Water World

Water World

Cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula may have had spiritual importance to the ancient Maya.


6 - 12+


Anthropology, Chemistry, Geology, Engineering, Social Studies, World History

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Located in Belize’s lowlands are 23 freshwater pools that look like jewels embedded in the region’s lush jungle.

When Dr. Lisa J. Lucero was shown the pools in 1997, her mind swirled with questions. Maybe the most perplexing: Why haven’t any major Maya settlements been found here in Cara Blanca, which appears to be ideal for human habitation?

“Here is Cara Blanca, which has decent soils nearby and year-round water, yet not a lot of settlement,” says Lucero, an associate professor of anthropology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In April and May 2010, Lucero and a team of divers led by Dr. Patricia Beddows of Northwestern University started an expedition to determine why Cara Blanca was not settled by the Maya.

Places of Pilgrimage

Maya civilization was based in southern Mexico and northern Central America from 600 BCE to 900 CE. Lucero is an expert in Maya civilization and has written books on Maya history and use of water resources.

Lucero has a theory on why the jungle at Cara Blanca is not littered with Maya ruins. While there are no major settlements in the region, Cara Blanca is notable for pockets of cenotes, which are large sinkholes filled with groundwater.

“We think it may be not only a sacred place but a place for pilgrimage,” she says.

Lucero thinks the presence of a few Maya ceremonial structures near the pools might mean the area was of particular importance to the ancient civilization. In Maya society, water bodies and caves are considered portals to Xibalba , the underworld.

Next to a cenote that Lucero calls Pool 1 is a ceremonial structure that she thinks may have been either a platform for offerings or a structure that held ritual paraphernalia. Equidistant between Pool 1 and Pool 2 is a sweat bath. Sweat baths were used for ritual purification and birthing within Maya culture.

Beddows and the other divers donned scuba gear to explore Pool 1, Pool 2, and Pool 16, a smaller body of water that was chosen for its uniquely blue water.

Pool 16 “was very interesting to Dr. Patricia Beddows, because of this color,” Lucero says. “She’s been freshwater diving all over, and she’s never seen this color blue. She says that it might be due to chemical makeup or where the water is coming from. It might also relate to various explanations for why people did not live there.”

Though Lucero is not a diver, she agrees that the water in Pool 16 is striking. “It’s like a dark teal,” she says. “It’s exquisite.”

Diving Deep

Far below the water's surface, Beddows discovered what may be the source of the pool's unique color. A freshwater spring bubbles up from the bottom of the pool. The water from the spring, Beddows says, "is actually distinct from the water in the pool."

Cara Blanca's cenotes, divers discovered, are larger than they appear. In fact, they form the largest underwater cave system in Belize. Besides underwater springs, divers discovered vegetation and huge walls of crystal lining the walls of the cenotes.

They also discovered a fossil bed, 30 feet below the surface of the water. Divers found bones and tusks from huge animals. Scientists will now work to uncover the age of these fossils. Lucero says dating the remains will help determine whether the animals coexisted with humans. People lived in the area 30,000 years ago. These animals, which may be mammoths or saber-tooth cats, could have been hunted by early humans. The Cara Blanca fossils could be even older than that—they could be dinosaurs from millions of years ago.

Future Expeditions

On future expeditions, Lucero thinks divers might find Maya offerings at the bottoms of Pool 1 and Pool 2. The submerged objects could include animal remains, food, or flowers. The dive team could even discover ceramic vessels, she says.

Vessels or ceramic sherds could further bolster Lucero's claim that Cara Blanca was a sacred place to the Maya people. The discovery would mean the Maya were probably collecting water from the pools to use in ceremonies. If ceramics are found from different regions, that could show Cara Blanca was a pilgrimage site to which Maya people from hundreds of miles away traveled.

When asked what would have to be found to prove that Cara Blanca was a sacred place for the Maya, Lucero is quick with a response.

“Any artifacts that are in the pool,” she says.

“We just don't know,” she says. “This is what pure exploration is all about.”

Fast Fact

Name Game
Cara Blanca means "white face." This region in Belize is named for the steep, white limestone walls above the area's cenotes.

Media Credits

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Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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