By Helena Lozano
MEXICO CITY – Deep in the Mexican jungle are flooded subterranean caverns once believed to be the homes of ancestral gods, which for more than 2,000 years have hidden the secrets of the Mayan cosmogony.
Of the approximately 8,000 “cenotes” – as they are known – registered on the coast of the Mexican Caribbean, only 200 have been explored due to the lack of qualified personnel and the danger involved, archaeologist Guillermo de Anda said in an interview with Efe.
Formed by collapsed cave roofs and limestone dissolved by the infiltration of rainwater, the cenotes signified for the Mayan civilization the gateway from the terrestrial world to Xibalba (the nether world) as well as the place where life was born.
“The cenotes have allowed us to decipher and understand Mayan religious thought, and with that, have made the unfathomable depths of their beliefs begin to make sense without losing the mystery surrounding them, and that for us is what makes all the effort of our work worthwhile,” De Anda said.
Underwater archaeology in Mexico has been practiced for 30 years, but it was only nine years ago that the Yucatan Autonomous University began training archaeologists in that field, and of the 60 students who have taken the course, “ridiculously” only six have specialized in studying and exploring the cenotes, De Anda said.
He said that Mexican institutions studying cenotes employ mapmakers and divers “who are outstanding in their profession” but are untrained in the techniques of researching these sites.
The underwater archaeologists climb down ropes into the cenotes.
De Anda said that when he dives for three long hours in complete darkness to the bottom of a cave, his best reward is to reach a body of water and find himself in a Mayan realm replete with offerings, handicrafts, constructions and remains.
Cenotes were for the Mayas the chief providers of Zuhuy Ha (sacred water), oracles, places for relaxation and healing, the homes of the gods and sites for sacrifices and offerings.
Of all those uses, sacrifices were considered the most important, the Mayas’ means of presenting the gift of blood to the gods in return for food, life, strength and virtues.
Among their gods, the Mayas regarded most highly Chaac, god of rain, divided by colors according to the four cardinal points: east (red), north (white), west (black), and south (yellow).
These represented the four points of the universe indicated by the great ceiba tree which issued from the cenotes and was rooted in the “depths of the nether world.” Westward was the road to Xibalba.
Franciscan friar Diego de Landa documented in his Maya chronicles that not just anyone could enter the cenotes, only “J men ob” (priests) and tribal elders were authorized to do so.
In the archaeological zone of Chichen Itza is the “Sacred Cenote,” considered the mother of these subterranean caverns because it is interconnected with the iconic temple of Kukulkan and because the greatest number of human bodies have been found there – 250 confirmed and another 500 not documented – the biggest collection of Mayan wood and ceramic objects anywhere and the largest amount of metals.
Also found there was the world’s most ancient vessel for making hot chocolate – almost 2,100 years old.
According to the book of Popol Vuh, the sun and the moon, represented by the Mayan twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque, die every day as they fall in the west, where they enter a cave and make their way through the nether world to be reborn victoriously the next day in the east.
“The cenotes were the cry of life, the gift of fertility and the road to resurrection, in which the supreme gift to the gods was life itself,” De Anda said. EFE