Cenotes

Links for life in the Yucatan peninsula and Gates to the infraworld

"Cave with water tank" or "Abysm" is the general translation for the mayan Ts’ono’ot or D’zonot, later deformed by Spanish conquistadors to form the word "Cenote".


Cenotes are natural pits or sinkholes, created by  the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. In the Yucatán Peninsula, we have an estimated 6000 cenotes opening on roughly 1100 miles of underground rivers systems and dry cave systems.

Those surface connections to subterranean water bodies (or aquifers) can be large open water pools measuring tens or hundreds of meters in diameter, but for most of them, they are smaller sheltered sites and do not necessarily have any exposed water.

In many cases, cenotes reveal an underlying cave system, and the water flow rates may be a lot faster (6 miles/day). We could then talk about Cenotes as windows towards the underground world of the Yucatán península.

 

Génesis of the Cenotes and formation of the Yucatan Peninsula:

The Yucatan peninsula is a limestone platform which formation took place in shallow Cretaceous seas (roughly 150-65 million years ago). It has gradually emerged and had witnessed 2 million years of sea level variations during the last glaciations. The water level has gone up to 120m above the current level, which has been the same for about 5,000 years. During the Cretaceous (150-65 million years ago) to the Cenozoic-Quaternary (65 million years to current  time) rocks formed in reef and platform ammo.

The Yucatan block is the changing base layer or basin of the peninsula and formed during Paleozoic continental period (roughly 300 million years old).


Marking the end of the Cretaceous and the beginning of the Tertiary periods, 65 million years ago, an asteroid/meteorite reached the so called Chicxulub area (also Chicxulub crater and meteorite). With 9 miles of diameter and an unbelievable speed of 20km per second, the asteroid left a 200 km diameter crater. The city-size asteroid had the force of a million nuclear bombs and it is widely considered amongst scientist to be the principal cause that extinguished dinosaurs, ending a 160 million years old dominance on earth.

In fact, this extinction process wiped out more than half of all species on the planet, not only dinosaurs, but birdlike pterosaurs and large marine reptiles, clearing the way for mammals to become the dominant species on Earth. Including early humanoids, and therefore modern humans.
 

The force of the impact blasted material at high velocity into the atmosphere, triggering a chain of events that caused an extremely fast global winter that wipe out much life form from earth in few days.

If cenotes are found widely throughout a lot of the Yucatán Peninsula, we observe a high density of aligned Cenotes, organised around the rim of the Chicxulub Crater.

Typical process of construction :

 

We can differentiate 3 phases inside the chemical processes happening into the formation of the Cenotes :


Dissolution - the water present in the cave systems is charged with CO² because of its journey into the atmosphere and the substrate layers it had to go through to reach the limestone ground. We are talking about a calcium carbonate reaction, an acidification of the water. It creates two types of erosion, a vertical erosion with the filtration of the water through the limestone making its way to the underground, and an horizontal dissolution with the water carving constantly towards the Caribbean sea.

Collapse - Due to glaciations, the level of the sea drops down, leaving a cavity or cave filled with air behind. With the suppression of the water table that used to support the ceiling, some portions of the limestone roof collapsed, resulting in the formation of a cenote. At the end of the glacial period the sea level rises causing the water to flood the cave again. We are nowadays living into that period.

Construction - When, during the last ice age, we had (and still have) dry caves, cristalizations of precipitated minerals formed mainly stalactites, stalagmites and columns. Those formation are central as they allow stability of the ground, for the jungle ecosystem and our cities. They also provide strong foundations preventing the collapse of the limestone roof, and therefore maintain a large amount of air space in the caves ready to be filled by a precious vital liquid coming from the clouds, and yet already lacking in some part of the world.

Types of Cenotes :


SImple classification system for cenotes (based on morphometry,  by Hall, in 1936) :

  • Jug or Pit cenotes have a surface connection narrower than the diameter of the water body;

  • Cylinder cenotes are formed by strictly vertical walls;

  • Basin cenotes are those with shallow water basins;

  • Cave cenotes are those having a horizontal entrance with dry sections.


