Cenotes Project

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.

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. 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.

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.

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 in-herit.org.

Museums Connect Exchange Program

After six months of online interaction, fifteen students from Morganton, NC, and ten from Valladolid, Mexico had the opportunity to meet each other as part of the “Museums Connect” program. Funded by the U.S. Department of State, Museums Connect was established to build bridges of cultural understanding between youth in the U.S. and other countries through collaborations focused onmuseums or archives. In collaboration with UNC’s Southern Historical Collection and the State Archives of Yucatán (AGEY), InHerit proposed a series of workshops and archival research that would take place both in North Carolina with a group of Maya-descendant high-school students from Morganton and in Yucatán, Mexico with a group of college students from the Universidad de Oriente in Valladolid (UNO). In both places, the students had the opportunity to explore their history, heritage, and identity over the course of the spring semester. Working with university faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill and UNO, they translated their research into a traveling exhibit called “Maya Cultural Revitalization: Our View from the Archives.”

The Valladolid students traveled to North Carolina in April 2017 with their exhibit panels. They spent a week exploring Chapel Hill and the western part of the state alongside students from Morganton. Their combined exhibits (five panels by the Morganton students and four by the UNO students) were displayed in Morganton on April 10th, in Asheville, NC, on April 11th and in the Wilson Library at UNC-Chapel Hill on the 13th. One of the highlights of the trip for the UNO students was their visit to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian; another was the cookout on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus that was accompanied by games of soccer and volleyball.

For the Morganton students, the trip to Yucatán was an eye-opening experience. Having studied photographs and journal entries by archaeologists and explorers working in Yucatán in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were excited to experience sites—such as Chichén Itzá—that they had researched. More than one of the students was awe-struck by the realization that the places they were visiting had been built by Maya people many hundreds of years before the first encounter between Europeans and Indigenous cultures in Mesoamerica. This same sense of deep history was felt by the students when visiting Yucatec Maya communities, where they were treated like family. Students talk about their experiences with the program in the “Amateur Archivists” video at www.unc.edu/spotlight/amateur-archivists/

Participatory Heritage Mapping

Maps are powerful tools. They give meaning to a space by naming its elements. InHerit is putting this idea to work for Maya communities in the Guatemalan highlands by giving residents the opportunity to identify places of value. These maps contain not just designations of land; they mark places of cultural and environmental heritage that are important to the community.

A team of Tz’utujil youth in the town San Juan la Laguna discovered an ancestral place that had been forgotten by living elders.

A team of Quiche’ youth in the town of Xolsacmalja identified ceremonial sites at the top of a sacred mountaintop – Cerro de Oro – to establish a boundary between their community and a neighboring village.

All community members from age five to ninety-five are invited to participate in the project whether by mapping, creating the maps in Google Earth, helping to identify locations and boundaries, or sharing knowledge about important places.

Thanks to a grant from Lush Cosmetics Company, InHerit will expand its Participatory Heritage Mapping Project in 2012 to include Huitan and Cabrican, two Mam communities.

Community Heritage Conservation

InHerit’s Community Heritage Conservation Program offered organizations led by or directly accountable to indigenous communities small grants to support creative programs designed to promote and conserve local cultural heritage. Between 2011 and 2013 we supported projects from groups who represented or had primary participation from an indigenous community.

Check back soon for updates on these important conservation initiatives!

Parque A’ak

    Ciencia Social Alternativa, A.C. (or, simply, Kookay) was one of the nonprofit recipients of InHerit’s Community Heritage Conservation Grant in 2010. Kookay has established a bastion of sustainable living and cultural promotion just north of Yucatán’s capital city of Mérida. In addition to providing working examples of solar energy (both on large and small scales), organic farming, bee keeping, and composting, Parque A’ak provides visiting school groups (from primary schools, secondary schools, and universities) and independent guests the opportunity to learn more about indigenous flora and fauna, the astrological and technological achievements of the regions ancient residents, and historical and modern Maya traditions and culture.
    InHerit is proud to support Parque A’ak’s tours and children’s workshops, as well as the construction of a new cultural center that will bring together ancient, historical, and modern Maya heritage in one brand new “green” building.


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