Chichén Itzá, Yucatán — Archaeologists this month begin excavating a secret tunnel thought to lead beneath a pyramid built by the ancient Maya.
The tunnel was sealed off centuries ago by the Maya, but archaeologists plan to clear it to reach a hidden cenote.
“For Mayans, cenotes were the entrance to the underworld,” says Guillermo de Anda, an underwater archaeologist who is leading the team from the Great Mayan Aquifer Project.
Before the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, the Maya people were one of the world’s great civilizations, and Chichen Itza is one of their most impressive achievements. Spread out over four square miles, it was built around the fifth and sixth centuries but mostly abandoned by the time of the Spanish conquest.
Towering over the ruins is a four-sided pyramid, El Castillo — a temple to the feathered snake god Kukulcan.
Chichén Itzá has four visible cenotes, but two years ago, Mexican scientist Rene Chavez Segura determined that there is a another one under El Castillo.
Now, De Anda’s team — which last month discovered the world’s largest flooded cave — is on the verge of reaching it.
In November, they explored two underground passageways leading from a smaller pyramid at Chichen Itza, known as the Ossuary. They had hoped the passageways would lead beneath El Castillo, but discovered the Maya had intentionally sealed them off with piles of stone.
“The Maya blocked things a lot,” said de Anda. “In a cave that’s important they seal it forever.”
De Anda, a researcher with Mexico’s Institute of Anthropology, believes the excavation will take around three months to complete. The team is returning to the tunnels with the aim of clearing them enough to find an entrance to the cenote under El Castillo.
There are known cenotes directly to the north, east, south and west of El Castillo, which de Anda says indicates the settlement pattern is directly related to the natural sacred geography.
He believes the cenote under El Castillo could represent a fifth direction — the center of the world, which the Maya depicted as the Tree of Life. And it may yield more clues about Mayan beliefs.
‘A message to the water gods’
De Anda says there is still much to learn about the role of human sacrifice in Mayan life.
He has previously analyzed the bones of human sacrifices found in Chichen Itza’s Sacred Cenote and discovered that around 80 percent of the victims were children between the ages of 3 and 11.
“Sometimes it’s hard to understand why they sacrificed children but we have to stop and think about the health status of those children,” he says. “They were a very low stratum of society, maybe children stolen from other communities for sacrifice.”
De Anda says that analysis of the children’s skulls, bones and teeth has revealed that they were in poor health, showing signs of anemia and malnutrition.
“There’s a possibility they were already dead when they were deposited in the cenote, and maybe they honored them by putting them there, or maybe they were trying to send their spirit to send a message to the water gods.”
But he admits, “to get to the truth we still need to do a lot of research.”