Hidden in Jade Jungles: The Ruins of Nim Li Punit

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When I was a kid, danger wasn’t understood, so flying was exciting for me then…

It was my first time flying in eight years, so I had to squeeze my husband Nestor’s hands during takeoff, and hold onto the seat for dear life as we landed. He was amused by my sweaty palms and groans of relief every time we touched the ground.

The jungle skyline of Nim Li Punit.

I never used to be so terrified of flying. When I was a kid, danger wasn’t understood, so flying was exciting for me then. Now, I worry about falling, crashing, the air pressure in the cabin, bursting into flames (I know; what?), and all other terrorizing misfortunes that are more likely to happen driving a car.

My original travel partner was my Grandma Shirley, who took me away from Brooklyn every year since I was thirteen. Our trips began with the Lincoln Memorial and Liberty Bell in Washington D.C., and ended with more elaborate trips to the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican and the Louvre in France (where, admittedly, I was so disappointed that the Mona Lisa was such a tiny painting).

Grandma Shirley passed around the same time I stopped flying. It was also around the same time that I graduated from college and entered the workforce with a 9 to 5 job that barely paid my rent.

I’m older now with a partner in crime (my husband), a little more money stashed up, and a reignited desire to travel despite my new flying anxiety.

Amatique Bay. We had to ride the water slowly since this area near the coast is home to manatees.

This fall, we took to the air, and then to the seas to visit the southern edge of Belize, a beautiful turquoise world between Mexico and Guatemala. My grandmother had once been there and said she enjoyed it, but preferred larger countries with “spectacular” sites.

Beautiful Golden Stream Village near Nim Li Punit.

Yet, I’d heard of the Belizean peoples’ friendliness, gorgeous greenery, and light blue waters loved by manatees. Nestor and I made our destination Nim Li Punit, a young archeology site enclosed in tropical forest. It lies near Golden Stream Village and north of Punta Gorda; the ruins are from the Maya Classic Period of pre-hispanic Mesoamerica. The civilization existed between 400 C.E. and 800 C.E.

Janaab Ohl K’inich wearing The Wing Jewel during an incense burning ceremony.

Nim Li Punit is Kekchi Maya for “Big Hat”, which represents the extravagant headdress of one of the ancient kings whose likeness was carved into one of the site’s 26 stelae. It was discovered in 1976, and over the years an assortment of jade relics, pottery, tombs, and stelae were found and analyzed.

Mayan pottery at the museum. As of my visit in November 2019, there is no description of its purpose.

The first excavations and site maps were made by Norman Hammond from the British Museum-Cambridge University, followed by Dr. Barbara McLeod from the University of Texas, who studied the stelae found at the ruins. By the 1990s, additional excavations were done by the Belize Department of Archeology supervised by Juan Luis Bonor and Dr. John Morris. More recently, in 2015, Dr. Geoffrey Braswell directed the Toledo Regional Interaction Project, which conducted studies and excavations of Nim Li Punit’s ancient tombs. As a result, the remains of approximately 12 people were found along with jade pendants, clay pottery, and tools.

Mayan pottery at the museum. As of my visit in November 2019, there is no description of its purpose.

Nim Li Punit is a modest sized excavation site that will impress based on the surviving artwork, tombs, ball courts, and lush jungle. It is not as well-known or preserved as Chichén Itzá, Coba, Ek’ Balam, Tikal, or Edzna, but it is situated in the middle of the rainforest and less burdened by tourism, lending it a serene atmosphere and breathtaking rainforest skyline.

Our tour group had two guides, Juanita and Alex, both of whom are of Mayan descent. They took us through three areas: the West Group, which may have been the entrance and is separated from the rest of the other groups, the South Group, which is where the Plaza of the Royal Tombs and Plaza of Stellae are located, and the East Group, which contains buildings that are theorized to function as an observatory and calendar. Dividing the South and East Groups is the Ball Court, a miniature stadium where a ceremonial game was played.

Map of Nim Li Punit

5,000 to 7,000 people are thought to have lived at Nim Li Punit along with a royal family that wore jade to emphasize their status. The site is thought to be a center for religious practice and political alliances with an emphasis on bloodletting and sacrifice.

Juanita showing us Structure 38

Juanita informed us that the stone structures of Nim Li Punit are shorter than the other well-known pyramids because organic resources such as wood and foliage were used as building materials. After centuries of age, the original structures are gone and overrun with flora.

Local Resurrection Fern that creeps along the trees. It is name so because it can survive long periods of droughts by curling its leaves. Even if the blades turn brown, a very small amount of water can restore the life and color of the leaves in just 24 hours.

I found the Ball Court to be the most fascinating of the buildings. They are made of two wall-like structures running parallel to each other with a center stage in the middle. The game that was played is called Pok-A-Tok and since this stadium was small, there were most likely only two people playing at a time. Either men or women played and the stakes were high with the loser succumbing to a bloodletting ceremony. Women players would have their tongues pierced for bleeding, but men might have had to suffer worse. Since there was no anesthesia back then, allspice was used to numb the pain.

The Ball Court were Pok-A-Tok was played.
These are the stairs in front of the Ball Court. The citizenry sat here during Pok-A-Tok games.

The ball game was played using a hard rubber ball that had to be shot through a hoop using any part of the body except for the hands and the feet. We do not know the rules, only that you did not want to be the loser. The royal family would be seated at the front, while the commoners sat on the stairs in the back. The game could last for weeks.

If the macabre is more your style, the three tombs may interest you. They run deep and are where human remains were found. Those found with jade trinkets signified that the buried were of royal status. Bodies buried with stalagmites signified that the deceased were commoners.

Sounds like something from The Legend of Zelda! But in all seriousness, this gemstone contains inscriptions about the ruler’s divine origins. It was worn by the king Janaab Ohl K’inich, and is seen on one of the stele.

The most impressive artifact found in one of the tombs is The Wind Jewel. It is the largest archeological emblem uncovered in Belize, and its purpose was to be worn by ancient kings during incense burning. The king had the vital role in bringing life and vitality to his region. This wind jewel in particular contains hieroglyphics describing the lineage of a ruler named Janaab Ohl K’inich and the importance of his station. It is supposed that his father was also an incense burner, and his mother Lady Ix Pitz … K’an Hix Balaw, was a divine figure from an allying nation. Unfortunately, Janaab Ohl K’inich did not live past 19 years old.

If you ever find yourself in Belize, grab a hearty pair of sneakers and some bug spray and feast your eyes on the sweet scented rainforest and Mayan history at Nim Li Punit.

REFERENCES

https://edition.channel5belize.com/archives/114378

Prager, Christian M.; Braswell, Geoffrey E. (28 November 2016). “Maya Politics and Ritual: An Important New Hieroglyphic Text on a Carved Jade from Belize”Ancient Mesoamerica

https://www.southernbelize.com/nimli.html

Layton, B. E.; Boyd, M. B.; Tripepi, M. S.; Bitonti, B. M.; Dollahon, M. N. R.; Balsamo, R. A. (2010), “Dehydration-induced expression of a 31-kDa dehydrin in Polypodium polypodioides (Polypodiaceae) may enable large, reversible deformation of cell walls”, American Journal of Botany97 (4): 535–44

University of FloridaFlorida Forest Trees: Gumbo-limbo (Bursera simaruba) Archived August 30, 2006, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 2007-SEP-16. Foster, Mercedes S. (2007): The potential of fruiting trees to enhance converted habitats for migrating birds in southern Mexico. Bird Conservation International17(1): 45-61. doi:10.1017/S0959270906000554PDF fulltext

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