Zender 2000). This text seems to have labelled an image that once appeared below the hieroglyphs but is sadly no longer extant.

Go to page: The far right-hand text begins with the phrase "he wrote it" which introduces the name of the scribe who authored these texts. This may represent one of the earliest examples of a common Late Classic phrase first deciphered by David Stuart (1987).

Go to page: Group C lies on the floor below the wall. Nothing but the outline of the red paint is now visible, though this may once have housed the image of Leley Hix.

Go to page: Group D, located to the left of these inscriptions, is composed of at least 18 glyphs arranged in two columns. A thick red band of semitransparent pigment is painted over the center of the two columns overlapping the black inscription. The red painting of the inscription is reminiscent of the Classic Period practice of painting ritual objects and tombs with red paint or cinnabar. Although the function of the red paint and its application date is unknown at the present time, it does make locating the inscriptions in the inky darkness of the cave much easier.

Go to page: The text refers to the Period Ending ceremony in A.D. 435 (Zender 2000). The location of the Period Ending is stated using the so-called "impinged bone" glyph that has been interpreted to pictographically represent a cave (Bassie-Sweet 1996:64, 95-103) and to represent the word ch'e'en "cave" (David Stuart 1999). As noted, the corn seeds used to create the first human beings were the bone remains of the Corn Goddess. The Maya frequently deposited the bones of their ancestors within caves, in effect, returning them to their place of origin. The bone in this sign may, therefore, represent both the bones of the Corn Goddess and the remains of the ancestors. Another possibility is that the bone represents the mouth of the cave, which was frequently illustrated as a skeletal jaw.

Go to page: Group E is located to the left of Group D and is composed of 16 glyphs in two columns.

Go to page: It has a red band again painted down the center. Of interest in this text is the unusual placement of the calendar round date.

Go to page: The Tzolkin day name appears at A1 while the month position is at B2. The statement between these glyphs is a phrase that reads hul-iiy t-u-ch'e'en "he/she/it arrived at his/her/its cave" (Stanley Guenter, personal communication, 2000; David Stuart, personal communication, 2000; Marc Zender 2000). Stuart also notes that a place name found in this text also occurs at the cave site of Yaleltsemen. This mountaintop cave is located some 27 kilometers south of Jolja'.

Go to page: Although the Jolja' texts are painted on a dry section of the wall, there is a wet area adjacent to them at the very end of the main passageway. The walls of this area are coated in flowstone formations, there are numerous stalactites hanging from its ceiling, and its floor is covered with stalagmites. There are also two large columns where stalactites and stalagmites have joined together.

Behind the left column are a number of dripwater formations that have been sawn off from their original locations and placed here. On the wall behind the columns is an inscription encrusted with calcite deposit. Between the two columns is a small alcove with a pool of water. Such spaces replicate the mythological cave where corn was first found. The sacred nature of these formations explains why the Maya choose this particular space to conduct their rituals.

In addition to these dripwater features, the location of Jolja' at the headwaters of a river contributed to its revered and pure nature. This is reflected in the Day of the Cross ceremonies that are performed at Jolja' Cave on May 3. Although this is a Catholic festival, the Day of the Cross ceremonies conducted in the Maya region frequently have aspects of pre-Columbian rain rituals incorporated in them because May 3 occurs at the start of the rainy season.

In their 1965 publication of contemporary Ch'ol texts, Arabelle Whittaker and Viola Warkentin noted that the Day of the Cross rituals involved the setting up of a cross that will assure that "the water starts flowing again from its source". At the end of the dry season, the water stops flowing from the center cave of Jolja', but it begins to flow again with the onset of the rains.

Go to page: The location of Jolja' on a white cliff is also important. On Don Juan Mountain to the west of Palenque is another white cliff face near the headwaters of a river, in this case, the Agua Blanca. Although not yet visited by outsiders, there is a pre-Columbian cave in this vicinity as well. In addition, Yaleltsemen Cave is also located on a white cliff with water pouring down its face.

Who were the ancient Maya who performed the rituals within Jolja' Cave? We may never have a complete answer to that question, but there are some intriguing clues found in the history of this region. During the Classic Period, the area surrounding the Tumbala/Tila region was controlled by three polities: Tortuguero, Palenque and Tonina. Jolja' Cave is at the edge of the Chiapas highlands that overlooks the coastal plain of Tabasco and the city of Tortuguero.

To the east is the narrow valley of the Ixtelja River, the low but steep Cordon Sumidero range (400 meters), the wide, fertile valley of the Tulija River, and the impressive Don Juan Mountain range (1200 meters). Palenque is located on the far side of this latter mountain range. Unlike other neighboring Classic Period cities that were in constant conflict with each other, Palenque and Tortuguero shared an emblem glyph and seem to have had a co-operative relationship. To the south of Jolja' Cave is an ancient route leading from Tumbala to Tonina in the central highland valley of Ocosingo.

To the west of Jolja' Cave is the summit of the 1,630 meter Misopa' Mountain and over that mountain range the valley of Tila. The Tila/Tumbala region of Chiapas has undergone very little archaeological investigation, but there is a stela from a site in the Tila valley that is dated 10 Ajaw 3 Sotz' (April 24, 685) attesting to the fact that this zone participated in Classic Maya culture.

When the Spanish arrived in this area at the end of the Postclassic Period, Tila was a well-established Ch'ol community and the neighboring Tzeltal town of Petalcingo was subject to its rule (Josserand and Hopkins 1997). The pacification of the Ch'ol Maya living in the adjacent lowlands involved moving them into newly created towns such as the modern town of Palenque or forcing them to move to established communities such as Tila, Tumbala and Bachajon. This area has thus had a long occupation by Ch'ol-speaking Maya.

