09:28 AM

Cave Man: Anthropology Professor Explores the Unknown in Belize

By Brian Hiro

Jon Spenard was stuck between a rock and a hard place – literally.

He had crawled on his hands and knees for a couple hundred feet through a pitch-dark tunnel in a cave in the jungles of Belize, with a headlamp illuminating his way. This was just the kind of exploration Spenard had signed up for when, as an archaeology major at a small private college in New Hampshire in 1998, he was invited to leave the Northeast for the first time in his life and join a field school in the Central American nation to research the ancient Maya.

And it was just the kind of adventure he had dreamed of since he was in sixth grade and was left awestruck by a documentary in social studies class about Maya civilization.

His dreams, however, didn’t include this inconvenient detail: At the end of the tunnel, the passage jutted upward, and Spenard had to contort his body around a couple of rocks as he tried to find space for his head to squeeze through. It marked something of a moment of truth, which meant that it was a really bad time for an aspiring cave archaeologist to discover that he was claustrophobic.

“I had an absolute panic attack,” Spenard said. “I remember saying for what felt like an eternity, ‘I can't do this, I can't do this.’ I had to make a decision. I've been waiting my entire life to be in a place like this. If I don't do it, I'm giving up on everything that I've ever known and wanted to be.”

Ultimately, desire triumphed over fear. Spenard wriggled his way through the small opening and was rewarded with the sight of Maya handprints a thousand years old on the cave wall above.

That foundational experience occurred 25 years ago, but in some respects, Spenard’s imagination never left that cave. Today, he’s an anthropology professor at Cal State San Marcos and one of the most accomplished cave archaeologists in the United States. His area of expertise remains Belize, which was populated by millions of Maya people during their heyday. He has conducted research in the country almost 20 times, several of them with CSUSM students and alumni in tow, and as recently as this summer.

In 2018, three years after he earned a Ph.D. from UC Riverside and two years after being hired by CSUSM, Spenard started the research program that still consumes his attention. Called the Rio Frio Regional Archaeological Project (or RiFRAP), it’s focused on investigating the pre-Colombian Maya of the Mountain Pine Ridge, a forest reserve in the Cayo District of central western Belize.

Spenard initially was drawn to the area by the Rio Frio caves, which are one of the top tourist attractions in the reserve but which hadn’t been properly surveyed by archaeologists since their discovery almost a century ago. There was a good reason for that, supposedly. The region is characterized by a series of upwellings of granite that produce poor soil, which would be unfavorable to the farming-rich culture of the Maya and would seem to indicate that they weren’t a major presence there, unlike in the rest of the nation.

By only the second year of RiFRAP, Spenard had proved that long-held theory to be incorrect and established the rocky nature reserve as a site of great archaeological significance. In June 2019, he was trying to relocate one of the more remote Rio Frio caves when he and his research team instead stumbled upon the remains of a pyramid and other vestiges of a lost Maya city deep in the jungle.

“I was speechless,” Spenard said. “Just completely overwhelmed with what I was seeing because there wasn’t supposed to be anything there, at least nothing as large. 

“The discovery doesn’t rewrite Maya history, but it has an impact on the way we understand archaeology, the big cities around Belize. Imagine we know about San Diego, we know about Escondido, we know about Oceanside. But everybody says, ‘Well, there’s nothing between Escondido and Oceanside.’ And then somebody discovers Vista, when for a hundred years the presence of Vista has been denied. That’s how I would describe it.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic that struck the following spring shut down Spenard’s field research for the next two years, but over a pair of trips since last summer, he and his team were able to do further examination of the site, which (as the first to report it to the Belize government) he was permitted to give a name: Nohoch Batsó. Now the original mission of RiFRAP – the Rio Frio caves and the rituals that were practiced within them – has expanded to a broader study of the many ways that Maya people interacted and lived in a landscape unique in the Maya lowlands.

