IKONOS (1 m) Satellite Image – Chichen Itza, Mexico
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(Image Copyright © DigitalGlobe and Courtesy of Satellite Imaging Corporation)
In a spectacular show of shadow and light, a shadow representing the Feathered Serpent god Kukulkan slides down the northern stairway of Chichen Itza during sunset of the equinoxes and then vanishes. The square, stepped pyramid, built by Mayans in about 1000 to 1200 AD also has axes that orient with the rising point of the sun at the summer solstice and setting point during the winter solstice. Watch a video explaining the Equinoxes of Chichen Itza.
Chichen Itza was a major city for the Mayan people beginning in about 600 AD. Tourists still flock to the site to climb the temple steps. Many think the pyramid also serves as a calendar. Each of the four faces of the pyramid has a stairway with 91 steps. With the addition of a shared step forming a platform at the top, this totals 365, the number of days in a year. The stairways also divide the nine terraces on each side into 18 segments, representing the 18 months of the Mayan calendar.
Northern Yucatán is arid, and the rivers in the interior all run underground. There are two large, natural sink holes, called cenotes, that could have provided plentiful water year round at Chichen, making it attractive for settlement. Of the two cenotes, the “Cenote Sagrado” or Sacred Cenote (also variously known as the Sacred Well or Well of Sacrifice), is the most famous. According to post-Conquest sources (Maya and Spanish), pre-Columbian Maya sacrificed objects and human beings into the cenote as a form of worship to the Maya rain god Chaac. Edward Herbert Thompson dredged the Cenote Sagrado from 1904 to 1910, and recovered artifacts of gold, jade, pottery, and incense, as well as human remains. A study of human remains taken from the Cenote Sagrado found that they had wounds consistent with human sacrifice.