Chichén Itzá’s Sacred Cenote

People migrated to the Yucatán Peninsula roughly 11,000 years ago. While ancient civilizations in the Middle East were able to develop along streams and alluvial rivers, the Yucatán Peninsula's geography is far different from the fertile crescent. Ancient civilizations in México, such as the Maya, developed with scarce water resources. A reason for water scarcity is because the Yucatán “Peninsula is formed of a porous limestone karst unable to support much surface water," explains Christopher Boyer.

Though water sources were scarce for the Maya, they did have a naturally occurring water source called a cenote. Richard Bloom defines a cenote as, "a natural occurring geographical sinkhole.” F. G. Hall describes four common shapes for these sinkholes: 1) Jug-shaped; 2) Vertical-walled; 3) Aguada-like; 4) Cave-like. Cenotes collect rainfall and ground water. The water is filtered by limestone. Cenotes were essentially natural occurring wells that supplied the Maya with clean water.

With a scarcity of water came the conceptualization of water being holy. The water within cenotes can be used for two things: a well for drinking water, or a holy landmark to hold ceremonies. Chichén Itzá is one of the archeological sites that has a ceremonial cenote. The site is located in the Yucatán Peninsula and dates back to the Pre-Classic Period (1500BC - 300AD). Archeologists know this particular cenote was used for ceremonial sacrifice because near the top is a small building where a priest lived.

Another indication that the cenote was wholly ceremonial is the site’s name. Chichén Itzá roughly translates to “the mouth of the well” of the Itzá people. At Chichén Itzá, the well was associated with a mouth. Mouths were visual depictions of a portal between the underworld, Xibalba, and the terrestrial world. In this case, the mouth of the cenote would be affiliated with Chaac, because of the rain god’s popularity in the region. Unfortunately, there are no other indications or artifacts left at Chichén Itzá to suggest the cenote is holy.

However, when archeology was developing into a new field of study, a new archeologist by the name of Edward H. Thompson attempted to empty Chichén Itzá’s cenote, so he could excavate it. On March 5, 1904, Thompson began dredging into the site’s ceremonial cenote. Thompson’s failed to empty the cenote because he did not know about the underground river. After Thompson arguably desecrated the holy cenote, he did manage to find artifacts; He found gold, jade ornaments, and a human skeleton. It’s unclear if the human skull was sacrificial. However, the gold and jade were extravagant, and to toss them at the bottom of a cenote suggests they were gifts to the gods.

Today, Chichén Itzá is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world. The cenote at the site is protected. While some cenotes are preserved at archaeological sites, other cenotes have developed their own tourism base.