The Geology and Archaeology of Sinkholes

Dzitnup Cenote - Valladolid Region, Yucatan, Mexico
Dzitnup Cenote, Valladolid Region, Yucatan, Mexico.

Adam Baker/Flickr/Creative Commons

A cenote (seh-NOH-tay) is the Maya term for a natural freshwater sinkhole, a geological feature found in the northern Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, and other similar landscapes throughout the world. There are no rivers in the Yucatán; the regular high rainfall (1,300 mm or about 50 inches of rain falls every year) simply trickles through its calcareous landscape. Once below ground, the water forms a thin layer of water called a lens aquifer. Those aquifers flow horizontally, carving sinuous underground caves, and when the ceilings of those caves collapse, sinkhole openings to the surface are created.

To be perfectly pedantic about it, the word 'cenote' is a Spanish transliteration of the Maya word dzono'ot or ts'onot, which translates to "water-filled cavity" or "natural well".

Classifying Your Cenote

Four general types of cenotes are defined in the geological literature:

  • Open cenote or doline: a cylindrical shape with a large mouth and steep vertical walls (cenotes cilindricos in Spanish)
  • Bottle-shaped or jug-shaped cenotes: a constricted mouth with a wider subsurface container (cenotes cántaro)
  • Aguada-like cenotes: shallow water basins, typically degraded from a bottle or open cenotes (cenotes aguadas)
  • Cavern cenotes: subterranean galleries with at least one cavity, access to which is a narrow opening that resembles a toad's mouth (grutas)

Uses of Cenotes

As the only natural source of freshwater, cenotes are and were essential resources to people living in the Yucatán. Prehistorically, some cenotes were exclusively domestic, reserved for drinking water; others were exclusively sacred with their locations kept secret. A few, like the Great Cenote at Chichén Itzá, were sacred sites that served a number of religious purposes, including but not exclusively ritual sacrifice.

To the ancient Maya, cenotes were passageways to the underground world of Xibalba. They were often also associated with the rain god Chaac, and sometimes said to be his dwelling place. Settlements grew up around many cenotes, and they were often part of or directly connected to the most important monumental architecture of the Maya capitals.

Today cenotes are often fitted with an electric well, to allow people to easily draw water to the surface, which is then used for cultivation, agriculture or livestock. Field houses are built near them to support farming activities; shrines and masonry chapels are often found nearby. Some have developed complex water control features, tanks, and troughs. Alexander (2012) reports that cenotes are intimately tied to specific family groups, and often are the subject of ownership disputes over such issues as conservation and preservation.

Yucatán Peninsula Cenotes

Cenote formation in the Yucatán dates back several millions of years when the Yucatán Peninsula was still below sea level. A prominent ring of cenotes results from the Chicxulub asteroid impact of 65 million years ago. The Chicxulub asteroid impact is often credited at least partly with killing off the dinosaurs. The impact crater is 180 kilometers (111 miles) in diameter and 30 meters (88 feet) deep, and along its outer limits is a ring of limestone karst deposits into which are eroded jug-shaped and vertical-walled cenotes.

The Holbox-Xel-Ha fracture system in the northeastern coast of the Yucatán captures water from the east of the peninsula and feeding underground rivers and creating cavern and Aguada cenotes.

Cenotes are still being created today: the most recent was July 2010, when a cave roof collapse in Campeche state created a 13 m (43 ft) wide, 40 m (131 ft) deep hole subsequently named el Hoyo de Chencoh.

Non-Maya Cenotes

Sinkholes are not exclusive to Mexico, of course, they are found throughout the world. Sinkholes are associated with legends on Malta (the legendary Maqluba collapse is thought to have occurred in the 14th century AD); and Lewis Carroll's Alice falling into Wonderland is thought to have been inspired by the sinkholes in Ripon, North Yorkshire.

Sinkholes which are tourist attractions include

  • North AmericaBottomless Lakes State Park and Bitter Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico; Leon Sinks in Florida; the submarine Great Blue Hole (Caribbean Sea); Ik Kil cenote in the Yucatan peninsula is a big draw to cliff divers.
  • Europe: Lagunas de Canada del Hoyo (Spain), Modro Jezero (Red Lake) in Croatia; and Il-Majjistral Nature and History Park in Malta. 

Recent Cenote Research

One is Rani Alexander's (2012) article about the changes in farming practices in the Yucatán during the historical period, including the changing roles of cenotes. Traci Ardren's paper on child sacrifice highlights the Maya mythology of the Great Cenote of Chichen Itza; Little Salt Spring (Clausen 1979) is a cenote in southwest Florida, where Paleoindian and Archaic use has been established. Charlotte de Hoogd's MA on Chichen Itza's sacred well is worth a look.

Some recent papers such as Munro and Zurita describe concerns about the worldwide protection and conservation efforts to counter increasing pressure from intensive tourist development, urban expansion and the non-indigenous use of the cenotes, particularly in the Yucatan, where pollution threatens to destroy the peninsula's only potable water source.


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de Hoogd C. 2013. Diving the Maya World: Reassessing old excavations with new techniques: a case study on the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza. Leiden: University of Leiden.

Frontana-Uribe SC, and Solis-Weiss V. 2011. First records of polychaetous annelids from Cenote Aerolito (sinkhole and anchialine cave) in Cozumel Island, Mexico. Journal of Cave and Karst Studies 73(1):1-10.

Lucero LJ, and Kinkella A. 2015. Pilgrimage to the Edge of the Watery Underworld: an Ancient Maya Water Temple at Cara Blanca, Belize. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 25(01):163-185.

Munro PG, and Zurita MdLM. 2011. The Role of Cenotes in the Social History of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. Environment and History 17(4):583-612. doi: 10.3197/096734011x13150366551616

Wollwage L, Fedick S, Sedov S, and Solleiro-Rebolledo E. 2012. The Deposition and Chronology of Cenote T’isil: A Multiproxy Study of Human/Environment Interaction in the Northern Maya Lowlands of Southeast Mexico. Geoarchaeology 27(5):441-456.