Yucatán Peninsula

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Yucatán Peninsula
Yucatan peninsula 250m.jpg
Satellite image of the Yucatán Peninsula
Yucatan Peninsula.png
LocationNorth America
Coordinates 19°33′04″N89°17′47″W / 19.55111°N 89.29639°W / 19.55111; -89.29639 Coordinates: 19°33′04″N89°17′47″W / 19.55111°N 89.29639°W / 19.55111; -89.29639
Adjacent to

The Yucatán Peninsula ( /ˌjkəˈtɑːn/ , [1] also UK: /ˌjʊk-/ , [2] US: /-ˈtæn,ˌjkɑːˈtɑːn/ ; [1] [3] [4] Spanish : Península de Yucatánpronounced  [jukaˈtan] ) is a large peninsula in southeastern Mexico and adjacent portions of Belize and Guatemala. The peninsula extends towards the northeast, separating the Gulf of Mexico to the north and west of the peninsula from the Caribbean Sea to the east. The Yucatán Channel, between the northeastern corner of the peninsula and Cuba, connects the two bodies of water.


The peninsula is approximately 181,000 km2 (70,000 sq mi) in area. It has low relief, and is almost entirely composed of porous limestone. [5] [6]

The peninsula lies east of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest point in Mexico separating the Atlantic Ocean, including the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, from the Pacific Ocean. Some consider the isthmus to be the geographic boundary between Central America and the rest of North America, placing the peninsula in Central America. [5] Politically all of Mexico, including the Yucatán, is generally considered part of North America, while Guatemala and Belize are considered part of Central America.


The proper derivation of the word Yucatán is widely debated. 17th century Franciscan historian Diego López de Cogolludo offers two theories in particular. [7] In the first one, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, having first arrived to the peninsula in 1517, inquired the name of a certain settlement and the response in Yucatec Mayan was "I don't understand", which sounded like yucatán to the Spaniards (for discussion of the different interpretations of this somewhat mythic encounter, see Castañeda 2002). [8] [7] [9] There are many possibilities of what the natives could have actually said, among which "mathan cauyi athán", "tectecán", "ma'anaatik ka t'ann" and "ci u t'ann". [7] [9] [10] This origin story was first told by Hernán Cortés in his letters to Charles V. [11] [12] [13] Later 16th century historians Motolinia and Francisco López de Gómara also repeat this version. [13] In some versions the expedition is not the one captained by Córdoba but instead the one a year later captained by Juan de Grijalva. [14] The second major theory is that the name is in some way related to the yuca crop, as written by Bernal Díaz del Castillo. [7] [13] Others theories claim that it is a derivative of Chontal Tabascan word yokat'an meaning speaker of the Yoko ochoco language, or an incorrect Nahuatl term yokatlan as supposedly "place of richness" (yohcāuh cannot be paired with tlán). [13]


Artistic impression of the asteroid slamming into tropical, shallow seas of the sulfur-rich Yucatan Peninsula in what is today Southeast Mexico. The aftermath of this immense asteroid collision, which occurred approximately 66 million years ago, is believed to have caused the mass extinction of non-avian dinosaurs and many other species on Earth. The impact spewed hundreds of billions of tons of sulfur into the atmosphere, producing a worldwide blackout and freezing temperatures which persisted for at least a decade. Chicxulub impact - artist impression.jpg
Artistic impression of the asteroid slamming into tropical, shallow seas of the sulfur-rich Yucatán Peninsula in what is today Southeast Mexico. The aftermath of this immense asteroid collision, which occurred approximately 66 million years ago, is believed to have caused the mass extinction of non-avian dinosaurs and many other species on Earth. The impact spewed hundreds of billions of tons of sulfur into the atmosphere, producing a worldwide blackout and freezing temperatures which persisted for at least a decade.


The Yucatán Peninsula is the site of the Chicxulub crater impact, which was created 66 million years ago [15] by an asteroid of about 10 to 15 kilometers (6 to 9 miles) in diameter at the end of the Cretaceous Period. [16]


In 2020, an underwater archaeological expedition led by Jerónimo Avilés excavated Chan Hol cave, near the Tulum archaeological site in the state of Quintana Roo on the peninsula, and revealed the skeleton of a woman approximately 30 years of age who lived at least 9,900 years ago. According to craniometric measurements, the skull is believed to conform to the mesocephalic pattern, like the other three skulls found in Tulum caves. Three different scars on the skull of the woman showed that she was hit with something hard and her skull bones were broken. Her skull also had crater-like deformations and tissue deformities that appeared to be caused by a bacterial relative of syphilis. [17]

According to study lead researcher Wolfgang Stinnesbeck, "It really looks as if this woman had a very hard time and an extremely unhappy end of her life. Obviously, this is speculative, but given the traumas and the pathological deformations on her skull, it appears a likely scenario that she may have been expelled from her group and was killed in the cave, or was left in the cave to die there”.[ citation needed ]

