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Looters target Yucatán cenotes in hopes of finding ancient treasure

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
Archaeologists have found thousands of artifacts in the depths of Chichén Itzá’s sacred cenote, including pieces made of gold, jade and obsidian. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Mayan artifacts are being illegally extracted from the state’s cenotes at an alarming rate, warns Mexico’s anthropology and history institute, INAH. 

According to a recent report, the sacking of archaeological remains from cenotes and other bodies of water has become a serious issue, especially in sparsely populated southern Yucatán. 

“The problem is fueled by collectors willing to pay large amounts of money for artifacts,” said Elena Barbara Meinecke, INAH subdirectory for underwater archaeology. 

There is no precise count of how many cenotes exist in Yucatán, but even the most conservative estimates place the amount in the thousands. While it is impossible to know how many of these contain archaeological artifacts, new discoveries are still being made on a regular basis. 

Earlier: The U.S. returns ancient artifacts illegally smuggled out of Mexico

Given the large number of cenotes in Yucatán and a lack of resources to adequately explore and protect them all, archaeologists will often not publish their findings out of fear that they will tipoff looters. 

Cenotes in areas within or surrounding large Mayan centers are often filled with a great number of artifacts including ceramics, golden jewelry, obsidian tools, and human remains. 

In a recent find at the Sán Andres cenote, archaeologists recovered the remains of a rare ancient Mayan canoe that may shed new light on Mesoamerican shipbuilding techniques.

The illegal sale and smuggling of ancient artifacts around the world is big business, and by some estimates generates annual profits in the billions of dollars. 

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