Go to page: The Maya frequently made and still make pilgrimages to locations both within their community and to sites well beyond its boundaries. For example, the cenote of Chich'en Itza and the Ix Chel shrine on Cozumel Island were famous for attracting pilgrims from across the Yucatan peninsula during the Postclassic Period. Jolja' Cave is one of three important caves that are sequentially visited by the contemporary Ch'ol Maya of the region during their rain and healing pilgrimages. The other two caves are Pa' Cave, situated on Don Juan Mountain directly west of Palenque, and the Señor de Tila cave containing the stalagmite idol of the famous Black Christ, located on the mountain to the west of Tila.

All three caves are thought by the Ch'ol Maya to be owned and inhabited by Don Juan, a supernatural who is in charge of winds, rains and wild animals (Josserand and Hopkins 1996, 1997). Although it is a physical impossibility, the Ch'ol Maya believe these three pilgrimage caves are connected by subterranean passageways. It is highly probable that Jolja' Cave was visited by pilgrims not only from the immediate vicinity but from Tortuguero, Palenque and Tonina as well.

These polities may have also been interested in the Tumbala region for other reasons. Although the highlands produced abundant commodities that contributed to its wealth, it was the exclusive supplier of the highly prized feathers of the quetzal bird. The long green tail feathers of the male quetzal were worn by the ruling elite to indicate their high status and their affiliation with the Corn God who is consistently shown wearing these plumes. The habitat of the quetzal is restricted to elevations from 1200-3000 meters (4,000-10,000 feet) that have dense, cloud forests. This habitat is reflected in the Ch'ol term for a high mountain which is k'uk' witz, "quetzal mountain".

During the mating season from March to June, quetzals migrate from the higher elevations of their domain to the lower slopes to breed. The male birds perform impressive aerial dives as part of their mating rituals. They also share in the incubation of the eggs, and in the process of entering and exiting the tree cavity their tail feathers are greatly diminished.

In the fall the birds molt, and by mating season the tail feathers are again in fine form. The Maya did not kill male quetzals for their feathers, rather they trapped them, removed their tail feathers and then released them. Given the annual cycle of the quetzal, it is clear that they trapped them during the mating season when the birds were at the lower elevations and in their prime. It is known from colonial documents that trapping rights were inherited and severe punishments were handed out to poachers.

The indigenous name for Tumbala is Quetzal Mountain, and one of the indigenous place names in the district of Tumbala translates as "powerful cacique of the feathers". Based on these facts, Audrey Korelstein (1988, 1989) has suggested that the Tumbala region may have been a quetzal trapping area. In addition to Misopa' Mountain, there are several mountains in the vicinity of Jolja' Cave with elevations suitable for quetzal habitat. For example, Bahuitz Mountain to the southwest has an elevation of 2,470 meters, while Sierra Anover in the southeast is 2,070 meters. Although the region no longer contains the dense lower forests necessary for the survival of the quetzal, it is quite possible that it had such habitats during the Classic Period.

There is a place name in the Palenque inscriptions that refers to a quetzal mountain and Korelstein has also suggested that this may be a reference to Tumbala. The latest translation of this place name is Yemal K'uk Witz which can be glossed as "descending quetzal mountain". We can only speculate where the Descending Quetzal Mountain of the Palenque inscriptions was located, but clearly the Palencanos and their relatives at Tortuguero had to have been interested in this important resource and would have made attempts to control it. This would have certainly brought them into conflict with Tonina, which controlled the central highlands and its quetzal trapping areas. Far from being a backwater, Jolja' Cave was in a zone of considerable consequence.


Alejos Garcia, Jose
1994 Mosojantel, Ethnografia del discurso agrarista entre los ch'oles de Chiapas. Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.

Aulie, Wilbur and Evelyn Aulie
1978 Diccionario ch'ol-espanol; espanol-ch'ol. Serie de Vocabularios y Diccionarios Indigenas Mariano Silva y Aceves, 21. Mexico

1991 From the Mouth of the Dark Cave. University of Oklahoma Press

1996 At the Edge of the World. University of Oklahoma Press

1998 The Maya Earth Goddess. Paper presented at the Sixteenth Maya Weekend. University of Pennsylvania Museum.

1999 Maya Corn Deities and the Male/Female Principal in Maya Mythology. Paper presented at the Tercera Mesa Redonda de Palenque.

Josserand, Kathryn and Nicholas Hopkins
1996 Chol Ritual Language. FAMSI Research Report.

1997 Tila, Chiapas: A Modern Maya Pilgrimage Center. Paper presented at the Fifteenth Annual Maya Weekend.

Korelstein, Audrey
1988 The Ethnoarchaeologist as Detective: the Case of Quetzal Mountain. Unpublished paper.

1989 In the Land of the Maya: Tradition and the Structuring of Space. Paper presented at 1989 AAA meetings.

Reise, Berthold
1981 Maya-Hohlenmalereien in Nord-Chiapas. Mexicon Vol. 3, No. 4:55-56.

Stone, Andrea
1995 Images from the Underworld. University of Texas Press

Stuart, David
1987 Ten phonetic syllables. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, 14. Washington D.C.: Center for Maya Research.

1999 Notebook for the 24th Maya Hieroglyphic Forum at Texas.

Thompson, Eric
1975 Introduction. In The Hill-Caves of Yucatan, by Henry C. Mercer, vii-xliv. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Arabelle Whittaker and Viola Warkentin
1965 Chol Texts on the Supernatural. Summer Institute of Linguistics Publication 13.

Zender, Marc
2000 Preliminary report. Jolja' Cave Project.

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