Water in the Cenotes :


The Great Mayan Aquifer is one of the only natural source of freshwater in the Yucatan peninsula and therefore holds a central importance in the survival and development of pretty much any significant living entity of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Cenote water is often very clear, as the water comes from rain water, filtered slowly by the limestone ground, and therefore contains very little suspended particulate matter. The groundwater flow rate within a cenote Is often extremely slow.

The fresh rain water filtered by the limestone roof floats on top of higher-density saline water, coming from the proximity of the sea coast. The whole aquifer is therefore an anchialine system, largely extended on land but connected to the Caribbean sea.

When a cenote, or the subsequent flooded cave, provides a deep enough access into the aquifer, the separation between fresh and saline water may be visible and Is called : "halocline". It means a sharp change in salt concentration over a small change in depth. Mixing of fresh and saline water results in kind of a blurry moving stripe created by refraction between the different densities of fresh and saline waters.

Cenotes and Caves, keys to Jungle and animal life in the Yucatan Peninsula :
Due to the lack of exterior fresh water source, vegetal and animal life in the Mayan jungle  directly depends on the huge volume of water stored in the large cave systems. Cenotes are the main acces leading to those aquifers and the true link for the survival and development of animal life. If large mammals, such as jaguars and pumas, can live into the Yucatan jungle it is because of the underground rivers. If the jungle is very dense and host a great variety of vegetal life, it is because of the underground rivers.

The caves and cenotes, when dry or half dry, give a very good maze like shelter for preys, shedding snakes, tarantulas, bats, and migratory birds such as the famous and legendary Motmot.

The jungle ecosystem depends and is in deep interaction with the caves and underground rivers ecosystem.

Prehistoric animals have been found, mostly by speleological divers, in sunken caves close to Tulum. Giant sloth, sabre tooth tigres, new species of ancient large felin associated with modern jaguars. The datation refers to more than 10,000 years ago, during the last years of the Pleistocene era ( 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago)

Humans have been using Cenotes and caves as well as aquifers systems in the Yucatan Peninsula since the late Pleistocene to early Holocene period roughly 13000 years ago. Prehistoric Humans have used the caves as shelter and safe storage places for food and sometimes as burials.Later we started to see organisation of early nomadic humans around some southern cenotes.

Cenotes and Mayan

The cenotes in Mayan culture since the pre-Hispanic Era have been a duality symbol, representing both life and death, of course it has been the substantial liquid in the caves that drove the Mayan to organized communities around Cenotes. So ancient Mayan cities settled nearby cenotes and the control of cenotes determined the strongness of the rulers in big Mayan cities.

It had a enormous social function. Caves constituted as well amazing shelters for Mayan in order to get away from spanish oppressors before, during and after the caste war.

They also have an advance mythology around the cenotes as they are considered to be the gates to Xibalba or sacred infraworld, one of the 3 worlds explaining reality according to Mayan cosmovision.

Life would start in the cenote, from where the sun would reborn again to light up every single new day on this planet. At the same time, cenotes would be the entrance to the world of the dead, darkness and diseases. A spiritual world below the jungle, the underground water and the caverns where the journey to Xibalbá would start.

 

As a consequence various ritual ceremonies were performed mostly around cenotes to honor divinites such as Chaac (the rain divinity reigning in the cenotes), Ah Puch (king of Xibalba & infraworld and death divinity)ask for protection to the guardians of the forest and caves (Aluxes) or even mark specific days often related to calendar transition like solstices or equinoxes. Those rituals were mostly related to significant agricultural/cosmic even, hence the belief Mayan had about the underworld being the cosmos in a nutshell. The caves are also symbolically paired up with the Jaguar representing the power inside the depth of the earth as well as the darkness of the universe.

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