Changing Planet

Voyage to the Maya Underworld

Did you miss our Hangout with underwater archaeologist Guillermo de Anda? Watch it here!

Guillermo de Anda studies the ancient remains of people and animals in the countless caves winding beneath the Yucatan. Join us this Friday as he brings us along via a live video Hangout with Nat Geo on Google+.

2012 Emerging Explorer Guillermo de Anda, Underwater Archaeologist (Photo by Mark Thiessen/NGS)
2012 Emerging Explorer Guillermo de Anda, Underwater Archaeologist (Photo by Mark Thiessen/NGS)

While many archaeologists are quick to point out that doing real archaeology is a far cry from living an Indiana Jones movie, Guillermo can’t get away with such an academic toning-down of his adventures.

Most archaeology starts at the Earth’ surface and from there, people dig till they find something. For Guillermo and his colleagues, it’s a little more elaborate.

They start in the forests of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Hacking through vegetation, or sometimes simply pulling over to the side of the road, they then walk, jump, climb, or rapel into the sometimes vast, sometimes quite restrictive caverns below.

Step one complete. Next they look around for artifacts, wall art, structures, or other signs of ancient habitation by people or animals. Take notes. Then put on your mask and dive. These aren’t just caves, they’re centotes, filled with water.

Deep in these caverns Guillermo and his teams and others he has worked with have discovered incredible evidence of Mexico’s ancient past. Huge bones from Ice Age beasts. Skulls of victims from Maya sacrifices. Traces of humans in the area thousands of years before the Maya culture developed.

In a National Geographic News story from 2008, Guillermo discussed one of these discoveries:

According to Maya myth, the souls of the dead had to follow a dog with night vision on a horrific and watery path and endure myriad challenges before they could rest in the afterlife.

In one of the recently found caves, researchers discovered a nearly 300-foot (90-meter) concrete road that ends at a column standing in front of a body of water.

“We have this pattern now of finding temples close to the water—or under the water, in this most recent case,” said Guillermo de Anda, lead investigator at the research sites.

“These were probably made as part of a very elaborate ritual,” de Anda said. “Everything is related to death, life, and human sacrifice.”

 (Read Portal to Maya Underworld Found in Mexico?)


Then in 2011, non-archaeologist cave divers discovered human remains and brought in the experts. Guillermo put that in context for us in a Nat Geo New Watch blog post:

“The findings of Hoyo Negro are a once-in-a-lifetime discovery. The skull looks pre-Maya, which could make it one of the oldest set of human remains in the area. Gaining an understanding of how this human and these animals entered the site will reveal an immense amount of knowledge from that time.”

(Read Skull in Underwater Cave May Be Earliest Trace of First Americans)


Now you too can be part of Guillermo de Anda’s incredible archaeological explorations, along with geo-archaeologist Beverly Goodman and paleontologist Jørn Hurum. Join us LIVE Friday February 8, at 1pm EST here on this blog post, or on National Geographic on Google+. Post your questions for him below or on Twitter, Google+, or Youtube with the hashtag #LetsExplore.


Learn More

Guillermo de Anda Bio

National Geographic on Google+

Watch Previous National Geographic Hangouts

Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.
  • Perla and Sophia Serrato

    Hello, my name is Sophia and I am 9 years old. My question is “what has been one of your most favorite finds?” ” while you were exploring did you ever find anything unexpected?” You have a very interesting job!
    We look forward to your answers.

  • James Nichols

    What do we know about the people who inhabited the region before the Maya?

  • John Gomez

    Will you please publish your discoveries & find out how old are the bones you find?

  • Lester Ojeda

    Great news!! What are some of the toughest challenges ahead now, and what can anyone do to help you continue your work?

  • Caren El Chawa

    Greetings Mr. De Anda,

    I am an archaeologist from the American University of Beirut. I have two main questions regarding two research projects in mind. I seek your advice and would appreciate it if you may provide me with your e-mail address in order to discuss that.
    I thank you in advance.

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