Understanding Ancient Maya Storage Systems

El Chultun, Maya ruins, Kabah, Yucatan, Mexico
El Chultun, Maya ruins, Kabah, Yucatan, Mexico.

Witold Skrypczak / Getty Images

A chultun (plural chultuns or chultunes, chultunob in Mayan) is a bottle-shaped cavity, excavated by the ancient Maya into the soft limestone bedrock typical of the Maya area in the Yucatan peninsula. Archaeologists and historians report that chultuns were used for storage purposes, for rainwater or other things, and after abandonment for trash and sometimes even burials.

Chultuns were early noted by westerners like Bishop Diego de Landa, who in his “Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan” (On the Things of Yucatan) describes how the Yucatec Maya dug deep wells near their houses and used them to store rainwater. Later explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood speculated during their trip in Yucatan about the purpose of such cavities and were told by local people that these were used to collect rainwater during the rainy season.

The word chultun probably comes from the combination of two Yucatec Mayan words which mean rainwater and stone (chulub and tun). Another possibility, suggested by archaeologist Dennis E. Puleston, is that the term comes from the word for clean (tsul) and stone (tun). In modern Yucatecan Maya language, the term refers to a hole in the ground that is wet or holds water.

Bottle-Shaped Chultuns

Most of the chultuns in the northern Yucatán peninsula were large and bottle-shaped, a narrow neck and a wider, cylindrical body extending as much as 6 meters (20 feet) into the ground. These chultuns are usually located near residences, and their internal walls often have a thick layer of plaster to make them waterproof. A smaller plastered hole provided access to the interior subterranean chamber.

Bottle-shaped chultuns were almost certainly used for water storage: in this part of the Yucatan, natural water sources called cenotes are absent. Ethnographic records (Matheny) illustrate that some modern bottle-shaped chultuns were built for just that purpose. Some ancient chultuns have huge capacities, ranging from 7 to 50 cubic meters (250-1765 cubic feet) of volume, capable of holding between 70,000-500,000 liters (16,000-110,000 gallons) of water.

Shoe-Shaped Chultuns

Shoe-shaped chultuns are found in the Maya lowlands of southern and eastern Yucatan, most dating to late Preclassic or Classic periods. Shoe-shaped chultuns have a cylindrical main shaft but also with a lateral chamber that extends out like the foot part of a boot.

These are smaller than the bottle-shaped ones, only about 2 m (6 ft) deep, and they are typically unlined. They are dug into slightly elevated limestone bedrock and some have low stone walls built around the opening. Some of these have been found with tight-fitting lids. The construction seems to be intended not to keep water in but rather to keep water out; some of the lateral niches are large enough to hold large ceramic vessels.

Purpose of the Shoe-Shaped Chultun

The function of the shoe-shaped chultuns has been debated among archaeologists for some decades. Puleston suggested they were for food storage. Experiments on this use were carried out in the late 1970s, around the site of Tikal, where many shoe-shaped chultuns had been noted. Archaeologists dug chultuns using Maya technology and then used them to store crops such as maize, beans, and roots. Their experiment showed that although the subterranean chamber offered protection against plant parasites, local humidity levels made the crops such as maize decay very quickly, after only a few weeks.

Experiments with seeds from the ramon or breadnut tree had better results: the seeds remained edible for several weeks without much damage. However, recent research has led scholars to believe that the breadnut tree did not play an important role in the Maya diet. It is possible that chultuns were used to store other types of food, ones that have a higher resistance to humidity, or only for a very short period of time.

Dahlin and Litzinger proposed that chultuns could have been used for the preparation of fermented drinks such as maize-based chicha beer since the chultun's internal microclimate seems particularly favorable for this kind of process. The fact that many chultuns have been found in the close proximity of public ceremonial areas in several sites of the Maya lowlands, could be an indication of their importance during communal gatherings when fermented beverages were most often served.

The Importance of Chultuns

Water was a scarce resource among the Maya in several regions, and chultuns were only part of their sophisticated water control systems. The Maya also built canals and dams, wells, and reservoirs, and terraces and raised fields to control and conserve water.

The chultuns were very important resources to the Maya and may well have had a religious significance. Schlegel described the eroded remains of six figures carved into the plaster lining of a bottle-shaped chultun at the Maya site of Xkipeche. The largest one is a 57 cm (22 in) tall monkey; others include toads and frogs and a few have explicitly modeled genitalia. She postulates that the sculptures represent religious beliefs associated with water as a life-giving element.

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Maestri, Nicoletta. "Understanding Ancient Maya Storage Systems." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/chultun-ancient-maya-storage-systems-171589. Maestri, Nicoletta. (2020, August 26). Understanding Ancient Maya Storage Systems. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/chultun-ancient-maya-storage-systems-171589 Maestri, Nicoletta. "Understanding Ancient Maya Storage Systems." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/chultun-ancient-maya-storage-systems-171589 (accessed March 28, 2023).