Painted children’s handprints discovered in a cave on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico may provide insight into Maya coming-of-age rituals. According to a report by Reuters, the ancient handprints are thought to be over 1,200 years old.
The find is located in the Puuc region on the northern Yucatan Peninsula, close to the ancient Maya power centers of Uxmal and Chichen Itza. The cave sits 33 feet below a large ceiba tree, which is considered sacred to the Maya.
Black and red handprints—137 of them, to be precise—cover the walls inside the cave. Archaeologist Sergio Grosjean told Reuters that, based on their size, most of the prints were made by children around the age of puberty. He believes the coming-of-age ritual involved creating sets of distinct handprints, first in black, then in red. Each color indicates a different kind of symbolism. “They imprinted their hands on the walls in black … which symbolized death,” he said. “That didn’t mean they were going to be killed, but rather death from a ritual perspective.” Afterward, Grosjean continued, “these children imprinted their hands in red, which was a reference to war or life.”
Other artifacts in the cave include a carved face and six painted relief sculptures, all dating to between 800 and 1,000 C.E. This period was a time of transition, during which Maya culture thrived at sites like Uxmal—complex structures and pyramids were built, and there were major accomplishments in math and art. But this peak also represents the end of an era, marked by severe drought, a shift in power, and the sudden abandonment of large cities such as Uxmal.