Yucatán (peninsula, North America)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Yucatán (peninsula, North America)

Yucatán (yōōkətăn´), peninsula, c.70,000 sq mi (181,300 sq km), mostly in SE Mexico, separating the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico. It comprises the states of Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo, Mexico; the country of Belize; and part of Petén, Guatemala. Mérida, Campeche, and Cancún, Mexico and Belize City, Belize are the chief cities of Yucatán. The inhabitants are predominantly the modern descendants of the Maya.

The peninsula is largely a low, flat, limestone tableland rising to c.500 ft (150 m) in the south. To the north and west the plain continues as the Campeche Bank, stretching under shallow water c.150 mi (240 km) from the low, sandy shoreline. Along the NW coast are is the ancient, buried Chicxulub crater, an impact site associated with the mass extinction in which the dinosaurs died out. The eastern coast rises in low cliffs in the north and is indented by bays and paralleled by islands and cays in the south; Cozumel is the largest island. Short ranges of hills cross the peninsula at scattered intervals. The only rivers are those flowing E and NW from Petén.

Climate

In the northern half of the tableland, rainfall is light and is absorbed by the porous limestone. Water for people and livestock comes from underground rivers and wells (cenotes) from which it is often pumped by windmills, and from surface pools (aguadas). The land has tropical dry and rainy seasons, but generally in the north the climate is hot and dry, and in the south hot and humid. The peninsula is subject to hurricanes.

Economy

Most of the northern half, although covered with only a few inches of subsoil, is one of the most important henequen-raising regions of the world; the uncultivated area is under a dense growth of scrub, cactus, sapote wood, and mangrove thickets. Subsistence crops, tobacco, and cotton also are grown. Magnificent forests of tropical hardwoods in SW Campeche, Petén, and Belize provide the basis for a lumber industry. This area teems with tropical life, including the jaguar, the armadillo, the iguana, and the Yucatán turkey. Fishing is important along the Yucatán coast. Many of the peninsula's fine beaches and archaeological sites have been developed for tourism, which is a significant part of the peninsula's economy. By the early years of the 21st cent. resort development in Mexico on the peninsula's E coast was extensive, especially at Cancún and to its south along c.60-mi (100 km) stretch of beach popularly known as the Mayan Riviera. Yucatán also possesses large oil deposits, and Mexico in particular has developed a substantiael oil industry on the peninsula.

History

Centuries before the arrival of the Spanish, Yucatán was the seat of a great civilization (see Maya). Probably the first Europeans to arrive were the two survivors of a Spanish shipwreck (1511)—Gonzalo de Guerrero, who joined the Maya, and Gerónimo de Aguilar, who was rescued by Hernán Cortés in 1519 and became his interpreter. Later (1524–25) Cortés made an epic march across the base of the peninsula to Honduras. Francisco Fernández de córdoba had in 1517 already skirted the coast, and in the following year Juan de Grijalva had explored the same area. The battling with the Maya began in 1527 by Francisco de Montejo and continued until 1546, when his son, Francisco de Montejo the younger, crushed the revolt of a coalition of Mayan groups. Mayan resistance to Spanish (and later Mexican) rule perpetuated into the early 20th cent.

Bibliography

See F. F. Blom, The Conquest of Yucatan (1971); E. H. Moseley and E. D. Terry, ed., Yucatan: A World Apart (1980); G. D. Jones, Maya Resistance to Spanish Rule (1989).

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