It’s incredible how the ancient Mayans of the Yucatan Peninsula left so many cities behind, yet today we know so little about the details of their centuries-old culture. Even modern-day Mayans can’t tell us much about the history behind the traditions they still hold.
This year, reporter Alma Guillermoprieto and photographers Shaul Schwarz and Paul Nicklen followed underwater archaeologists Arturo Montero and Guillermo de Anda on a journey into the depths of Yucatan cenotes for the August issue of National Geographic magazine, determined to see what they could discover about how the ancient Mayans used these natural springs in the peninsula’s limestone. Montero and de Anda theorize that the civilization utilized cenotes as a sundial and as a ceremonial center for city life.
De Anda has been exploring Holtún cenote since 2010, located near El Castillo pyramid at the famous Mayan city of Chichen Itza. His efforts have shown that the cenote may have been used as a sundial as the zenith sun shines into the depths of the well, and he also discovered a variety of ceremonial offerings and human bones within the waters of Holtún. If the sundial theory proves correct, it would appear that the four cenotes surrounding El Castillo were a deciding factor in the pyramid’s exact placement and the layout of the rest of Chichen Itza.
The National Geographic article goes on to mention how the ancient Mayans believed that the region’s cenotes were mouths opening up into the underworld, giving them huge ceremonial significance. Even today, many Mayans believe that Chaak, the Mayan god of rain and caves, pours down water from the skies from the earthenware jars stored in caves.
To read more about Alma Guillermoprieto’s National Geographic adventures with her crew in the Mayan lands of the Yucatan Peninsula, you can find the full article on National Geographic’s website. Meanwhile, here are a few of the photographer’s jaw-dropping cenote photographs to give you a taste of everything they explored. (See the full slideshow here.)