TORONTO – An international team of scientists reported on Friday the discovery of an ochre mine that was developed by human beings at least 10,000 years ago in a now-submerged cave system, a find in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula that provides the oldest evidence of that type of activity in the Americas.
An expert at one of the institutions involved in the project said the investigations have opened the door to a better understanding of the lives of the first inhabitants of a region that today is southern Mexico.
“It’s among these great discoveries that have been made in recent decades,” said Dr. Roberto Junco, deputy director of underwater archaeology at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.
The researchers, who published their findings Friday in the journal Science Advances, said the subterranean ochre mine of Paleoindian age was discovered by divers Fred Devos and Sam Meacham of the Quintana Roo Aquifer System Research Center (Cindaq).
They said it provides “compelling evidence” for mining in three cave systems – Camilo Mina, Monkey Dust and Sagitario (including a section called La Mina) – over a period of around 2,000 years more than 10,000 years ago.
“From the evidence we have so far, this activity appears to have ceased by around 10,000 cal BP (calendar years before the present), at least in La Mina, Camilo Mina, and Monkey Dust, well before rising sea levels submerged the ochre deposits,” the research article said.
But the most significant aspect of the find, according to Junco and Brandi MacDonald, an archaeologist and professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia who analyzed samples from the caves, is the link established between ancient prospecting for the pigment mineral red ochre, whose uses include rock art, body decoration and animal hide tanning, and Naia.
They were referring to the remains of a young woman that were found 600 meters (1,970 feet) inside a tunnel system in Hoyo Negro, date back between 12,000 and 13,000 years and are the oldest complete skeleton to be found in the Yucatan.
“The possibilities generated by (the discovery of) ochre mining in such an early period are incredible. There are multiple hypotheses, but I like to think about the possibility of Naia painting on the wall of some cave or Naia decorating her face with colored symbols,” Junco said.
“This possibility of generating art, symbolism, opens a very interesting door in the study of prehistory in Mexico and the Americas. These mines are something truly sensational. The oldest that are known to date in the Americas,” the Mexican scientist said.
The research paper said the reasons why people persisted in their underground exploration of these places have been largely unknown.
“Previous suggestions have included temporary shelter, access to fresh water, ritual or intentional burial of human remains, although none are firmly substantiated by available archaeological evidence. Here, we present uniquely preserved evidence indicating that people were exploring underground cave systems to prospect and mine red ochre, an iron oxide earth mineral pigment used widely by North America’s earliest inhabitants,” the paper said.
MacDonald, a leading world expert on ochre, a pigment that has fascinated human beings for thousands of years, echoed Junco’s remarks on the possibilities opened up by the discovery reported on Friday.
She said the mines were extremely well preserved and give researchers a glimpse into the mental process of the inhabitants of the Yucatan 10,000 years ago.
Devos, Meacham and other divers from Cindaq took more than 20,000 photos and hours of 360-degree video starting with an initial dive in 2017. A three-dimensional model made from those images with the help of a supercomputer at a US university is now allowing researchers to study the find without having to dive the caves themselves.
In an interview with EFE, Devos said it was an emotional moment when he realized that human beings had walked in those caves 10,000 years ago.
“It’s a cave that had been explored before, but in 2017 they asked me to make a map, which is one of my specialties. During the process, I discovered a tunnel in a wall and upon going through we arrived at a restriction about 70 centimeters (28 inches) wide,” he said.
“But since during the (dive) we had seen strange things, rocks piled up one on top of the other, broken stalactites, we thought someone had been there before, which was impossible. That made us want to keep going. Although it wasn’t easy to get through the restriction, we managed to do so with the whole team,” Devos added.
“On the other side, we started to directly see changes in the cave clearly made by humans. It was the most memorable dive I’ve done in my almost 30-year career,” he said.
MacDonald said the ochre samples the divers extracted were basically ready-to-use paint and that its outstanding quality probably explains why it was so highly valued and people embarked on risky subterranean excursions to mine it.