A cenote at Chichén Itza in Quintana Roo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


The monumental pyramids and breathtaking temples of the ancient Maya culture in Mexico’s southeastern regions and Yucatan Peninsula have long dominated the interest and attention of archeologists from around the globe.

But while majestically imposing sites like Chichén Itza and Tulum have been studied by anthropologists and historians practically since the first European colonists set foot in the New World, the mysteries and treasures of the Mayan cenotes and subaquatic caves have been, until quite recently, essentially ignored by these academic scholars.

“It really wasn’t until the 1990s that any serious archeologists even began to investigate the cenotes,” explained archeologist Luis Alberto Martos López, about these mysterious water-filled sinkholes.

The cenote at Tza Itza in the Yucatan. Photo: Secretaría de Fomento Turístico de Yucatán

“Outside of cave scuba divers and the odd lone explorer such as Mayaist Edward Thompson, no one really paid attention to the cenotes or the importance that they played in pre-Columbian cultures.”

But in recent years, Martos said, anthropologists and historians have begun to examine both the significance of cenotes in Maya rituals and as a fundamental source of drinking water for the ancient civilization.

“Nearly every aspect of early Maya life revolved around the cenotes,” added Mesoamerican historian Carlos Javier González González.

“Most Maya villages were built around a cenote and they were a site where sacrifices and gifts were presented to the gods.”

González González went on to say that the Maya considered the cenotes and underwater caves to be portals to the supernatural world.

“They were a means for mortals to communicate with the immortal world and nature,” he said.

Ceramic pottery, obsidian carvings, animals, decapitated human craniums and even live women and children were offered up to the Maya deities through the cenotes in exchange for the gifts of rain and fertility, he said.

The cenotes were a crucial part of early Maya culture. Photo: Flickr

Although many of the items sacrificed to the cenotes eventually degraded, some of the gifts were preserved by the calcified waters and can still be seen through scuba exploration.

“Sadly, most of the pieces in the cenotes would disintegrate if they were brought out of the water,” Martos said.

“So the only way to view them is to see them in situ.”

He explained how the sinkholes were formed millions of years ago by sweet water percolating through a limestone bed of sunken plateaus.

The earliest human remnants from the Yucatan’s cenotes date from 11,600 years ago, which Martos said is believed to be the remnants of oldest women ever to be discovered in the Americas.

“She was found inside a submerged cave in Quintana Roo, in a fetal position,” he said.

“We have collected her cranium, but most of her skeleton is far too fragile to move.”

Many of the relics of the cenotes are too fragile to be removed, so the only way to see them is to scuba dive into the hidden wells. Photo: Pixabay

Other finding include a whole male skeleton believed to be 1,000 years old that has sharpened incisors, indicating that the practice of teeth filing goes back to early Maya culture.

Among the other items that have been recovered from the cenotes are numerous ceramic urns and stone carvings, huge incense-burners, animal-shaped vases and several earthen sculptures now partially covered with stalagmite formations, as well as masks made from shells.

Remnants of the Yucatan Caste War, including 129 petrified wooden rifles and a huge iron cannon, have also been recovered from a cenote in Valladolid.

“During the Caste War, the native Maya of the Yucatan hid their weapons inside the cenotes,” said Martos.

“These weapons show that the cenotes still played an important role in Yucatan history as recently as 1848.”

He also said that some rustic Maya communities today practice a combination of Christian and pre-Columbian rituals around the cenotes.

“There are more than 15,000 known cenotes in the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo,” Martos said.

“Most of these have not been explored. They still hold secrets of early Mexican history and a wonderful wealth of archeological and historical treasures that lie within their waters.”

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