Journey into the Unknown: Tulum's Enigmatic Cenote and the Ancient Inhabitants of America

July 25, 2024
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Journey into the Unknown: Tulum's Enigmatic Cenote and the Ancient Inhabitants of America

Journey into the Unknown: Tulum’s Enigmatic Cenote and the Ancient Inhabitants of America

Journey into the depths of Tulum's cenotes and unlock the secrets of the ancient Maya civilization. Immerse yourself in the world's largest underground river system and witness the stunning formations of stalagmites and stalactites.
Journey into the Unknown: Tulum's Enigmatic Cenote and the Ancient Inhabitants of America

Underneath Tulum, the two largest underground rivers in the world flow: Sac Actun and Ox Bel Ha. They form a system of water-filled caves that have shaped cenotes with narrow tunnels and enormous chambers surrounded by stalagmites and stalactites.

For the Maya people, cenotes were a portal to the underworld, a sacred place that served as an entrance to another earthly realm where the mysteries of Xibalbá were revealed. Four thousand years after the first signs of their civilization, archaeology confirms that the Maya were correct: cenotes are a unique window to the past. These sites, thanks to the chemical characteristics of the fresh water inside them, the absence of light and temperature, function as authentic portals that help us understand the ancient flora, fauna, and inhabitants of the Americas, as recorded in history.

Journey into the Unknown: Tulum's Enigmatic Cenote and the Ancient Inhabitants of America

With depths of over 60 meters, the underground caves of Sac Actun and Ox Bel Ha (measuring 307 and 235 kilometers in length, respectively) remain largely unexplored and accessible only to expert cave divers equipped with professional gear.

However, for the past 20 years, the INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History) has led various projects to uncover the mysteries hidden in the depths of these cenotes.

Naia and the First Inhabitants of Tulum

Journey into the Unknown: Tulum's Enigmatic Cenote and the Ancient Inhabitants of America

In 2007, the INAH made one of the most incredible archaeological discoveries in the Americas: the skull, teeth, and a significant portion of the skeleton of a teenage girl were found at a depth of 30 meters in a network of cenotes known as Hoyo Negro.

Naia (as she was named) is the best-preserved skeleton and one of the oldest in the Americas. She measured 1.50 meters in height, weighed around 50 kilograms, and was between 15 and 17 years old when she entered the cave of Hoyo Negro, which is now a cenote.

It is likely that she ventured into the cave in search of food or water, as the conditions 13,000 years ago were far from easy:

Journey into the Unknown: Tulum's Enigmatic Cenote and the Ancient Inhabitants of America

“The living conditions were highly threatening. Giant predators such as the American lion, saber-toothed tiger, and short-faced bear lurked, and the health conditions were more than precarious. Physical anthropology analyses reveal infections, fractures, and oral diseases, not to mention that childbirth represented a high-risk factor for women,” stated Carmen Rojas, researcher at the INAH Quintana Roo Center, during the conference “The First Inhabitants of Tulum.”

Naia and her family were a nomadic group who had to cover long distances in search of food and shelter. The most widely accepted theory is that, after entering the cave with a torch in hand, Naia slipped and accidentally fell to the bottom, losing her life as a result.

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Journey into the Unknown: Tulum's Enigmatic Cenote and the Ancient Inhabitants of America

Thanks to physical anthropology analyses, it was confirmed that Naia was a mother at some point in her life and belonged to a group that migrated 13,000 years ago and settled in Tulum.

Just like Naia, accidents were common in the caves of the Yucatan Peninsula. Other skeletons, such as Ixchel, a 30-year-old woman who died from cranial fractures, or the Grandfather of Muknal, a man between 45 and 50 years old and one of the oldest skeletons ever found, provide insight into how our ancestors lived.

Journey into the Unknown: Tulum's Enigmatic Cenote and the Ancient Inhabitants of America

The various skeletal remains found in the underground network of Tulum demonstrate morphological differences among them, hinting at a diverse origin. In most cases, the evidence connects them to Asians, confirming the peopling of America through migration from the Bering Strait. However, some also share similarities with prehistoric European men.

Among the discoveries made in these cenotes is a new species of giant sloths, now extinct jaguars, and saber-toothed tigers, all existing thousands of years before the Maya civilization flourished in the paradise that is present-day Tulum.

Journey into the Unknown: Tulum's Enigmatic Cenote and the Ancient Inhabitants of America

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