• Real-World Geography: Dr. Guillermo de Anda
    Guillermo de Anda gets ready to take the plunge for archaeology.

    Photograph by Guillermo Pruenda

    By Alyssa Samson

    Tuesday, July 10, 2012

    Imagine diving deep into an underwater cave and discovering Mayan treasures that have been untouched for centuries. Now, imagine doing that as a career. Dr. Guillermo de Anda is an underwater archaeologist and a 2012 Emerging Explorer.


    Guillermo remembers his uncle taking him to a museum in Mexico City at a very young age. As they descended to the anthropology exhibit in the basement, Guillermo recalls vividly walking towards a display of human skulls.  

    “When I saw the skulls, that’s when I knew I really wanted to know what had happened to those people,” he says.

    In addition to his fascination with archaeology and exploration, Guillermo was also always interested in becoming a diver.

    “When I found out you could be an underwater archaeologist, I thought it was perfect,” he says.


    “Fortunately, there have been lots of exciting things about my career, but one of the most exciting was probably the offering that we found in the cenotes three years ago.”


    “The preparation to go in and out of the water is difficult,” he says. “You also have to stay a long time under the water. Sometimes we will spend six or seven hours in the water. That’s the most demanding part because you still have to go back, you’re tired, cold, hungry . . .”


    Guillermo says that he uses “sacred geography” to map where Mayan cities are located. “The sacred geography of the Maya is important because it’s exactly why we are doing our work. It has to do with caves, cenotes, the mountains, the woods, and the wind. So, if you pay attention to all of that and look at some iconology from the Maya, you’re going to see the sacred geography is always related,” he says. 


    A cenote is a cave-like pool that the Mayan civilization often used as a place for sacrificial ceremonies. Since Guillermo’s work has revolved around the Mayans, it is in these cenotes where you can usually find him, laced head-to-toe in diving gear, ready to take a plunge for archaeology.

    “It requires a lot of skills to be a diver. We have a saying that it’s easier to train someone to be an archaeologist than to be a cave diver,” he says.

    It takes time and patience to be an underwater archaeologist. It also requires being constantly aware of your surroundings, and how those surroundings have changed over time.

    Three years ago, after spending hours in the blue abyss, Guillermo found an extraordinary Mayan offering in one of the cenotes.

    “The offering is under the water, but when we examined it closely, we understood that it could not have been underwater when they placed it, the water level was lower.”

    Guillermo discovered the offering inside the very important Mayan city, Chichen Itza. (Today, a site in the state of Yucatan, Mexico.) The space was full of carefully placed items and bones that had never been touched prior to Guillermo and his crew of divers.

    This was not the only stimulating discovery Guillermo has made. Recently, he has had the opportunity to examine Mayan bones discovered underwater in the 1960s—and dispel some common myths.

    Before Guillermo was able to analyze the bones, many people thought that most of the Mayans who were sacrificed were young, beautiful women. Guillermo’s study revealed startling new evidence that this was not the case.

    “What I found is there is a lot of children—more than 80 percent, between three and 11 years—and they had a lot of marks on the body. It was a ritual, but it’s very hard for us to understand,” he says.

    Some anthropologists speculate that the children may have been sacrificed to appease the rain god, Chaac. Guillermo has developed another theory.

    Many of the children, he noted, had severe cavities. “Maybe these were dead children,” he says. “They were dead already and they were offered. To dignify these children’s’ death, they were offered to the gods.”

    Regardless of theories that have been developed, “it’s hard to understand because it’s a completely different mindset that will never be able to completely understand,” Guillermo says.


    “Continue with your education. Go to college for archaeology. An archaeologist is someone who knows about a lot of different subjects. You have to read a lot and you have to be prepared to spend time in the field.

    “If you want to be an underwater archaeologist you really have to read a lot and learn how to dive at a young age. If you start early, that’s going to help a lot.”


    “In the U.S. there are a lot of [archaeology] organizations that allow volunteers. I think it’s a fantastic idea,” Guillermo says.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    abyss Noun

    deep pit in the ocean or other body of water.

    analyze Verb

    to study in detail.

    anthropology Noun

    science of the origin, development, and culture of human beings.

    Encyclopedic Entry: anthropology
    archaeologist Noun

    person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.

    cave Noun

    underground chamber that opens to the surface. Cave entrances can be on land or in water.

    cavity Noun

    hollow or pitted area of a tooth caused by decay.

    cenote Noun

    natural sinkhole or reservoir where groundwater is available.

    civilization Noun

    complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

    Encyclopedic Entry: civilization
    dignify Verb

    to honor to give dignity to something.

    dispel Verb

    to get rid of or cause to disappear.

    Emerging Explorer Noun

    an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.

    geography Noun

    study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    god Noun

    one of many spiritual deities or supreme beings.

    icon Noun

    an image or person used to represent something.

    Maya Noun

    people and culture native to southeastern Mexico and Central America.

    museum Noun

    space where valuable works of art, history, or science are kept for public view.

    myth Noun

    legend or traditional story.

    ritual Noun

    series of customs or procedures for a ceremony, often religious.

    sacred Adjective

    greatly respected aspect or material of a religion.

    sacrifice Noun

    destruction or surrender of something as way of honoring or showing thanks.

    stimulating Adjective

    exciting or encouraging further thought and action.

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