The Cenotes of Yucatan: A Zoological and Hydrographic Survey

By A. S. Pearse | Go to book overview

THE CENOTES OF YUCATAN

INTRODUCTION

A. S. PEARSE

The Peninsula of Yucatan is a sheet of limestone rock which was raised out of the ocean in relatively recent geological times. It has very little soil above the porous bed rock, and the vegetation is therefore more or less xerophytic. Hennequen is the chief agricultural product, and sisal, the fiber derived from it, is the principal export from the northern part of the peninsula. Along the southern border, however, chicle, timber and other products grow. Rain forests also exist in certain districts. The natives of Yucatan with much effort, and by the continual use of new land for milpa farming, raise enough maize, vegetables and meat to support themselves. The country is very flat, the greatest elevation being less than 300 meters above sea-level. There are no rivers in Yucatan, but numerous cenotes, aguadas and caves exist. Along the coasts are extensive brackish cienagas. At the base of the peninsula, south of the city of Campeche, there are rivers; the most northern of these is the Rio Champoton.

The word cenote is Spanish, but derived from an older Maya word tzonot. It is somewhat loosely used in Yucatan to refer to various types of bodies of water contained in cavities in the limestone which makes up the flat plain that constitutes the Yucatan Peninsula. In the interior of the peninsula a typical cenote is a deep, well-like hole in which the water-level is some distance below the surface of the ground. Yucatecans distinguish aguadas, or shallow water-holes, and water- containing cavernas, or caves, from cenotes, but the three types grade into one another and, as said, there is a tendency to use cenote in a general way to include all limited, inland, fresh-water environments.

The cenotes, aguadas and water-containing cavernas in Yucatan are isolated aquatic habitats. Some at least have so existed for long periods of time and their fauna and flora are therefore of unusual biological interest, especially in connection with the relation of isolation to adaptation and evolution. Vague notions as to the characteristics and relationships of these bodies of water have been held. In Yucatan, cenotes are commonly spoken of as "underground rivers." Many people maintain that they grow saltier toward the sea and that they are all interconnected. One old Indian at Piste solemnly assured the writer that a horse lived in the village cenote, and had been seen several times by reliable observers.

The cenotes, aguadas and covernas have an added interest and romance because they, in centuries long gone by and up to the present time, have been important factors in making possible and shaping the unique civilization of the Maya. In Yucatan today where there is a village there is generally a cenote. The cavernas often contain hewn steps, masonry walls and fragments of ancient pottery. Because of the connection of such isolated environmental units with Mayan culture,

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