Cave-dwelling skeleton of ‘Crystal Virgin’ remains a mystery

Actun Tunichil Muknal cave

Actun Tunichil Muknal cave

Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in Belize is home to a series of skeletons, including a calcite-encrusted skeleton it houses.

The crystals that coat the skeletons cause the bones to shine like jewels.

The remains are known as the Crystal Maiden, although the skeleton is actually believed to have belonged to a boy. It’s thought it was initially mistaken for a young female due to its smaller stature, but later work showed it to be a 17-year-old male.

Over the centuries, weathering in the limestone-rich cave has resulted in the bones becoming covered in calcite crystals.

The body is found on the floor in a strewn position with its arms and legs appearing to be flailing. That seemingly distressed position is no surprise when you appreciate the person was most likely killed as a sacrifice to the gods.

While the Crystal Maiden is undoubtedly the cave’s main character, plenty of other amazing discoveries have been found here. Along with numerous examples of ancient Maya pottery, at least 14 more human skeletons have been found in the cave.

It’s estimated that these relics were deposited in the cave over a thousand years ago, likely dating somewhere between 700 and 900 CE. This is generally known as the Preclassic Era when many of the distinctive elements of Mesoamerican civilization were just starting to emerge.

Getting into the cave nowadays is no small feat. It’s described as a maze of chambers and tight crevices that can only be reached by swimming through water and then wading for around a kilometer.

It is available for tourists to visit if they’re with an experienced guide, although this has caused some problems. In 2012, a tourist reportedly dropped their camera and fractured one of the skulls. Thankfully, the skull wasn’t badly damaged and archaeologists managed to repair the damage.

Unfortunately, the incident did result in cameras being banned from the cave unless visitors have special permission from the Institute of Archaeology Belize.

Speaking of crystalized dudes, there is also the Altamura man, another calcite-caked skeleton discovered in southern Italy that dates to between 128,000 and 187,000 years old. Unlike the Crystal Maiden, however, scientists believe this individual was in fact a Neanderthal.

Cover Photo:

As you can tell from the skeleton’s posture, this individual had an unpleasant death. Image credit: James Snyder via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Tom Hale IFL Science

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