The newly discovered skeleton was 140 meters away from the Chan Hol 2 site. Although archaeologists assumed the divers had found the remains of the missing Chan Hol 2, the analysis soon proved that these assumptions were erroneous. Stinnesbeck compared the new bones to old photographs of Chan Hol 2 and showed that the two skeletons represent different individuals. [18]

Due to their distinctive features, study co-researcher Samuel Rennie suggest the existence of at least two morphologically diverse groups of people living separately in Mexico during the transition from Pleistocene to Holocene. [19]


Relief map of the Yucatan Peninsula showing major Mayan archeological sites. ReliefMapMayanSites.JPG
Relief map of the Yucatán Peninsula showing major Mayan archeological sites.

The Yucatán Peninsula constitutes a significant proportion of the ancient Maya lowlands and was the central location of the Maya Civilization. The Mayan culture also extended south of the Yucatán Peninsula into Guatemala, Honduras, and the highlands of Chiapas. [6] There are many Maya archaeological sites throughout the peninsula; some of the better-known are Chichen Itza, Coba, Tulum, and Uxmal. [20] Indigenous Maya and Mestizos of partial Maya descent make up a sizable portion of the region's population, and Mayan languages are widely spoken there.

Spanish conquest


Sediment off the Yucatan Peninsula Sediment off the Yucatan Peninsula.jpg
Sediment off the Yucatán Peninsula
Location of the "Ring of Cenotes" on the Yucatan Peninsula Yucatan chix crater.jpg
Location of the "Ring of Cenotes" on the Yucatán Peninsula

The peninsula is the exposed portion of the larger Yucatán Platform, all of which is composed of carbonate and soluble rocks, being mostly limestone although dolomite and evaporites are also present at various depths. The whole of the Yucatán Peninsula is an unconfined flat lying karst landscape. [6] Sinkholes, known locally as cenotes, are widespread in the northern lowlands.

According to the Alvarez hypothesis, the mass extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs at the transition from the Cretaceous to the Paleogene Period, the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary (K–Pg boundary), 66 million years ago was caused by an asteroid impact somewhere in the greater Caribbean Basin. [21] The deeply buried Chicxulub crater is centered off the north coast of the peninsula near the town of Chicxulub. The now-famous "Ring of Cenotes," a geologic structure composed of sinkholes arranged in a semi-circle, outlines one of the shock-waves from this impact event in the ≈66 million year old rock. The existence of the crater has been supported by evidence including the aforementioned "Ring of Cenotes", as well as the presence of impact debris such as shocked quartz and tektites, a type of glass formed during meteorite impacts. [22]

The Arrowsmith Bank is a submerged bank located off the northeastern end of the peninsula. [23]


The peninsula has a tropical climate, which ranges from semi-arid in the northwest to humid in the south. Average annual rainfall ranges from less than 800 mm (30 inches) in the driest parts of the northwest up to 2,000 mm (80 inches) in the Petén Basin to the south. Rainfall varies seasonally, with August and September generally the wettest months. [24]

Like much of the Caribbean, the peninsula lies within the Atlantic Hurricane Belt, and with its almost uniformly flat terrain it is vulnerable to these large storms coming from the east, and the area has been devastated by many hurricanes, such as Hurricane Gilbert, Hurricane Emily, Hurricane Wilma, and Hurricane Dean.

Strong storms called nortes can quickly descend on the Yucatán Peninsula any time of year. Although these storms pummel the area with heavy rains and high winds, they tend to be short-lived, clearing after about an hour. The average percentage of days with rain per month ranges from a monthly low of 7% in April to a high of 25% in October. Breezes can have a cooling effect, humidity is generally high, particularly in the remaining rainforest areas. [25]

Water resources

Due to the extreme karst nature of the whole peninsula, the northern half is devoid of aboveground rivers. Where lakes and swamps are present, the water is marshy and generally unpotable. Due to its coastal location, the whole of the peninsula is underlain by an extensive contiguous density stratified coastal aquifer, where a fresh water lens formed from meteoric water floats on top of intruding saline water from the coastal margins. The thousands of sinkholes known as cenotes throughout the region provide access to the groundwater system. The cenotes have long been relied on by ancient and contemporary Maya people. [6] [26]


The vegetation and plant communities of the peninsula vary from north to south. The Yucatán dry forests occupy the dry northwestern peninsula, and include dry forests and scrublands and cactus scrub. The Yucatán moist forests occur across the middle and east of the peninsula, and are characterized by semi-deciduous forests where 25 to 50% of the trees lose their leaves during the summer dry season. The Belizian pine forests are found in several enclaves across central Belize. The southernmost portion of the peninsula is in the Petén–Veracruz moist forests ecoregion, an evergreen rain forest. [27]

Northern Guatemala (El Petén), Mexico (Campeche and Quintana Roo), and western Belize are still occupied by the largest continuous tracts of tropical rainforest in Central America. However, these forests are suffering extensive deforestation. [28]

Mangroves occur along the coast, with the Usumacinta mangroves around the Laguna de Términos in the southwest, the Ría Lagartos mangroves along the northern shore of the peninsula, and the Mayan Corridor mangroves and Belizean Coast mangroves to the east along the Caribbean Sea. [27]

The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System is an immense coral barrier reef which stretches over 1,100 km (700 miles) along the eastern coast of the peninsula.


