Posted by: Johan Normark | November 16, 2011

Xuch and the aguada at Yo’okop

There are only three contemporary Swedes with a PhD based on ancient Maya stuff. It is me, Bodil Liljefors-Persson at Malmö University (History of Religion) and Christian Isendahl at Uppsala University (Archaeology). If we include Swedish speaking Mayanists we can also include Stephen Houston at Brown University (he was my external advisor for my dissertation thesis). Isendahl specializes in agriculture throughout the world (to my knowledge he has been working in Mozambique, Bolivia, Mexico and he is currently involved in a project in Brazil). He has recently published an article on water management at the Puuc site called Xuch where he did his dissertation work (2002). In this article he deals with problems related to my research on caves and climate change, i.e., how to deal with the scarcity of water in a karst environment where there are long dry periods with no or little rain.

The Puuc region lacks cenotes but have plenty of small scale man-made chultuns. In order to produce greater quantities of water for pot irrigation people had to create aguadas which are open still-water reservoirs. Nicholas Dunning has recorded 38 such aguadas in the Puuc region. Such depressions can only emerge where there is fairly deep deposits of Quaternary soils that covers fractured Cretaceous and Tertiary limestone. The investment in aguada construction in the Puuc region may have been a response to drier conditions in the Terminal Formative and Terminal Classic periods.

Xuch is a site but it is also the name of a particular geological formation in the Puuc region that relates to bodies of water and the flow of substances. The word relates to what is known as a swallow-hole which is a vertical channel formed through limestone solution. It connects the surface with the aquifer. Xuch therefore relates to the drain of reservoirs. As a verb it means “to engulf, devour, or inhale liquids and substances through the mouth or nose” (p 87).

The swallow-hole must be plugged to prevent water and other materials from washing out. This must have been crucial for Puuc water reservoir engineering. However, karst geomorphology is unstable so water bodies captured in a xuch are vulnerable to sudden substructure collapse and drain. The water can be emptied in a matter of minutes if the plug disappears. The hydrological draw of the mouth of the swallow-hole at the site of Xuch produces flushing and hissing sounds. The soundscape of karst features probably affected people’s worldviews to a significant degree.

It is interesting to note that the large aguada at Yo’okop in the Cochuah region still retains substantial amounts of water. It is located outside the Chicxulub fracture zone so there are fewer caves around Yo’okop than further to the northwest. However, the Puuc area also lies outside the fracture zone although it is within the extent of the original fracture zone. Later geological formations did not allow cenotes to emerge as they did in the east and southeast of the impact crater. It is therefore a bit surprising that Yo’okop never was occupied by a larger population during the Colonial times (there are some minor late structures around a well of unknown date). Perhaps the aguada at Yo’okop has been re-plugged in recent times? That is not impossible since it is located downhill a fairly steep slope that may have contributed with substantial amounts of silt that may have re-plugged a potentially empty aguada. Because Yo’okop has some major Postclassic structures, the potential unplugging and re-plugging must have occurred in Late Postclassic and Mid to Late Colonial times. Since the Caste War installation of nearby Fortin Yo’okop did not take advantage of a possible water source at the aguada the re-plugging may have been very late (late 19th century). That is, of course, pure speculation.

Another explanation is that the aguada has been full the whole time and because it needed great maintenance to provide drinking water it was never used for the Postclassic and later populations. Pot irrigation may have been less of a concern for the few swidden agriculturalists living in the area. Still, one wonders why the Colonial administration did not locate a larger site at the aguada. Saban and Huay Maax are not far away.

Isendahl, Christian (2011). The weight of water: A new look at Pre-Hispanic Puuc Maya water reservoirs. Ancient Mesoamerica 22: 185-197.

The aguada at Yo'okop



  1. Buenas tardes

    Hay alguna relación entre la cosmovición maya y la existencia de los xuch? Aparece en alguna pintura o Códice sobre este fenómeno hidrológico?
    Estoy haciendo una investigación sobre el tema de los xuch y realmente no he encontrado el origen de la denominación xuch para los sumideros, en qué momento los mayas se refieren a él como tal.

  2. Isendahl ofrece alguna información sobre cosmovisión. Es similar a las cuevas en general.


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