Ancient Mayan temple at Chichen Itza, Mexico ‘in danger of collapsing’ due to underground river

© Francisco Marin
One of Latin America’s most treasured ancient Mayan monuments, the main temple at Chichen Itza in eastern Mexico, at least partially stands on a subterranean cavity and is in danger of collapsing, scientists warn.

The complex, which dates back several centuries before the European invasion of the Americas, is located in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, which is mostly an arid limestone plain. The Mayan civilization that built it relied on plentiful underground rivers for their water supply and worshiped natural sinkholes called cenotes that allowed access. Chichen Itza was built close to the cenote Chen Ku, the most revered of the Yucatec sinkholes, at which Mayans performed many sacrifices, including human ones.

According to experts from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, one such underground river may flow under the main pyramid of Chichen Itza, the temple of feathered serpent god Kukulan.

An electrical resistance survey revealed a cavity about 20 meters below the pyramid, also known as El Castillo, the university reported. It may be connected to one of the cenotes that dot the area around Chichen Itza, the report said. According to geophysics expert Rene Chavez, the cavity is covered by rock, but the historic 30-meter-high structure is still in danger of collapsing.

The discovery may indicate that the temple complex was built according to Mayan cosmology, archaeologist Guillermo de Anda, who was not involved in the study, told AP. The cenotes surrounding El Castillo could represent the points of the compass and an underground river connecting them would be the center of the Maya’s universe, he said.

In a separate report, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History said Thursday that another Mayan site, Uxmal, had an unusually high number of medicinal plants growing around the structure known as the governor's palace. Researchers believed Mayans planted them intentionally, Uxmal site director Jose Huchim Herrera said. The site has about 150 species that can be used to treat various ailments, including snake bites and infections.