For centuries, the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico has been a magnet for adventurers and explorers drawn to this isolated region by its strategic geographic positioning and sheer beauty. A narrow isthmus dividing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the land is characterised by exceptional natural wonders.
It is here that the Selva El Ocote, one of the last surviving stretches of tropical rain forests in Central America, and the Rio La Venta Canyon, a mosaic of underground rivers and caves, have similarly attracted Rolex Laureate Antonio De Vivo and a team of Italian cavers and researchers from a variety of scientific disciplines.
Established in 1989, the seven-person La Venta team was formed to carry out speleological and geographical projects in far-flung corners of the globe. "Our approach to exploration is simple," says De Vivo. "On the eve of the third millennium, no longer can we expect to discover new lands but, rather, we must conduct in-depth studies in the least known parts of the world, areas so remote they were last traversed by our ancestors."
Following a survey of the territory in 1990, the team decided to undertake a series of expeditions intended to unravel the mysteries long-buried in the isolated canyon and surrounding primordial forest. They understood that the breadth of their research and the rigorous nature of their tasks would require several visits to survey this alien landscape.
Funding from the 1993 Rolex Award enabled De Vivo and his associates to proceed with an ambitious three-year, multi-disciplinary project to examine the speleological, hydrological and archaeological, as well as the zoological, botanical and medical, aspects of the region.
Antonio De Vivo is particularly well-equipped to spearhead this challenging undertaking. A man for whom adventure and exploration are an integral part of life, he has been a caver since 1974, carrying out noteworthy expeditions both in his native Italy and abroad. When not embarking on exotic journeys, or participating in the Italian Mountain and Caving Rescue Service, De Vivo can be found teaching free climbing and outdoor sports and activities in Padua.
De Vivo’s speleological background is complemented by his teammates’ expertise in caving and their knowledge of the other core disciplines — and by cinematography.
With the help of the Rolex Award funding, the La Venta team made a two-hour documentary film capturing the beauty of the Rio La Venta Canyon and chronicling their painstaking research as they completed their various studies. A winner of the Genziana d’Argento at the Festival Internazionale del Film di Montagna Esplorazione Avventura, "Citta de Trento", the film, directed by De Vivo’s associate Tullio Bernabei, condenses several expeditions into a single story that illustrates the team’s odyssey through this geographically spectacular land.
Into the Canyon
In the opening frames of the documentary, the film focuses on the La Venta team as it organises its technical equipment in the base camp and divides into two major groups. One group sets out to investigate the black holes in the jungle floor, first spotted in aerial photos, and the other to unearth the secrets hidden in the canyon walls. Caving, the primary activity, is made particularly treacherous by the rough, broken surfaces of the limestone outcroppings and the surrounding rocky ridges, pinnacles and crevasses.
“Manoeuvring our way through the forest turned out to be much more difficult than we expected,” admits the Rolex Laureate. “We were unable to progress more than 500 metres a day, and the great abysses, called sotanos, were more than several kilometres away!”
Two teams working inside the Rio La Venta Canyon made the most dramatic speleological discovery — the Cueva de La Venta. According to De Vivo, this 400-metre deep, 10-kilometre "through cave", with huge galleries and halls, was such a staggering sight that photos could not begin to do it justice. "It took us 20 hours to negotiate the cave from sinkhole to resurgence," he reveals.
The Cueva de La Venta was only one of more than 20 caves explored, many of which will require further investigation. "The final aim of our speleological studies, however, is not so much the knowledge of each cave, but the information gathered that allows us to draw a map of the karstic phenomena and the underground hydrology in the whole expanse cut through by the Rio La Venta," explains De Vivo. Initial searches by the explorers in the 1980s and early 1990s had indicated the presence of underground river systems, a potential source of drinkable water for the people of Chiapas who continually face water shortages.
"Very little is known about the underground water flow in the region," says De Vivo. "It is this aspect of our work, more than any other, which will provide the greatest long-term benefit to the local population. We have unearthed extremely important drinking water sources, reservoirs that we must study and preserve against the ravages of pollution."
Remains of Civilization
As the explorers made their way precariously through the subterranean network of caves, carefully avoiding insects, snakes and the spear-like thorns of the cichon palm, the camera captured them stumbling on a large deposit of ancient pottery, shards and relics so profuse that walking without damaging them was almost impossible. Human remains — including a skull with an elongated forehead typical of Mayans of high social standing who underwent a ritual to extend the cranium — and the unexpected discovery of a large pre-Columbian temple were further proof to the La Venta team that these nearly inaccessible chambers once housed an advanced civilisation.
"The spectacle of this mighty temple, 50 metres long and several metres high, left us speechless," reports the Rolex Award winner. But even more astonishing sights awaited: first, an altar, plastered and painted in red with copal resins which the explorers surmised represented the site of a religious cult, and was, most certainly, connected to ancient urban centres located in the highlands above the canyon.
Deeper into the canyon, another enormous structure, composed of a series of terraces, platforms and stairs, appeared like an illusion to the dauntless adventurers who called this significant archaeological find El Castillo. De Vivo hypothesises that intricate wooden scaffolding had been built to help the "rock people" of this period make their way along the platforms and ledges still in evidence by the remaining masonry.
"Unlike their ancient forefathers who were undoubtedly remarkable climbers, we literally had to carry the Mexican archaeologists up the overhanging wall of the canyon to El Castillo," laughs De Vivo, conjuring up the amusing image. "But the help of these experts has been invaluable; we appreciate their trust in us and in our project. Dr Carlos Silva, head of the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia y Historia de México [INAH] of Chiapas, accompanied us and confirmed that the site was most likely a military and commercial outpost dating from 800 to 900 A.D."
Winning a Rolex Award has earned De Vivo worldwide recognition and the credibility necessary to attract support of such prestigious bodies as the INAH, the Universidad Autonoma de Chiapas in Mexico, and, in Italy, the Ente Nazionale Energie Alternative (ENEA) and the Ministero per L’Università e la Ricerca Scientifica. With the help of these organisations, he intends to continue to document the role played by the Rio La Venta Canyon from ancient times to the Middle Ages and prove that his discoveries have international significance.
"All of our findings — traces of intrepid explorers of the past — are confirmation that the Rio La Venta was an ancient highway, a ‘silk route’ of pre-Columbian Meso America, supplying a vital communication and commercial route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans," says De Vivo. "As we carry on our expeditions, two important questions remain. Why did this route die, and when? Only future ventures, allowing us to relive the history of the Mexican peoples, will provide the answers."
Published in 1996