The peninsula comprises the Mexican states of Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo, as well as Guatemala's Petén Department and almost the whole of Belize. [29]


Cantarell 15-07-14-Yucatan-Olfelder-RalfR-WMA 0481.jpg

In the late historic and early modern eras, the Yucatán Peninsula was largely a cattle ranching, logging, chicle and henequen production area. Since the 1970s, the Yucatán Peninsula has reoriented its economy towards tourism, especially in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Aside from tourism, another source of income that is important in the Peninsula is logging as well as chicle industries specifically in Belize. Oil was also found in certain parts of the Yucatán, bringing in more economic opportunities. [30] Once a small fishing village, Cancún in the northeast of the peninsula has grown into a thriving city. The Riviera Maya, which stretches along the east coast of the peninsula between Cancún and Tulum, houses over 50,000 beds. The best-known locations are the former fishing town of Playa del Carmen, the ecological parks Xcaret and Xel-Há and the Maya ruins of Tulum and Coba.


Population throughout the Yucatán Peninsula is very different throughout each part of the Peninsula. Population density and ethnic composition are two factors that play into the total population. The most populated area is Mérida in Yucatán state as well as the areas that surround that region. The least populated part of the peninsula is Quintana Roo which is a state located in the Southeastern part of Mexico. In terms of ethnic composition, a majority of the population consisted of both Maya and Mestizos. [30]

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Yucatán</span> State of Mexico

Yucatán, officially the Free and Sovereign State of Yucatán, is one of the 31 states which comprise the federal entities of Mexico. It comprises 106 separate municipalities, and its capital city is Mérida.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chetumal</span> Place in Quintana Roo, Mexico

Chetumal is a city on the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. It is the capital of the state of Quintana Roo and the municipal seat of the Municipality of Othón P. Blanco. In 2020 it had a population of 169,028 people.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Quintana Roo</span> State of Mexico

Quintana Roo, officially the Free and Sovereign State of Quintana Roo, is one of the 31 states which, with Mexico City, constitute the 32 federal entities of Mexico. It is divided into 11 municipalities and its capital city is Chetumal.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cancún</span> City in Quintana Roo, Mexico

Cancún, often Cancun in English is a city in southeast Mexico on the northeast coast of the Yucatán Peninsula in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. It is a significant tourist destination in Mexico and the seat of the municipality of Benito Juárez. The city is on the Caribbean Sea and is one of Mexico's easternmost points.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Maya peoples</span> People of southern Mexico and northern Central America

The Maya peoples are an ethnolinguistic group of indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. The ancient Maya civilization was formed by members of this group, and today's Maya are generally descended from people who lived within that historical region. Today they inhabit southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras. "Maya" is a modern collective term for the peoples of the region, however, the term was not historically used by the indigenous populations themselves. There was no common sense of identity or political unity among the distinct populations, societies and ethnic groups because they each had their own particular traditions, cultures and historical identity.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tulum</span> Maya site in Quintana Roo, Mexico

Tulum is the site of a pre-Columbian Mayan walled city which served as a major port for Coba, in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. The ruins are situated on 12-meter-tall (39 ft) cliffs along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea. Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya and achieved its greatest prominence between the 13th and 15th centuries. Maya continued to occupy Tulum for about 70 years after the Spanish began occupying Mexico, but the city was abandoned by the end of the 16th century. Tulum is one of the best-preserved coastal Maya sites, and today a popular site for tourists.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Riviera Maya</span>

The Riviera Maya is a tourism and resort district south of Cancun, Mexico. It straddles the coastal Federal Highway 307, along the Caribbean coastline of the state of Quintana Roo, located in the eastern portion of the Yucatán Peninsula. Historically, this district started at the city of Playa del Carmen and ended at the village of Tulum, although the towns of Puerto Morelos, situated to the north of Playa del Carmen, as well as the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, situated 40 km (25 mi) to the south of Tulum, are both currently being promoted as part of the Riviera Maya tourist corridor.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cenote</span> Natural pit or sinkhole that exposes groundwater underneath

