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InHerit and the Research Laboratories of Archaeology at UNC are excited to be partnering with the National Geographic Society, who awarded InHerit a grant for the Cultural Heritage, Ecology, and Conservation of Yucatec Cenotes Project. Cenotes are natural sinkholes formed when the porous limestone bedrock of the Yucatán Peninsula collapses, exposing the vast underground river system beneath and creating unique cavern-like habitats with deep, fresh water pools. Among the most distinctive and beautiful geological and cultural landscape features of the Maya world, these natural wells are of fundamental importance in the cultural and natural history of the region. Cenotes have served as the primary source of cool, fresh water for Maya communities well into the 20th century and as sacred pilgrimage sites for centuries. Today many cenotes are important recreational sites that contribute to the tourist economy.
Through this initiative, InHerit has been collaborating with students and faculty from the Universidad de Oriente (UNO) in Valladolid, Mexico, and public secondary schools in Yucatec communities that have cenotes in or near the towns. We are developing innovative, sustainable, and interactive educational programs that explore the geomorphology, oral history, cultural and archaeological heritage of cenotes. The program also motivates youth, ages 11-15, to be proactive in cenote and water conservation efforts in their communities. Education is critical to enhancing existing cultural appreciation of cenotes and to developing strategies for effective and sustainable conservation of the integrated system of sinkholes that make up Yucatán’s vital and fragile subterranean aquifer. By working together with college students, teachers, and middle school students, we believe we can encourage a generation of highly knowledgeable cultural stewards who will advocate on behalf of responsible and sustainable use of cenotes, conservation of their ecosystem, and promotion of continued education and research at the local level.
Cenote in Kaua, Yucatán, where local students participate in photovoice activities (Photo credit: Dylan Clark).
Archaeology and Cultural Heritage workshop at the Universidad de Oriente in Valladolid, Yucatán (Photo credit: Patricia McAnany).
During the summer of 2018, two undergraduate Global Investigators from UNC’s Curriculum in Global Studies, Leslie Crisostomo-Morales and Sofia McCarthy, helped us prepare three teaching workshops in Yucatán for faculty from participating schools and our UNO student ambassadors. The workshops pivoted around three themes: Oral History and Folklore, Science and Safety, and Archaeology and Cultural Heritage. They brought experts in these fields from Mexico and the U.S. together with teachers to develop experiential education activities for secondary school students to explore cenotes both inside and outside their classrooms. Led by Project Facilitator Dr. Khristin Landry-Montes and Co-Director Dr. Iván Batún Alpuche in collaboration with our community teachers, we began implementing the program with hands-on activities in all nine schools during the fall semester.
Yucatec students, many of whom are bilingual Spanish and Yucatec Maya speakers, created their own painted manuscripts, called codices, in the prehispanic Maya tradition. They also conducted oral history interviews about cenotes with elders in their communities, recording the traditional legends surrounding these watery caves that have been passed down across generations.


Right: Project Facilitatior Dr. Khristin Landry Montes and UNO student ambassador Fernando Cupul lead an activity about ancient Maya painted books called codices at a secondary school in Calotmul, Yucatán.

(Photo credit: Yaremi Y. Tuz May).
(Photo credit: Dianely Estrella C. Valencia).
Students also studied biology and chemistry by testing water quality in nearby cenotes, uploading their results to an international online database as part of the EarthEcho Water Challenge, a program sponsored by the non-profit EarthEcho International to promote monitoring and protection of water sources worldwide.


Left: Students conducted water quality testing in Xocen, Yucatán.

One of the most exiting activities for the kids on this project has been working with OpenROV Tridents, which are submersible, remotely operated drones designed to explore underwater environments. About the size of a large shoebox, the students work in teams to navigate the drones using a JXD s192k gaming-style controller. They record basic data about depth, pressure, and water conditions in the cenotes and shoot digital footage of the geology and marine life below the surface.


Right: A student releases an underwater drone into Cenote Yax Ek’ in Kaua, Yucatán.

(Photo credit: Yaremi Y. Tuz May).
These are just a few examples of cenotes-related activities that teachers and students from these Maya communities can take from this project and continue to refine and build upon for the future. Among the participating schools, some students are already organizing extracurricular cenotes clubs with activities such as cenote clean-ups and oral history projects incorporated into the community’s Day of the Dead celebrations. As part of the next phase of the project, team members at the RLA and UNO are collaborating on a workbook that compiles curriculum resources for teachers about the geology, history, archaeology, science, and ecology of cenotes that, once published, can be easily integrated into lesson plans. Ultimately, we hope the Cultural Heritage, Ecology, and Conservation of Yucatec Cenotes Project stands as an example of how heritage, archaeology, and education intersect and may be applied to global challenges we face today.
To learn more about this project, follow our National Geographic Open Explorer Expedition and check out recent issues of the InHerit newsletter available at