The Yucatan Peninsula is a 300 km wide carbonate platform that extends northward from Central America and includes the Mexican states of Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo. It is bordered to the west and north by the Gulf of Mexico and to the east by the Caribbean Sea. Northern Yucatan is low and relatively flat with no surface rivers or streams. Rocks along the coast are of Pleistocene and Holocene age, while older Miocene and Eocene deposits are exposed farther inland.
Caves and karst features are common in nearly all parts of the Peninsula. The most notable karst feature is the cenote. Cenote is a term used by the Maya for any subterranean chamber that contains permanent water. While some cenotes are vertical, water-filled shafts, others are caves that contain pools and underwater passageways in their interior. These cenotes host a salinity stratified aquifer where a thin meteoric lens is separated from the underlying saline water by a well defined mixing zone. Some cenotes host a marked H 2 S layer due to bacterial or faecal pollution.
Cave exploration in the Yucatan may have begun by the Mayans as much as 3,000 years ago. The scarcity of surface water in the Yucatan has necessitated the use of cenotes and caves as primary water sources. Indeed, pottery shards, charcoal, torches, and artwork can be found in virtually all parts of the caves. Since caves and cenotes were the only source of water, and therefore essential to survival, they played a vital role in the life of the Maya. Caves were used as sources of drinking water, sources of "virgin" water for religious rites, burial and/or sacrificial sites, art galleries, places of refuge, and mines for clay or minerals.
The first popular accounts of the caves of the Yucatan date back to years 1839 and 1841 when John Lloyd Stephens, a North American traveller, diplomat and keen amateur archaeologist, and Frederick Catherwood, an English architect and draughtsman, visited the area. They published two books which have become the classic literature on ancient Maya cultures: Stephens (1841) and (1843), with magnificent illustrations by Catherwood. These extremely rare and highly sought after books have fortunately been reprinted in cheaper editions. [see bibliography]
These books were followed by Mercer (1895) who visited 29 caves and excavated 13 of them. This was followed by Thompson's monograph on the Cave of Loltun (1897), Gordon's Caverns of Copan (1898). After this spate of early reports, cave studies languished during the first half of the twentieth century until Thompson's paper on the role of caves in Mayan culture (1959). Since then a wealth of paper and books have been published on Mayan caves, see the bibliography in Mercer (2005) pp f-16 -f-23.
Text by Tony Oldham (2003). With kind permission.