A cenote is a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater. The regional term is specifically associated with the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, where cenotes were commonly used for water supplies by the ancient Maya, and occasionally for sacrificial offerings. The term derives from a word used by the lowland Yucatec Maya—tsʼonot—to refer to any location with accessible groundwater.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Costa Maya</span>

Costa Maya is a small tourist region in the municipality of Othón P. Blanco in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, the only state bounded by the Caribbean Sea to its east. This municipality is close to Chetumal on the border with Belize. The area was generally undeveloped but has been growing rapidly since construction of a large pier to accommodate cruise ships. Costa Maya is also the name of a subdivision near the village of Mahahual. The beach extends from Xcalak in the south to the southern border of Sian Ka'an in the north, a distance of approximately 100 kilometers (62 mi).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sistema Dos Ojos</span> Flooded cave system at the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

Dos Ojos is part of a flooded cave system located north of Tulum, on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. The exploration of Dos Ojos began in 1987 and still continues. The surveyed extent of the cave system is 82 kilometers (51 mi) and there are 28 known sinkhole entrances, which are locally called cenotes. In January 2018, a connection was found between Sistema Dos Ojos and Sistema Sac Actun. The smaller Dos Ojos became a part of Sac Actun, making the Sistema Sac Actun the longest known underwater cave system in the world.

Sistema Ox Bel Ha is a cave system in Quintana Roo, Mexico. It is the 2nd longest explored underwater cave in the world and ranks fourth including dry caves. As of January 2022 the surveyed length is 319.5 kilometers (198.5 mi) of underwater passages. There are more than 140 cenotes in the system.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Petén–Veracruz moist forests</span> Tropical moist broadleaf forest ecoregion in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico

The Petén–Veracruz moist forests is an ecoregion of the tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forest biome found in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sistema Sac Actun</span> Flooded cave system in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

Sistema Sac Actun is an underwater cave system situated along the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán Peninsula with passages to the north and west of the city of Tulum. Discovery of a connection to the Sistema Dos Ojos in 2018 made it the longest known underwater cave system.

The Quintana Roo Speleological Survey (QRSS) was established in 1990 for the safe exploration, survey and cartography of the underwater and dry caves and cenotes of Quintana Roo, Mexico, supported by the National Speleological Society.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Eve of Naharon</span> Hominin fossil

Eve of Naharon is the skeleton of a 20– to 25-year-old human female found in the Naharon section of the underwater cave Sistema Naranjal in Mexico near the town of Tulum, around 80 miles (130 km) south west of Cancún. The Naranjal subsystem is a part of the larger Sistema Ox Bel Ha. The skeleton is carbon dated to 13,600 years ago, which makes it one of the oldest documented human finds in the Americas.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Muyil</span>

Muyil was one of the earliest and longest inhabited ancient Maya sites on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. It is located approximately 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) south of the coastal site of Tulum, in the Municipality of Felipe Carrillo Puerto in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Artifacts found here date back from as early as 350 BC. to as late as 1200-1500 AD. The ruins of Muyil are an example of Peten architecture, like those found in southern Mayan sites with their steep walled pyramids such as Tikal in Guatemala. It is situated on the Sian Ka'an lagoon, a name meaning "Where the Sky is Born". Muyil was located along a trade route on the Caribbean once accessible via a series of canals. Among the most commonly traded goods were Jade, obsidian, chocolate, honey, feathers, chewing gum, and salt. It is believed that throughout much of its history, Muyil had strong ties to the center of Coba located some 44 kilometres (27 mi) the north / northwest. The 2010 federal census reported a population of 191 inhabitants in the locality.

Chan Hol, part of the Toh ha cave system, is a cenote and submerged cave system in Quintana Roo, Mexico, of interest to paleoanthropologists. The remains of three prehistoric human fossils were discovered within the cave system. Along with Eve of Naharon, Naia, the Man of El Templo and the Woman of Las Palmas, the three fossils at Chan Hol are among several ancient Paleoamerican skeletons found in the submerged cave systems of the Yucatán Peninsula around Tulum, Quintana Roo.

Panthera balamoides was described as an extinct species of big cat in the genus Panthera that lived in the Yucatan Peninsula during the Pleistocene. The initial description suggested it to be a type of a climbing cat. The fossil was found associated to 13,400 year old human remains and it was found by underwater cave researcher Jerónimo Avilés, a local scientist in 2011.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Yucatán Platform</span> Yucatán Peninsula and its continental shelf

The Yucatán Platform or Yucatán Shelf is a geologic or physiographic province, and a continental and carbonate platform, in the Maya Block of the southernmost portion of the North American Plate. It comprises the Yucatán Peninsula and its continental shelf, located between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mayan Lowlands</span> Second-order subdivision of Mesoamerica

The Maya or Mayan Lowlands are the largest of three common first-order sub-divisions of the Mayan Region of Mesoamerica.


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