By Priit J. Vesilind
Encircled by the strong arms and expectant faces of his team when he reached the surface, González sought out Carmen Rojas, the young archaeologist who was co-director of his research project, and handed her the tub. "Don't drop it," said González, a boyish 37-year-old with a stout heart and a perpetually quizzical look on his face. Rojas ignored the comment and carried the tub to the open-sided conservation lab behind the abandoned hacienda, where Alejandro Terrazas, a physical anthropologist, waited impatiently.
They removed the lid and looked inside. Terrazas slowly picked up the skull and cradled it in his hands. He smiled. It was hundreds of years old and darkened to the color of burled oak, but he could envision how flesh and skin had filled out the young man's Maya face, and how his dark eyes might have stared, if not smiled, back at him.
The man had been about 25, with a forehead that slanted radically back from the eye sockets because boards had been clamped around his malleable cranium when he was an infant, for fashion. He had died violently; the skull was cut, as if someone had hacked it with a knife.
Terrazas peered closely at the cut marks. "That looks like defleshing," he said, the process of removing the muscles from the top of the victim's head down the face.
Perhaps a human sacrifice. It was the first skull with signs of defleshing found in the clear depths of the 20 or so freshwater pools, or cenotes, explored in the past two years by the team from the Underwater Archaeology Area of Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Terrazas, himself a young man, with a thin black beard and the kind, moist eyes of an undertaker, betrayed no sense of horror. He gently placed the skull into its nest of wet cotton swaddling in the tub—a gesture you might see in a hospice.
"For the Maya the body was a vehicle for the journey to the afterlife," he said. "When a Maya priest made a sacrifice, he was operating in his special universe—helping that universe to continue. Good or bad aren't factors. I don't want to make moral determinations; I want to understand."
The INAH team was first led to the site by Wes Skiles, a bearded, broad-shouldered explorer and photographer from Florida, with crinkling eyes in which vulnerability and bravado tend to tussle. Skiles headed up a documentary team that joined the INAH scientists for a three-week expedition.
The expedition—part of an ongoing six-year survey to inventory all cenotes of scientific and cultural interest—was spurred by a sense of urgency. In recent years the cenotes and submerged caves that riddle the porous limestone of the Yucatán Peninsula, both Yucatán state and neighboring Quintana Roo, have been probed, explored, and sometimes damaged or looted by a growing number of sport divers. Along the coast known as the Maya Riviera, as many as 10,000 a year enter cenotes. The INAH archaeologists were eager to work with sport divers to document as many cenotes as possible before they were compromised further.
"Every time a sport diver moves something, we lose a piece of the puzzle," said Pilar Luna, director of underwater archaeology at INAH, who founded the discipline in Mexico almost three decades ago. Only in the past five years have archaeologists here acquired the necessary skills in cave diving to do a systematic survey of the cenotes. "We're finally getting wet," she said.
Camped among the ruins of a plantation in a thorny forest, the INAH team was hoping to learn more about the ancient Maya, who considered the cenotes sacred entrances to the underworld, and also about the fossil evidence and geology of the formations, which offer clues to the prehistory, and pre-Maya history, of the peninsula. Already the team had found evidence, in the form of carbon-dated ash, of a 10,200-year-old bonfire—the oldest recorded site of human occupation on the peninsula. The multidisciplinary team hoped to use its findings to produce scientific articles, a book, and a traveling exhibit. It also hoped to leave local communities better equipped to protect the sites.
The Maya civilization arose around 600 b.c. and dominated a vast area of what is today Central America and Mexico from the time of Christ to a.d. 900, when many of its city-states collapsed amid political upheaval. It produced sophisticated architecture and art and developed math and astronomy that rivaled that of the Arab and Hindu worlds.
Many Maya still live in the northern Yucatán Peninsula, a tough, hot, prickly country—a slab of limestone roughed over by tropical scrub forest. It has no rivers, no runoff. Rain percolates swiftly into the cenotes and flows to the sea unseen, through an underground labyrinth. It's like a still photograph, rather than a film: timeless, if not a bit stifling. Rivers have always provided a sense of motion, a narrative of beginnings and endings, travel and discovery. Without them the physical world stands still, drip-drying.
