Centuries after their decline, the Maya are still yielding their secrets to the world. Each day, scientists work to uncover another piece of the puzzle behind this ancient civilization that dominated Mesoamerica for hundreds of years.
In the August issue of National Geographic, reporter Alma Guillermoprieto and photographers Paul Nicklen and Shaul Schwarz follow underwater archaeologists Guillermo de Anda and Arturo Montero into the depths of the sea as they try to gain insight into the ancient practices of the Maya in natural wells known as cenotes.
During the past couple of decades archaeologists have begun paying close attention to the role of caves, the zenith sun, and now—through de Anda—cenotes, in the beliefs and world vision of the ancient Maya of Yucatán. Archaeologists had known that the Maya regarded both caves and cenotes as mouths that opened into an otherworld inhabited by Chaak, the god of life-giving rain, but the consequences of this fact for architecture and city planning have only recently started to become clear.
In 2010 de Anda, who by then had dived in scores of cenotes, began exploring Holtún at the invitation of Rafael Cobos, a recognized archaeologist and project director who has been busy investigating and mapping the hundreds of ancient structures, promontories, and wells in the Chichén Itzá region. De Anda also had the cooperation of the National Institute of Anthropology and History. Examining the walls of the pool a few yards below the surface, he emerged from a small hollow and felt a protrusion above his head. He was astonished to find that this natural rock shelf held an offering of a human skull, pottery, the skull of a dog, deer bones, and a two-edged knife probably used for sacrifices, all neatly placed there centuries earlier. His headlamp, pointed straight down at the cenote’s depths, revealed broken columns, a carved anthropomorphic jaguar, and a figure similar to one of the little stone men at Chichén Itzá’s Temple of the Warriors, sculpted to look as if they were holding up the sky. This well in the middle of a cornfield was clearly a sacred site.
As Guillermoprieto notes, the civilization was incredibly advanced in language, astronomy, mathematics, art, and architecture, believing such practices to be sacred. De Anda and Montero theorize that the Maya used these caves as sundials and timekeepers, as well as in city planning and sacrificial ceremonies.
Read more about these ancient caves in the August issue of National Geographic.
Take a look at incredible photos from under the sea taken by Paul Nicklen and Shaul Schwarz. You can find the entire slideshow on the National Geographic website.
A diver explores a cenote near the Maya ruins of Tulum. (Paul Nicklen/National Geographic) http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/08/sacred-cenotes/nicklen-schwarz-photography
Boys from the village of Yaxuná cool off in a cenote, or limestone sinkhole. A 65-foot ladder lets them climb out after a dip. The statue is a local artist’s version of a trickster spirit from Maya folklore. The villagers put it there for the tourists they hope will stop by while visiting the area’s archaeological sites. (Shaul Schwarz/National Geographic) http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/08/sacred-cenotes/nicklen-schwarz-photography
Archaeologist Guillermo de Anda descends into the Holtún cenote minutes before the moment on July 19 when the sun is directly overhead. When that occurs, twice a year, light falls vertically into the water. De Anda believes the ancient Maya built a structure at the surface that caught the rays the same way. (Paul Nicklen/National Geographic) http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/08/sacred-cenotes/nicklen-schwarz-photography
Hovering above the offering shelf in the Holtún cenote, de Anda surveys a pile of bones. “This work is about millimeters,” says photographer Paul Nicklen. “You’re right above remains that haven’t been moved in centuries, so you have to have impeccable diving skills.” (Paul Nicklen/National Geographic) http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/08/sacred-cenotes/nicklen-schwarz-photography
A snorkeling tourist floats in a cenote called Las Calaveras—“the skulls”—near Tulum. Local Maya got their drinking water here until about 30 years ago, when divers found bones. Archaeologists have recorded the remains of more than a hundred people, usually shrouded by the water’s primordial darkness. (Paul Nicklen/National Geographic) http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/08/sacred-cenotes/nicklen-schwarz-photography
All images are from the August issue of National Geographic magazine. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/08/sacred-cenotes/guillermoprieto-text