Bones Abroad: What Lies Beneath the Surface of Mexico’s Cenotes

Written by: Katy Meyers Emery

Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie

If you’ve heard anything about the Ancient Maya, you’ve probably heard that they sacrificed humans. More specifically, that they sacrificed humans by dropping them into cenotes. A cenote is . The term comes from the Yucatec Mayan word dzonot or ts’onot, meaning ‘well’. Cenotes are natural sinkholes that result from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes the groundwater underneath it. Cenotes in the Yucatec Peninsula come in many shapes and sizes, from large open air sinkholes that appear like sunken lakes, to smaller water-filled caves that have limited access to open air. They are found all over this region, and if you are touring this area, you should take the time to see a few different types.

Chichen Itza's Sacred Cenote, taken by Josh Larios on Flickr

Chichen Itza’s Sacred Cenote, taken by Josh Larios on Flickr

Given the lack of available freshwater in this region of Mexico, cenotes were an important part of sustaining life for the Maya. Their cities and villages were constructed around these wells. Given the depth and cave like structures associated with cenotes, it isn’t surprising that the Mayan people came to associate them with passages to the afterlife. Due to this, the cenotes were more than a source of water, they were an important part of ritual behavior leading to exotic and precious items, along with human remains, being thrown into the murky depths of these waters. While it was known from carvings on rock temples and Spanish colonial texts that the cenote played an important ritual role and possibly led to human sacrifice, it wasn’t confirmed until 1904, when Edward Herbert Thomas, an American diplomat who owned the Chichén Itzá site, dredged the cenote located on site and found human remains at the bottom.

Anda Alanís (2007) examined the human remains found while dredging the sacred cenote at Chichén Itzá. There were 78 individual skulls available for study, and of these 43 were sub-adults, 23 are adult males or probable males, and 12 were adult females. In total, he estimated that the collection includes around 127 individuals based on the presence of lower leg bones found, however the actual number of individuals who were sacrificed to the cenote is probably much larger.  Many of the remains show signs of cultural modification- cut marks and evidence of sharp trauma that occurred around the time of death. Given the types and frequencies of skeletal remains found in the cenote, it is most likely that these individuals were deposited as whole bodies rather than parts.

Ethnohistorical records from the Spanish argue that the Ancient Mayan primarily used ritual heart extraction as the form of death for the victim, and after this they were deposited in the cenote, and that they would sacrifice individuals of any age or sex. While the skeletal remains examined by Anda Alanís (2007) support that there is a large range of individuals who were chosen for sacrifice, his evidence doesn’t show ritual heart extraction being the method of death. Skeletal evidence does show signs of dismemberment, treatment by fire, and post-mortem and peri-mortem violence suggesting complex and variable rituals for dispatching victims prior to their deposition in the cenote. This was an important act that was meant to appease the Maya rain god Chaac to provide rain for crops and plentiful supplies of water to the people.

Tips for Visiting Cenotes

Sadly, you cannot go swimming in the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, so if you want to experience one you will need to find another site. Initially it can be difficult to imagine why these sinkholes were so sacred, especially looking at Chichen Itza’s which is often covered by algae and not as picturesque. However, if you actually swim in one, you’ll begin to understand how important these sources of freshwater are, and how they inspire visions of the afterlife.

Entering the cenote who's name I cannot remember but it involved cave swimming and was amazing, taken by Katy Meyers Emery

Entering the cenote who’s name I cannot remember but it involved cave swimming and was amazing, taken by Katy Meyers Emery

On this last trip, I visited two cenotes that were open to the public and you could swim in. The first was the Cenote Hubiku, which is located within a broader tourist center and has a Tequila Museum and Tasting Center about a 100 feet away from it. This is a very very deep cenote, and is like swimming in a big pool. It is definitely tourist safe and an easy way to experience this. The second, and my personal favorite, was a smaller cave covered cenote where you were given flashlights to navigate the underground caverns. By far this one was cooler and I’d recommend it (if you’re not afraid of fish or bats), however I don’t know the exact name of it! It was near Tulum and was about 7km off the main road, but I didn’t ever see a specific name… anyone know it? Some others that are great are Cenote Zaci and Cenote Manati. If you plan on going, here are some tips.

  1. Bring bug spray and sunscreen- to get to these sometimes you need to hike through the jungle and bugs can be an issue. Some are open air, and if you’re snorkeling you want to make sure you sunscreen up to prevent your back from getting fried.
  2. Be prepared for the cold. If you go in the deeper cave like cenotes, the water can be quite cold. You’ll get used to it, but it is a shock coming from nice hot weather to a freezing cenote.
  3. Don’t be scared! The bats won’t attack, the fish won’t bite, you’ll likely have a life vest and tour guide, or some type of person overseeing the activity, so jump in and enjoy!

Works Cited

Anda Alanís, G. 2007. Sacrifice and Ritual Body Mutilation in Postclassical Maya Society: Taphonomy of the Human Remains from Chichén Itzá’s Cenote Sagrado. In New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society. Tiesler and Cucina, eds. Springer.

The following two tabs change content below.
Katy Meyers Emery
Katy is currently a graduate student studying mortuary archaeology at Michigan State University. Her academic interests are in mortuary and bioarchaeology, with a specific interest in connecting the physical remains to the mortuary context. Along with this, she is also interested in Digital Humanities, and the integration of technology into academia, as well as public archaeology and outreach.
Katy Meyers Emery

Latest posts by Katy Meyers Emery (see all)