Cave divers unlock mysteries of the earliest Americans

QUINTANA ROO, MEXICO (JULY 3, 2020) — A team of underwater cave explorers in Mexico have made unprecedented archeological discoveries in some of the most inaccessible places on Earth that unlock key mysteries about the earliest inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere, according to international experts who have studied the sites. 

The finds reveal new details about important facets of life for these earliest Americans, about which almost nothing was previously known. They also open rare new areas of archeological exploration.

In the first study on the new discoveries, published today in the journal Science Advances, researchers from Canada, and the United States, working with the cultural authorities of Mexico, show that the discoveries represent the oldest known ochre mines in the Americas. 

These unique finds explain for the first time the evidence of ancient human activity and remains in the submerged caves. Previously reported finds include Naia, the name given to the most complete skeleton of these among the earliest Americans, which clarifies how the Western Hemisphere was first populated. 

While Naia added to the understanding of the ancestry, growth and development of these early Americans, little was known about why she and her contemporaries took the risk to enter the maze of caves found below the surface of the Yucatan peninsula. With exploration of these new sites just getting started, the potential for still more mysteries to be unlocked is enormous. 

HOW THE DISCOVERIES WERE MADE

  • The surface entrances to the caves are 8-10 kilometers inland from beaches that draw so many visitors to the Yucatan peninsula, but had not been fully explored.
  • In 2017, a team of underwater cave-diving explorers went much farther into one of the caves than any others had been, navigating several kilometers underwater through passages as narrow as 70 cm.
  • Having explored hundreds of kilometers of underwater caves never before entered by humans, the divers recognized the underwater subterranean landscape had been unnaturally altered, indicating they were not the first people to have been to these caves. It was later learned the previous visitors were there 10,000 years ago and more.
  • The divers brought the discovery to the attention of Mexican authorities as well as experts from the academic disciplines needed to fully understand its significance.
  • During nearly 100 dives totaling more than 600 hours, the divers collected samples, captured more than 20,000 photographs and gathered hours of 360-degree video footage to allow non-diving researchers to virtually visit and study the site using 3D visual representations and virtual-reality headsets to better interpret the discoveries. 

WHAT’S BEEN DISCOVERED SO FAR

  • The elaborate cave passages were once dry, but as sea levels rose most of the caves were flooded by about 8,000 years ago, creating the ideal conditions to preserve human activities.
  • So far, about 7,000 metres of flooded subterranean passages in three cave systems have been explored, mapped, photographed and tested, with mining found in about 900 metres.
  • This has revealed for the first time remarkably preserved mining sites that include ochre extraction beds and pits, digging tools, shattered debris that has been piled by human effort, navigational markers and fire pits.
  • In some areas, the cave ceiling is still visibly blackened by what appears to be the soot of the small fires.
  • The evidence of ancient cave exploration and mining spans a period of many generations over about 2,000 years and dates from between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago. This was 8,000 years before the establishment of the Maya culture for which the region is well known, with the well-preserved archeological sites of Tulum and Chichen Itza.
  • The timing and duration of ochre mining coincides with the onset of major ecological changes, sea-level rise, and extinction of megafauna such as giant ground sloths and sabre-toothed cats. 

WHAT’S BEEN LEARNED SO FAR

  • Now, for the first time, we know why the people of this time would undertake the enormous risk and effort to explore these treacherous caves. At least one reason was to prospect and mine red ochre, a highly valued mineral pigment used widely by the earliest inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere. Remains of at least nine individuals from the pre-flooded era had previously been found in the long-submerged cave systems of the Yucatan peninsula. There had been speculation about what would have driven them into places so complex and hazardous to navigate, such as temporary shelter, fresh water, or burial of human remains, but none of the previous speculation was well-supported by archeological evidence.
  • Now, for the first time, we also have evidence of a source of red ochre for the period. It’s the oldest known ochre mine in the Americas and the first from the Paleoindian period. Despite the previously known ubiquitous and sustained use of ochre among Paleoindian peoples, there was virtually no archeological evidence available until now concerning early ochre prospecting and mining methods in the Americas. 

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT

  • The discovery has the potential to help us understand the social and behavioral complexities of the region’s earliest inhabitants.
  • This new research shows ochre was of great, if not critical, importance to the culture and lives of Paleoamericans, given they were willing to take such enormous risks to get it. Red ochre is the most commonly identified inorganic paint, used throughout human history. It’s considered to be a key component of human evolutionary development and behavioral complexity. Ochre minerals were collected for use in rock paintings, mortuary practices, painted objects and personal adornment. They may even have had medicinal qualities.
  • The mining activity from more than 10,000 years ago also shows the early application of geological principles that were not formally recognized until the 17th century.
  • Together with the exploration of Hoyo Negro, where the remains of Naia were found, the exploration of these caves is advancing research techniques, especially using 3D photogrammetry and virtual reality.
  • The abundance and diversity of animal and plant remains found in these submerged caves enables scientists to recreate what the environment was like for Ice Age Americans. 

