The Gates of Hell: Exploring Mexico’s Sacred Caves

December 3rd, 2012

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Markus Becker in Tulum, Mexico, Nov. 30, 2012 (Photo-GalleryTranslated from the German by Christopher Sultan).

Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is dotted with thousands of caves that once housed prehistoric people and later became sacred to the Mayans. German archaeologists and filmmakers are currently involved in a project to explore with modern imaging technology and make a 3-D film of this underwater labyrinth.  

A person died here hundreds of years ago. His body fell into the flooded cave and sank into the water. His flesh gradually separated from his bones. Today, he stares at divers out of empty eye sockets. His skull seems to be pushing its way out of the soil, as if he were trying to rise from the dead, to rise up from the sand, shake the tiresome sediment from his bones and escape from the silent darkness … //

… Backbreaking Work for Divers:

  • The film team dragged the camera and hundreds of pounds of equipment through the jungle for three weeks. Four research divers from the northern German city of Kiel handled the tricky job of filming underwater. Diving in caves is already more dangerous and technically challenging than anywhere else. But with an 80-kilogram camera, lots of lights and constant changes in the diving depth, it becomes backbreaking work. For team leader Florian Huber, from the University of Kiel’s Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology, every minute is a worthwhile investment. “The documentation of these caves is fundamental research,” Huber says. “It enables us to take stock of things before we can ask further questions about individual objects.”
  • This sort of stocktaking seems urgently necessary, especially in the Mexican underwater caves, where halfway systematic exploration began only a few years ago. The Las Calaveras cenote, with its roughly 125 scattered skeletons, is only the tip of the iceberg. Scientists are still completely in the dark when it comes to what remains to be discovered in the many caves that haven’t been explored yet. “Some 3,000 to 5,000 cenotes are known today, but there is an estimated total of up to 10,000,” Huber says. “Only a tiny fraction of that has been explored so far.”
  • The fact that the caves have already produced spectacular treasures, including some of the oldest human remains found in the Americans to date, suggests that archeologists will find more. In fact, the number of finds grows with almost each new cave that’s explored.

Treasure Troves of Past Millennia: … //

… Panic, and You’re as Good as Dead:

  • Some cenotes are more than 100 meters (328 feet) deep. Normal compressed air is no longer sufficient at these depths. To avoid nitrogen narcosis and oxygen poisoning, cave divers use other products, including Trimix, a mixture of oxygen, nitrogen and helium. If they encounter problems despite the many precautions, rapid ascents are not possible because divers have nothing but rock above their heads. “Sometimes we penetrate more than a kilometer into a cave,” says Uli Kunz, an underwater photographer and biologist. “If, under these circumstances, you calculate your air supply incorrectly, get lost or panic, you’re as good as dead.”
  • The Kiel-based dive team, which has been working in Mexico’s caves since 2009, started using modern imaging technology in 2010. Some 63 square meters of the Las Calaveras cenote were recorded using photogrammetry,
  • and wraparound photo series of individual relics were processed into 3-D models on the computer. “This is a powerful tool for research,” says Guillermo de Anda of the Autonomous University of Yucatan, the leading expert on Mexican cenotes. Of course, he says, some finds still have to be recovered, such as when scientists want to perform genetic analyses of chemical dating procedures. “But a lot can be discovered with 3-D models, without even touching or possibly destroying the find,” he says.
  • The method also enables archeologist to evaluate relics without having to dive into cenotes. Likewise, it offers benefits to the few experts on antiquity who are also research and cave divers. “Underwater, you can usually spend only a few minutes with the finds,” says de Anda. “But, on the computer, you have all the time in the world.”
  • Other high-tech methods are also suited to exploring the world of caves. Laser scans taken from the air, for example, make it possible to eliminate entire forests on the computer. Scientists have used this method to find overgrown Mayan infrastructures, which in turn point to cenotes.

How to Shrink a 3-D Film Camera:

  • Making the planned documentary is even more complex than preparing computer models of individual relics. Previous models of 3-D film cameras, including their underwater housings, were almost as tall as a man and weighed hundreds of pounds. Using them in the narrow caves would have been unthinkable. Specialist companies from Hamburg and Kiel designed and created a camera housing that was small and lightweight enough. “It took half a year just to develop and build the housing,” says Peter Baaten, the film’s producer.
  • But the uniqueness of the filming location will likely justify the expense. Some cenotes are so beautiful that they seem almost romantically staged, such as when thick beams of sunlight penetrate the entry hole and bathe the underground world in shimmering light. The water is often so clear that divers feel like they’re floating through air.
  • Other cenotes could double as sets for horror films. In the Angelita cenote, a giant, circular hole, there is a 30-meter layer of fresh water on top of the saltwater — as in most cenotes. Between the two is a billowing sulfate layer that looks like a blanket of muddy clouds. The branches of giant trees, submerged long ago, protrude into the twilight like dead fingers. Scenes like this help to explain why the Mayans felt that the cenotes were gates into hell.
  • A 3-D movie is probably the most effective way to experience this fascinating world on dry land. But it could also endanger the cultural treasures of the cenotes, as the number of tourists visiting the caves is already growing rapidly. People are constantly making off with pieces of ceramics as well as human and animal bones. “Of course, this sort of film can increase the temptation,” Huber admits. “But it can also promote respect for this world and the willingness to protect it.”
  • That could be critical for the exploration of the caves. As a rule, it isn’t archeologists who make historically significant finds. Most are made by a small crowd of specialized divers who explore the caves in their free time and feed their results into the Quintana Roo Speleological Survey (QRSS) database. They have documented an incredible 1,053 kilometers of caves since 1990.

(full text).


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Those Wonderful, Awful Germans: A Journey Deep into the Nation’s Surface, on Spiegel Online International, by Wolfgang Höbel, Nov. 30, 2012 (Photo-Gallery: A Travelogue of Modern GermanyTranslated from the German by Christopher Sultan).  Tuvia Tenenbom, who runs a Jewish theater in New York, spent a summer traveling through Germany. He found much to dislike, and detailed it all in a sometimes shocking, sometimes hilarious way. But the real value is in the telling, rather than the truth … // … Nevertheless, the book is now available in bookstores as “I Sleep in Hitler’s Room: An American Jew Visits Germany.” The German translation, which comes sans polemical preface, is called “Allein unter Deutschen” (”Alone Among Germans”). This bold, funny and often outrageously absurd travelogue describes a side of Germany that reporters only rarely encounter … // … The Nazi type, Tenenbom notes, is “friendly, sympathetic, always smiling, and a very welcoming man…. He is cleaner than God” … (full article).

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