A chultun (plural chultunes, or chultunob in Mayan) is a bottle-shaped cavity, dug in the soft limestone bedrock typical of the Maya area. The name probably comes from the combination of two Yucatec Mayan words which mean rainwater and stone (chulub and tun). Another possibility is that the term comes from the word for clean (tsul) and tun, stone. These were traditionally used to store rainwater, but specialists think that they actually fulfilled many purposes.
Early Descriptions of Chultun
An early description of chultunes comes from Bishop Diego de Landa, who in his “Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan” (On the Things of Yucatan) describes how the Yucatec Maya dug deep wells near their houses and used them to store rainwater.
Later explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood speculated during their trip in Yucatan about the purpose of such cavities and were told by local people that these were used to collect rainwater during the rainy season.
More recent archaeological research has shown how different types of chultunes existed in the Maya region and have proposed that especially outside of the Yucatan peninsula these might have fulfilled different purposes.
Chultun in Northern Maya Lowlands
In the northern part of the Yucatan peninsula, chultunes have been frequently recorded where natural water sources called cenotes are absent. These chultunes are usually located near houses, are excavated directed in the limestone bedrock, and their internal walls often have a thick layer of plaster to make them waterproof. A small, plastered access hole to the interior subterranean chamber probably facilitated the capture of water.
In some sites, abandoned chultunes seem to have been used as trash deposits and in few occasions as burial places.
Chultun in the Southern Maya Lowlands
In the Southern Maya Lowlands, such as the area of central Peten, archaeologists have found a slightly different type of chultun. These subterranean chambers are shallower and smaller than the ones recorded in Yucatan. In addition, these chultunes are accessed through a lateral chamber, making them less like a well; in relatively few cases their internal walls were plastered. For these reasons archaeologists hypothesized that these features were possibly used for food storage, rather than water storage.
Experiments on the use of this type of chultunes were carried out in the late 1970s, around the site of Tikal. Archaeologists dug chultunes using ancient Maya technology and then used them to store crops such as maize, beans, and roots in order to study the results. The experiment showed that although the subterranean chamber offered protection against plant parasites, local humidity levels made the crops, especially maize, decay very quickly, after only a few weeks.
Experiments with seeds from the ramon, or breadnut tree, showed a better result: the seeds remained edible for several weeks without much damage. However, recent research has led scholars to believe that the breadnut tree did not play an important role in the Maya diet. It is possible that chultunes were used to store other types of food, ones that have a higher resistance to humidity, or only for a very short period of time.
Most recently, it has been proposed that chultunes could have been used for the preparation of fermented drinks, since their internal microclimate seems particularly favorable for this kind of process. The fact that many chultunes have been found in proximity of public ceremonial areas in several sites of the Maya lowlands, could be an indication of their importance during communal gatherings, when fermented beverage were most often served.
Chultunes are typical features not only of the Yucatan peninsula and northern Maya lowlands, which they are typically associated with, but they are widespread all over the Maya region. Different archaeological examples have shown how probably their uses were multiple and varied in time and space across the Maya region.
Puleston, Dennis, 1971, An Experimental Approach to the Function of Classic Maya Chultunes, American Antiquity, Vol. 36, No. 3: 322-335.
AA.VV. 2011, Los Chultunes, in Arqueologia Maya (accessed August 2011)