Anyone who has ever visited the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico would have noticed a distinctive feature of the area: there are almost no rivers and lakes. The karstic soil causes water to sink underground, forming caves called cenotes and underground waterways. Many of these are part of what is likely the largest continuous underwater cave system on Earth. The length of the systems in Quintana Roo that have already been explored by intrepid divers is approximately 1,085 km. And it can be estimated that this is only 10 % of what is there.
Many cenotes are half-filled with saltwater (below) and half with freshwater (above). Surprisingly, the waters do not mix but are separated by a kind of veil. They form a truly unique environment, which researchers refer to as the “Great River of the Maya”.
“For humans and animals, the Yucatan context has always meant that they had to search for water underground or use broken Cenotes as wells.“
As the water level used to be lower in past centuries, these caves are now flooded at a higher level than before. Prehistoric people, like animals, were able to access areas that are no longer reachable on foot today. They often had to traverse long distances through underground tunnels to reach water, which was no easy task in the darkness.
Occasionally, both animals and humans paid the ultimate price for their daring and thirst, as they became lost in the labyrinthine tunnels or fell into broken parts of the cave system, which formed huge caverns. To date, underwater archaeologists have discovered twelve human skeletons from early history in this area, along with prehistoric animals such as elephants.
It is truly amazing what can be gleaned from these fragile bone remains, which have been perfectly preserved by the water. Researchers examining the bones of a young girl, whom they named Naia, were able to discover that she had come from a distant location, had given birth, walked long distances, suffered from malnutrition in her youth, had never eaten fish (despite being found in a cave near the sea), and finally, that prehistoric hunters from 13,000 years ago in Yucatan are related to the modern-day Maya who still inhabit the region.
The Fuerte El Alto Museum in Campeche showcases Naia’s story, as well as the tale of a magnificent shipwreck on a reef. But that is another story for another time.
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