To ensure rain and sunlight, and to keep the subtle balance of nature, Maya priests appealed to Chac, the sustainer of life and the god of rain, who lived deep in the cenotes. (Pronounced suh-no-tays, the word comes from the Maya dzonot, meaning abyss.) When drought, war, or other dangers threatened, the Maya performed elaborate rituals and pierced their tongues and earlobes with stingray spines, collecting their blood on parchment for burned offerings. On occasion, a high priest would open a victim's chest with a stone knife and tear out a beating heart.
"Most rib fractures from accidents occur from the outside in," Terrazas said, examining a skeleton, "but ripping out the heart caused breaks from the inside out." He looked up from this horrendous technicality and offered, blandly, "This is a good indication of intentionality."
Such rib fractures would have been welcome news for the archaeological team, clearly signaling a sacrificial victim. None had been found, yet there was still the skull with signs of defleshing, another type of sacrifice.
"At first I didn't think we would find these kinds of sacrifices in rural cenotes," Terrazas said, "but now it seems I was wrong." He grinned. "It's wonderful to be wrong."
Many of the cenotes formed as a result of a city-size meteorite slamming into the region 65 million years ago, generating a global cataclysm. Giant waves inundated shorelines, and fine dust blotted out the sun and cast the world into darkness. Most scientists now accept that the meteorite helped trigger the K–T (Cretaceous–Tertiary) mass extinction, which included the dinosaurs.
Millions of years later fractures appeared in the limestone that overlaid the perimeter of the 110-mile-wide crater, leaving a ring of underground chambers that filled with rainwater. Over time, the limestone that covered the chambers eroded, thinned, and collapsed, exposing the waters and the complex of fractures as cenotes.
These ring cenotes, whose epicenter is near the village of Chicxulub on the mangrove-fringed north shore of the Yucatán, extend, remarkably, into the sea. At high tide the offshore caves expel fresh water, which bubbles at the surface. Local residents call these fountains ojos de agua, eyes of water.
For now the eyes of the underwater archaeologists were on the inland cenote that yielded the skull. While they camped around the entrance, the U.S. documentary team made its headquarters in a small village nearby. I joined the explorers, technicians, and biologists as they hung their hammocks in the village's 16th-century colonial church, on the plaza where the buildings flashed bold colors and music honked as a traveling carnival dismantled its carousels and popcorn stands. It was the week before Holy Week, two weeks before Easter. That first evening our host, the local padre, pulled his VW into the sanctuary and parked between the pews, as he always does, to guard the church. The night air was heavy with woodsmoke and henhouse smells. The sky outside throbbed with stars.
The village was in the selva espinosa, spiny forest, a region routinely cut since Maya times, and so ravaged by centuries of grazing animals that the only vegetation left protects itself with spines or needles. Yucatán had once thrived on henequen, or sisal, a spiky agave used to make rope fiber. Sisal peaked in the early 20th century, then collapsed, leaving grand haciendas abandoned and the economy destroyed.
The cenote the teams were exploring is one of about a hundred in the immediate area. At the top, it appears like a simple three-foot-square stone well, sitting in the courtyard of a vine-choked hacienda, where only a few cattle pens remain. An old man, Tenne Chuk Awum, arrives each morning on a bicycle to herd the cattle to pasture and to pump water from the cenote for their trough. But now the teams had formed a small town here, with roaring generators and air compressors for diving tanks, a dusty parking lot of 20 cars, and more than 250 crates and boxes of gear that weighed five tons.
Wes Skiles's team had lugged two remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), the size of microwave ovens, to the Yucatán to probe below the halocline, the boundary layer where lighter fresh water gives way to heavier salt water.
"I think we've been diving in the attic spaces of this system," said Tom Iliffe, a marine biologist from Texas A&M University who studies aquatic cave-dwelling animals. "Most of the structure of the cenotes is below what we can reach with scuba, which has a limit of about 200 feet deep. It's like the far side of the moon. No one knows what's down there."