WHAT’S NEXT

  • There are nearly 2,000 km of known underwater cave systems in the Yucatan peninsula that the cave exploration researchers and scientists are confident will yield new and important discoveries.
  • Continued mapping and study of the mining activity in these and other caves will reveal the extent of the activity, providing a rare insight into these early inhabitants of the Americas. It will also add to the understanding of this early mining industry and the application of geological principles to the prospection and exploitation of this valuable resource.
  • Explorers and scientists are working toward a more comprehensive understanding of the complex network of underground rivers of the eastern Yucatan peninsula, both in terms of the history they contain and the contemporary living systems they support.
  • Refine the timing of the ancient mining activity and when people were there.
  • Comparison with information on past environments will provide insights into the impact of ecological change by human activity and of the impact of human activity on the Yucatan peninsula’s ecosystems. 

BRANDI MACDONALD, PROFESSOR AT THE ARCHAEOMETRY LABORATORY, UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI, SAYS:

“What is remarkable is not only the preservation of the mining activity, but also the age and duration of it. We rarely, if ever, get to observe such clear evidence of ochre pigment mining of Paleoindian age in North America, so to get to explore and interpret this is an incredible opportunity for us. Our study reinforces the notion that ochre has long been an important material throughout human history.” 

JAMES CHATTERS, FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGIST, ARCHAEOLOGIST, AND PALEONTOLOGIST WITH APPLIED PALEOSCIENCE AND DIRECTAMS, SAYS:

“The same kind of teamwork that early Paleoindians demonstrated to kill megafauna as big as mammoths is evident in the mines of Quintana Roo. Miners had to first make carrying bags or baskets for the ochre they planned to extract. Then they had to provision the mine with enough torchwood so their illuminating fires would last as long as they intended to work. We can envision some workers keeping the fires lit while others toiled in teams to break and lift boulders to expose the pigment. Imagine flickering light amidst deep shadows illuminating the red-stained hands of the miners as they pounded the floor with stalagmite hammers and lighting the path of those who lugged bags of ochre hundreds of yards through the low tunnels and shimmied up the narrow tube to daylight on the forest floor.” 

EDUARD REINHARDT, EXPERT DIVER AND PROFESSOR AT THE SCHOOL OF EARTH, ENVIRONMENT & SOCIETY

 AT MCMASTER UNIVERSITY, SAYS:

“Most evidence of ancient mining on the surface has been altered through natural and human processes, obscuring the record. These underwater caves are a time capsule. With all the tools left as they were 10,000 – 12,000 years ago, it represents a unique learning opportunity. It took advanced expertise to work in the caves recovering ochre, so we know it was very valuable for the earliest peoples of the Americas.” 

SAM MEACHAM, CAVE EXPLORATION RESEARCHER AND FOUNDER OF EL CENTRO INVESTIGADOR DEL SISTEMA ACUÍFERO DE QUINTANA ROO A.C. (CINDAQ), SAYS:

“It is not what we have found so far, but what we have yet to discover that gets us out of bed every morning. We have no doubt that there is so much more out there just waiting to be found and understood. And we hope that these amazing discoveries of ancient human activities preserved in these waters from so long ago will draw attention to the threats these waters face from human activity now. Ultimately the real treasure within the caves is what flows through them that allows people and wildlife to thrive.” 

DOMINIQUE RISSOLO, ARCHEOLOGIST AND RESEARCH SCIENTIST WITH THE QUALCOMM INSTITUTE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN DIEGO SAYS:

“Ongoing research in the submerged caves of Quintana Roo is contributing to a more holistic understanding of what life was like for the region’s earliest inhabitants. In addition to evidence of mining, the caves contain abundant, diverse, and well-preserved plant and animal remains from the last ice age.” 

PILAR LUNA ERREGUERENA, FORMER HEAD OF MEXICO’S SUBDIRECCIÓN DE ARQUEOLOGIA SUBACUÁTICA DEL INSTITUTO NACIONAL DE ANTROPOLOGÍA E HISTORIA (SAS-INAH), THE OFFICE RESPONSIBLE FOR UNDERWATER CULTURAL HERITAGE IN THE NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ANTHROPOLOGY AND HISTORY, SAYS:

 

“The discoveries in these caves include the earliest examples of human activity ever found in Mexico. The pioneering work of explorers and scientists working together with the national authorities will continue to reveal the rich underwater archeological history of our country. And nowhere is the archeological potential greater than in the Yucatan peninsula.” 

MULTIMEDIA MATERIAL

bit.ly/ochre-mines-media

 

CONTACTS

 

For U.S. media inquires (English only):

Austin Fitzgerald

University of Missouri

+1 573 882 6217

FitzgeraldAc@missouri.edu

 

For Canadian media inquires (English only):

Michelle Donovan                                         

McMaster University                                              

+1 905 525 9140 Ext. 22869

donovam@mcmaster.ca

 

For additional multimedia materials and media inquiries from all other countries (English, Spanish and French):

Philippe Devos

CINDAQ

+1 416 453 0092

phildevos@gmail.com

 

 

 

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