In part because he works at a university where student success is primary and in part because he affirmed his own passion for archaeology during his college years, Spenard has long been dedicated to bringing students with him on his trips to Belize, hoping to light a spark in them. One of the students who went for the first time in January is Joe Gravino, an anthropology major who graduated this spring.

Gravino transferred to CSUSM in 2021 intending to study anthropology, but it wasn’t until last fall that he became interested in focusing specifically on archaeology, inspired by what he was learning in three classes taught by Spenard. It was through a course on Maya archaeology that he found out about the opportunity to accompany Spenard to Belize, which he jumped on with vigor.

“What intrigued me about it was getting to go with somebody who knows so much about the topic and who has spent so long making that his life’s work,” Gravino said. “It was super exciting for me to be part of something where he’s rewriting the textbooks on this region that he’s studying.

“I really didn’t see archaeology as a career that I wanted to pursue until I started taking Jon’s classes. And it’s gotten to where I could see myself in that field permanently.”

Spenard is one of only about 30 people in the world who have been granted an archaeological permit by the Belize government to work in the country, and he aspires one day to open a field school for students there. But the Rio Frio caves and Nohoch Batsó are in a remote location with little infrastructure, which makes Spenard’s work there especially challenging in terms of logistics.

Last year, the Office of Alumni Engagement organized a Cougar Crowdfunding campaign on Spenard’s behalf to raise money toward the renovation of a forest reserve cabin from the 1950s that would cut his Belize commute down from two hours to about 10 minutes. The campaign reached its $8,000 goal, but that amount is unlikely to cover the cost of the construction.

“I’d love to get a field school up and running, but that would require getting a lab built first so we can have a place to stay,” Spenard said. “My goal is to provide students with background knowledge of what goes into archaeology. Not just excavations and surveys, but what it takes to run a project – thinking about logistics and budgeting and these tangential skills that are vital to being a successful field researcher.”

Spenard grew up in New Jersey. His mother was a nurse, and his father was an athletic trainer for the local high school. As a kid, he remembers digging for dinosaur bones in a backyard garden. One day he found a bone that had been buried by the family dog, and his mom wasn’t about to spoil the joy that washed over her son’s face. 

“I ran inside and said, ‘Mom, I found one, I found one!’ ” he recounted. “I was like, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to dig in the ground and find stuff.’ ” 

The school documentary in sixth grade shifted his curiosity from paleontology to Maya archaeology. Not understanding that most colleges house archaeology under the umbrella of anthropology, Spenard combed the Eastern seaboard in search of schools that offered archaeology and found one in Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire.  

Through the lone archaeology professor at Franklin Pierce, Spenard connected with an adjunct faculty member at the University of New Hampshire who happened to be the interim director of the archaeological institute in Belize and operate a field school in the country.

“Two days after getting off the plane, I was in a tent in the jungle and spent the next couple of weeks there,” he said. “It turned out we were doing a cave archaeology project. And I’ve been doing it ever since.” 

Spenard returned to his home away from home in June. Besides doing further excavation of the city he discovered and named, he of course went back to the place where it all started – the primary Rio Frio cave, which is so vast that, as Spenard says, you could fit CSUSM’s Social and Behavioral Sciences building inside the main chamber and still have plenty of room left over.

With his team of students and alumni, Spenard will continue to explore every nook and cranny of the cave to unearth Maya artifacts (like ancient pots and jars) and try to advance his understanding of what the Maya people used the cave for and why. On a recent trip, for example, he reached the conclusion that the Maya made architectural modifications to the cave to heighten the dramatic effect of their theatrical rituals.

“Most archaeologists don’t want to work in caves,” Spenard said. “They’re really difficult environments. They're dark, they're humid, they require a lot of specialized training, people are claustrophobic. And working in caves isn’t something I ever set out to do, but they’re fascinating to me. I love exploring them and learning about them and learning how Maya used them.”

Media Contact

Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist

bhiro@csusm.edu | Office: 760-750-7306