Day after day the underwater archaeologists formed an ant-like parade as they descended in masks and black wet suits down the well shaft to silent, sunless waters where most creatures are blind and white. The goals were to map the cenote, locate artifacts, film them as they lay, label them with numbered tags for future studies, and bring up samples. Canoes and a rubber boat served as diving platforms on the water's surface. Nothing came easy in the cenote. Each diver took three light sources, and two of everything else: breathing tanks, regulators, masks. Some wrestled with cameras, lights, and video equipment, others with slates and pencils. In charge of all these logistics was the third co-director of the project, diving instructor Octavio del Río.
One day the sheer size of the electrical gear and lights blew the circuit breakers. None of the winches worked, and the batteries for the lights had drained like dishwater. The teams ended up hauling equipment and men by hand, like stevedores, up and down with a rope attached to a metal basket. They later settled for an old, muffler-challenged VW that belonged to one of the workers. The car became the winch.
But the system was hazardous. Once four 60-pound diving tanks broke loose from the lift and plummeted through the shaft, wiping out part of the lighting system laboriously laid just above the water. The tanks missed diver Scott Braunsroth by about a foot.
Pedro Tum Ortiz, one of the local men who'd been supplying muscle to the ropes, later confided, "Holy Week is a dangerous time to go to the cenotes. God is resting, and the waters will move. Sometimes you hear noises, cocks crowing, and jaguars. Once I went to a cenote with friends to bathe, and we had to grab on to the ladder so the water wouldn't suck us under."
On the third day it was my turn to test God's vigilance, letting the metal chair plop me down into the cool pond like a piece of bait. Treading water, I adjusted my eyes to the moonlight of the cave. The cenote was shaped like an old Chianti bottle—a narrow neck leading to a wide chamber about 90 feet across and 120 feet deep. The bottle was half full, the water surface 35 feet below the domed ceiling. Stalactites dripped, and the roots of trees were spread on the walls in delicate dark webbing. Spanish records tell how live victims were thrown into the sacred cenote at Chichén Itzá, a major Maya city, on the premise that, as sacrifices to the gods, they would not die—even though they were never seen again. I scanned the slick limestone walls, and my heart pounded, feeling their terror.
Sinking deeper into the white noise of pressure, I bottomed out at 50 feet and glided across piles of shattered limestone. A side cave, shaped like a sock, spun down and off to the west. Resting in the sand was a mahogany-hued skeleton, already tagged, the eye orbits of its skull bleak with expectations of eternity.
A few days later the INAH scientists brought him up. It was the first skeleton of its kind—with all its bones in their natural positions, undisturbed—ever found underwater in the Yucatán. He was a large man, perhaps 50 years old, well past the Maya life expectancy. "His health was bad," said Terrazas after examining the bones, "with arthritis so severe that he could barely flex his hands. He had terrible teeth problems — gingivitis — and he probably had a very hard time chewing."
He was lying face up on the sand. Was it an accident? "No," said Terrazas. "There are nine skeletons down there [eight are partial]. Maybe one is there from an accident, but not nine."
When the car winch pulled up the bones of the old man, the three women who had made quesadillas for us the previous night were standing by the well. I asked them what they thought of our mission.
"We didn't expect skeletons," said one, Olegaria Chiku. "For us, a cenote is just a hole with water. But my mother lived around here, and she said that we needed to give the cenote 15 virgins, and God would open up a road to bring in the gold that we know is down there."
Until the 1960s many people, including many archaeologists, thought virgins were the only individuals whose stories had ended in the cenotes. "We learned then that they were not all young girls," said Carmen Rojas, the underwater archaeologist who oversees data processing for the survey project. "And now we know that they were not all sacrifices."
The most striking evidence came one Saturday afternoon when Wes Skiles discovered what turned out to be one of the most important finds of the expedition. Only eight feet underwater, in a small hidden niche, was a full skeleton in a funerary position on its back, its knees up. In front of it were three ceramic pots of offerings, one containing the skull of a dog. The bones of a bird lay buried in the silt nearby. The Maya held both animals to be supernatural, often mixing their physical features in art and legend. They were to the Maya, as to the Aztec, potent symbols of death. The remains must have been deposited there when the water level was lower, said Rojas, by people swimming with the body, or using a boat.
