Wildlife & Wild Places

Video: Cenote Sac Uayum’s Inner Sanctum

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, my team and I were fortunate to spend several weeks documenting Cenote Sac Uayum at the ancient Maya city of Mayapán (1100-1450AD).  I have worked at the site since the summer of 2000 and have been fascinated by this large cenote for many years.  It is unusual as it appears to be an excellent water source in this otherwise arid region. But, it was intentionally excluded from the city proper by the site’s large defensive wall which diverts conspicuously to leave it segregated.  My previous work was confined to the surface. But, caves and sinkholes were/are especially important to the Maya as they are believed to be accesses to the underworld and homes of gods.

Sac Uayum remains sacred to this day and local residents both respect and fear it and the large feathered serpent said to guard it. In order to enter the cenote we hosted a traditional Maya Jeets’ Lu’um or “calming of the earth” ceremony to petition the gods and its guardian for permission to perform the work (Read more: Where Feathered Serpents Wait).

One of the biggest surprises and discoveries of this season’s fieldwork exploring the sacred cenote was finding that it was more than just a single sinkhole.  It is part of a connected system of underwater caves.  Connected underwater cavern systems are common near the coast. But, none has been documented in the area where we work.

We were amazed by the size and complexity of the enclosed cavern.  Every indication is that we were the first humans to ever enter the fully submerged space.

After several days of work in the main chamber which is open to the surface, we discovered a narrow passage that led to a much larger and deeper second chamber.  This cathedral like space was entirely closed, not yet having developed an opening to the surface like the first.  We were amazed by the size and complexity of the enclosed cavern.  Every indication is that we were the first humans to ever enter the fully submerged space.  Despite this, we were pleased to find that it contained a number of very well preserved ancient skeletal remains, including five intact skulls. (Read more: Returning Maya Ancestors to Their Place of Origin)

The presence of these remains inside the second chamber was a bit of a mystery, as it was impossible to enter the space without scuba gear and there did not seem to be any way that a body could have simply floated in.  The mystery was solved when we realized that the remains were confined to an area consisting of a large pile of collapsed stone extending underneath the first chamber.  It appears that in the distant past, the floor separating the chambers had given way and allowed stone, bones and some ceramics in to the space.

Please join us by way of this video as research diver Rait Kütt explores the chamber and performs the initial documentation of the remains within.

To learn more about Mayapán, please visit our project website hosted by the State University of New York at Albany’s Institute of Mesoamerican Studies:

http://www.albany.edu/ims/mayapan.html

 

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.
  • Vanessa Thompson

    The second skull, in the recording, has many teeth intact. Why? Is it not as old as the others?

    • Many of the skulls have quite a few teeth intact. This is not uncommon despite the age. We do not yet have definitive ages on these bones. But, indications from the associated ceramics suggest they are at least 600 years old. Perhaps quite a bit older. Those lacking teeth can have a variety of causes from tooth loss in life to impacts from falling rocks after deposition in the water.
      Thanks for asking.

    • Many of the skulls have quite a few teeth intact. This is not uncommon despite the age. We do not yet have definitive ages on these bones. But, indications from the associated ceramics suggest they are at least 600 years old. Perhaps quite a bit older. Those lacking teeth can have a variety of causes from tooth loss in life to impacts from falling rocks after deposition in the water.
      Thanks for asking.

  • Vanessa Thompson

    The second skull, in the recording, has many teeth intact. Why? Is it not as old as the others?

  • Amaru

    This is awesome! That must have been one heck of a journey to explore an underwater cave. The whole video is completely surreal. It’s one thing to try to imagine the environment by watching the video, but to actually be there must be absolutely stunning. Especially when you add in the history of the cave.

  • Amaru

    This is awesome! That must have been one heck of a journey to explore an underwater cave. The whole video is completely surreal. It’s one thing to try to imagine the environment by watching the video, but to actually be there must be absolutely stunning. Especially when you add in the history of the cave.

  • DANIEL

    They obviously were not the first humans to enter the cave…..maybe the first humans “alive” to enter it… lol

  • DANIEL

    They obviously were not the first humans to enter the cave…..maybe the first humans “alive” to enter it… lol

  • Ashesela K

    Absolutely fascinating!! 😀 Thank you for sharing this with us!! 😀

  • Ashesela K

    Absolutely fascinating!! 😀 Thank you for sharing this with us!! 😀

  • manoharan

    Amazing horror

  • manoharan

    Amazing horror

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