Returning Maya Ancestors to Their Place of Origin

The Mayapán Taboo Cenote Project will undertake an extensive exploration of the underwater cave, Cenote Sac Uayum, to document 20+ submerged skeletons and artifacts. Team leader and National Geographic Grantee Bradley Russell will also investigate the modern belief that a supernatural power- a feathered serpent- guards the water within.

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With support from The Waitt Foundation for Exploration and The National Geographic Society, The Mayapán Taboo Cenote Project has concluded its first season of exploration at Cenote Sac Uayum, a sacred, water-bearing sinkhole located at the Postclassic Maya political capital of Mayapán, Yucatan, Mexico (1100-1450AD).

My co-directors, Eunice Uc (INAH Centro Yucatan) and Carlos Peraza Lope (INAH Centro Yucatan), and I have enlisted the help of diver Rait Kütt and diver/archaeologist Lisseth Pedroza Fuentes to explore and document the various ceramics and human remains that indicate use of the cenote by the area’s ancient inhabitants.

A well preserved ancient Maya skull designated “Evidence 25” was the first of five recorded in the second chamber of Cenote Sac Uayum.  Photo by Rait Kütt.
A well preserved ancient Maya skull designated “Evidence 25” was the first of five recorded in the second chamber of Cenote Sac Uayum. Photo by Rait Kütt.
The intentional flat deformation seen on the top of the skull is characteristic of many other examples found this season.  Photo by Rait Kütt.
The intentional flat deformation seen on the top of the skull is characteristic of many other examples found this season. Photo by Rait Kütt.

The work has already yielded significant new insights into the cenote that many here still believe is guarded by a large serpent, that some say has feathers and the head of a horse.

We have located 15 human crania and a large number of other bones, attesting to the use of the site as a burial location. Some of the remains are as delicate as small finger bones, sternums and a patella (knee cap). Indications are that there are many more bones located below the heavy silt that blankets much of the floor of the feature.

Bradley Russell rappels in through the main entrance to Cenote Sac Uayum to join Lisseth Pedroza Fuentes already in the water below. Photo by Rait Kütt.
Bradley Russell rappels in through the main entrance to Cenote Sac Uayum to join Lisseth Pedroza Fuentes already in the water below. Photo by Rait Kütt.
Lisseth Perdoza Fuentes (foreground) and Bradley Russell illuminate the deepest reaches of Cenote Sac Uayum’s main chamber.  Photo by Rait Kütt.
Lisseth Pedroza Fuentes (foreground) and Bradley Russell illuminate the deepest reaches of Cenote Sac Uayum’s main chamber. Photo by Rait Kütt.

Early data suggests that the site contains burials of both sexes and a range of ages from young adult and up. Ceramic fragments from water jars and a plate show a mix of Preclassic and Postclassic Maya use of the cenote. We have recovered a small sample of the bones (two femurs, a mandible and a tibia) that we will used to gain radiocarbon dates for the burials themselves.

Bradley Russell swims over and examines one of many ancient human skulls documented in this season’s fieldwork.  Photo by Rait Kütt.
Bradley Russell swims over and examines one of many ancient human skulls documented in this season’s fieldwork. Photo by Rait Kütt.

The Maya origin story contained in the Popul Vuh contains hints as to why these individuals may have been deposited in this watery environment.

In the tale, a god descends into a cavern to recover the bones of long dead ancestors which were used to bring the current race of man into existence at the beginning of the current cycle of creation. By placing the dead in this water filled cave, the living were returning them to their origin place to await the next cycle.

Archaeologist Bradley Russell examines a mandible later recovered for osteological analysis and radiocarbon dating.  The emerged third molar (wisdom tooth) and the light tooth wear indicate it belongs to a young adult.  Photo by Rait Kütt.
Archaeologist Bradley Russell examines a mandible later recovered for osteological analysis and radiocarbon dating. The emerged third molar (wisdom tooth) and the light tooth wear indicate it belongs to a young adult. Photo by Rait Kütt.
A Mama red water jar handle dating to the period of Mayapán’s occupation was found among collapsed stones and human bones in the cenote’s second chamber.  Ceramics, this one included, were collected as indirect evidence hinting at the date of the burials.  Photo by Rait Kütt.
A Mama red water jar handle dating to the period of Mayapán’s occupation was found among collapsed stones and human bones in the cenote’s second chamber. Ceramics, this one included, were collected as indirect evidence hinting at the date of the burials. Photo by Rait Kütt.

The majority of known burials from the site took place in and immediately around houses. These members of society were somehow different. As caves are homes of the gods in Maya belief, placement in a cenote may have denoted high social status as do burials in European cathedrals.

A dog skull was also found in the cenote, possibly deposited intentionally as dogs were believed to guide humans through the underworld.

“Evidence 27” was found in the second chamber of the cenote. It shows significant wear and decay of the teeth.  Photo by Rait Kütt.
“Evidence 27” was found in the second chamber of the cenote. It shows significant wear and decay of the teeth. Photo by Rait Kütt.

We were surprised and excited to find that the cenote’s main chamber is connected to a second even larger and deeper cavern that contained five of the best preserved skulls identified along with many other bones. While connected, submerged cave systems are common near the coast, they are virtually unheard of this far inland.

The human remains are found in and around a large pile of collapsed stone, suggesting that they may have migrated from the first chamber when a wall separating the chambers collapsed some time ago.

This human tibia sitting among collapsed stones and other bones was also collected for radiocarbon dating.  Its excellent condition make it a particularly good specimen for analysis and dating.  Photo by Rait Kütt.
This human tibia sitting among collapsed stones and other bones was also collected for radiocarbon dating. Its excellent condition make it a particularly good specimen for analysis and dating. Photo by Rait Kütt.

I would like to thank our funders and the members of our research team for their excellent work this season and for making these discoveries possible.

A cranium lies almost completely buried in the sediment of the cenote, hinting at the large number of remains and the wealth of data that are not yet visible.  Future work will be required to be certain of just how many burials the cenote contains. Photo by Rait Kütt.
A cranium lies almost completely buried in the sediment of the cenote, hinting at the large number of remains and the wealth of data that are not yet visible. Future work will be required to be certain of just how many burials the cenote contains. Photo by Rait Kütt.

Future posts will discuss more of the season’s fieldwork and the ongoing analysis of the finds made.

 

NEXTMapping the Watery Maya Underworld

Read All Bradley Russell’s Expedition Blog Posts

I am an archaeologist studying the ancient Maya culture. Since 2000 I have been working to expand our understanding of the Late Postclassic political capital of Mayapan, The city of thousands of structures was the dominant center of Maya civilization in the northern Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico for more than three hundred years (1100-1450AD) just prior to the arrival of Spaniards in the New World.

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