"The condition of all the bodies we've found tells us that the Maya deposited their dead in cenotes in at least two ways," she said. "Some bodies were deposited with care, while others were thrown into the water."
The day the archaeologists brought up the skeleton, the old herder from town showed up wearing a white shirt, his Sunday best, and sat solemnly by the well. "I just wanted to watch my ancestors come home," he said.
There would be other ancestors. By the second week the INAH team members had charted the remains of 15 individuals. In the mornings they would huddle around a computer screen to review the finds. After everyone had weighed in, Rojas and González would select the items they wanted to bring to the surface for study.
"By bringing the conservation lab and specialists of many disciplines to the sites, we can make a diagnosis quickly," said González. "It has worked well. We will be analyzing our results for years to come."
The finds here in the countryside are much different from those at extravagant cities like Chichén Itzá and Dzibilchaltún, said Terrazas. "Here we don't have the rich deposits of gold and jade."
To explore the offshore half of the ring, Skiles's documentary team drove to the coast, hired a fishing boat, and motored up to a fearsome boil on the sea surface a quarter mile out, as the wind raked the water into whitecaps. The hole was expelling fresh water; low tide would reverse the flow. Veteran cave diver and biologist Tom Morris dived in with mask and fins. "It goes down into a small hole about the size of a manhole cover," he said when he surfaced. "It's gonna be a kick-butt flow."
We threw on our scuba gear and plunged in. Skiles and Morris forced themselves straight down into the cave, like swimming into a fire hose. I followed them, gripping the rocks, pulling through the blurry convergence zone of fresh and salt water, pumping furiously with my fins. A disk of brilliant blue shone at the bottom of the tunnel. It was Morris's lamp in the clear water, but it looked like the bright eye of the sea, as wondrous as anything Alice saw down the rabbit hole.
Soon after I caught up with them, Skiles and Morris disappeared, penetrating the two caves that led off from the bottom. I waited and waited and then returned to the boat. They were gone for two hours, under the sea, under the ground. I worried.
But they came back happy as puppies. Both fractures ran in line with the rim of the old crater, Skiles said, confirming that we were on the ring; one was reaching toward a spring in a mangrove swamp that we had already explored. They followed one for at least a thousand feet, wriggling through crevices so narrow that their face masks were dragging in the mud. Foot by gritty foot, pushing the limits of human ability, they were burrowing into the corpus of the ancient disaster site, a vast underground world that has defied examination.
"It's inhuman to lie comfortably in that scenario," Skiles said later. "Being under the sea bottom, one by one your senses are taken away from you. It's most people's worst nightmare. It's a tomb you're moving through, and if your brain switches over to think those thoughts, you become very dangerous. You end up making stupid and deadly mistakes."
The cenotes are true time capsules, and the Maya finds were only part of the yield. Debris and deposits have rained into the cenotes for centuries, and depth and darkness have protected them. The rise and fall of ice ages is written on their walls, and the fossilized bones of prehistoric animals are preserved in their sediment. The INAH team found fossils that are 10,000 to 20,000 years old—a camelid, a giant armadillo, an extinct horse. All are from the Pleistocene, a time when the Yucatán Peninsula was covered not with low forests but with dry grasslands.
It was Good Friday when we left the inland cenote and hauled all the gear to the front room of the church. A procession of villagers was re-creating the stations of the cross. Jesus was portrayed by a young man with a beard painted on his chin. "All my work involves the way human beings confront their death," Terrazas had said weeks before, "because it's a good indication of the way they have confronted their lives. We need this death in order to understand life. The key moment of Christianity is also a human sacrifice—the Crucifixion. I think we are touching on some delicate parts of the human being."
At the church, right by our equipment room, Jesus was raised up on the cross, his feet resting on a small platform. Mary mourned. And then, when the villagers had carried him away, there was a joyous rush for the cold rice-water drink, served every year on the corner of the church steps.
That night the padre's VW again sat, bug-eyed, between the pews. I hung my hammock in the hallway, between the damp walls, and suffered through the mosquitoes until the roosters crowed. The sun rose. It would set tonight. And it would rise again, confirming the Earth's capacity to amaze.