National Geographic Emerging Explorer and underwater archaeologist Guillermo de Anda dives into remote, flooded caves and cenotes (sinkholes) in Mexico, searching for signs of the ancient Maya.
Guillermo de Anda
Not all Maya ruins are picturesque temples that rise
above the landscape and reach to the clouds. Some lie hundreds of feet
belowground in the watery depths of remote, flooded caves. Why did the
ancient Maya exert such incredible effort to build within these
dangerous, virtually inaccessible labyrinths? And how? Underwater
archaeologist Guillermo de Anda descends into the darkness laden with
ropes, scuba gear, and curiosity to tell their remarkable story.
thousands of caves and cenotes (sinkholes) lacing the Yucatán Peninsula
landscape, how does de Anda target prime sites to explore? He began by
diving into a 450-year-old book filled with testimony from the Spanish
Inquisition. Zealous to eradicate the Maya's religious practice of human
sacrifice, Spaniards interrogated and tortured Indians to elicit
locations of cenotes where ceremonies took place.
recorded names of villages and descriptions of priests going out of
their way to reach specific cenotes that held special religious
significance, places where people had worshiped for centuries," de Anda
reports. He was the very first to connect the dots between Inquisition
testimony, sacred texts, and mysterious remains discovered in caves. The
puzzle his detective work seeks to solve depends on his skills as an
archaeology scholar, an expert in human bones, and a high-level cave
"Exploring these caves is very demanding," he
admits. "The ancient Maya liked to make it hard; they searched for
extremely distant places. So we know the harder it is to get there, the
better our findings may be."
De Anda's team of four disappears
into caves for 12 or more hours at a time, draped with equipment,
hacking apart overgrown entrances, rappelling down 100-foot vertical
drops, diving into 200-foot pools, swimming horizontally along narrow
passageways, squeezing through tiny openings, dodging swarms of bats,
crawling on floors moving with snakes and scorpions, and never
forgetting how to find their way out.
"When we literally reach the
ends of the Earth, and find skeletons that match the age and sex of
victims described in Inquisition chronicles, it's all worth it," he
But bones are only the beginning. De Anda's arduous
explorations reveal construction projects that would be breathtaking
aboveground, yet were created by hand, belowground, hundreds and
thousands of years ago. Magnificent walled-off chambers with 50-foot
ceilings and carefully cleaned and flattened floors. Altars bearing
traces of burnt offerings. Secret doorways leading to submerged temples
and pyramids. A sculpture of an elaborate headdress atop a dignified
head. A mural dancing with jaguars and deer. And, most astonishing of
all, a massive, perfectly paved road stretching more than a hundred
yards into a watery abyss.
"Caves were considered thresholds to
the afterlife, the realm of the gods, powerful spaces filled with
important energy and supernatural forces," de Anda explains. "Since they
believed everything from fertility to rain originated in caves, the
Maya went to great lengths to stay on good terms with this fearsome
De Anda linked this set of beliefs with his own
discoveries to answer why such monumental building projects may populate
cave depths. Ancient sacred texts depict the legendary journey to the
afterlife as a perilous course strewn with steep canyons and terrifying
obstacles. In those legends, the path hits a crossroads and turns
sharply west, ending at a deadly underground body of water. In Maya
religious tradition, west signified the direction souls moved after
death. "The amazing road that we discovered and followed may have been
built to symbolically re-create and simulate the path to the afterlife
described in Maya mythology," he says. "It also took a sudden turn west,
continuing above and below water, through multiple chambers, before
vanishing into the cave's deepest lake."
How was a road built and
traveled upon if vast sections of it lay underwater? It wasn't, de Anda
asserts. "We believe it was built during a time of great drought, when
water levels were down. This may also indicate why the Maya went to such
monumental efforts. They were in such desperate need of water, they
took extreme measures to reach and worship the gods, offer sacrifices,
and appeal to them for rain."
The road would have been dry if the
water level had been just two or three feet lower. Subsequent rises in
water level submerged buildings and bones and became a perfect
preservative. De Anda credits the excellent condition of many artifacts
to the cenotes' deep freshwater environment, which is devoid of oxygen,
stays at a consistent temperature, and maintains almost total darkness.
in ancient climate concur that severe droughts in the ninth and tenth
centuries likely caused huge drops in water level, even sea level.
"These droughts match the age of remains and materials we found," de
Anda notes. "In one cenote, after diving horizontally for about 60 feet,
we came to a small niche at the end with a perfectly preserved ceramic
pot dating to the drought period. It didn't swim there, and these waters
have no currents. It was placed."
Other caves yielded sacrificial
knives, jade, human and dog skulls, and a stone inscribed with
hieroglyphics, all dating to the same years of drought. Recent
discoveries from a cenote at Mexico's famed archeological site Chichén
Itzá further confirm this theory. Just a few feet beneath the waterline,
the bones of six humans were found alongside carefully placed jade
beads, ceramic pots, and various animal bones. De Anda suggests that
"this was a ritual offering that may have served as a desperate attempt
to please the gods during a time of brutal drought."
For him, it
is definitive evidence that these extreme shifts in the water level
occurred. "This archaeological evidence of historically documented
changes in climate long ago may help analyze dramatic storms and
droughts happening today," he says. "The Maya, particularly those in the
northern lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula, were true survivors who
appreciated how dependent humans are on the natural world. This profound
respect for nature is a lesson we can all learn from them."
for a career that combines science and adventure, de Anda shares that
"the moment of discovery is thrilling, but it's also a huge
responsibility. My light may be shining on human remains or artifacts
for the first time in 2,000 years. I have the privilege to stand here
and the responsibility to translate it for the rest of the world."