MEXICO CITY – Experts and cave divers from Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula have found ocher mines that are some of the oldest on the continent, which could explain why ancient skeletons were found in the narrow, twisted mazes of caves now submerged.
As skeletal remains like “Naia”, a young woman who died 13,000 years ago, were found in the past 15 years, archaeologists wonder how they ended up in the then-dried caves. About 8,000 years ago, rising sea levels flooded the caves, known as cenotes, around the coastal resort of Tulum in the Caribbean.
Had these first inhabitants fallen or were they intentionally looking for shelter, food or water? Nine sets of human skeletal remains have been found in underwater caves, the passages of which can barely be large enough to cross,
Recent discoveries of about 900 meters of ocher mines suggest that they may have a more powerful attraction. The discovery of human fire debris, stacked mining debris, simple stone tools, navigation aids and excavation sites suggest that humans entered the caves about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago in search of rich red ocher in iron, which the first peoples of the Americas valued for decoration and rituals.
Such pigments were used in rock paintings, rock art, burials and other structures among the world’s first peoples.
The first miners apparently brought torches or firewood to light their work and broke pieces of stalagmite to hit the ocher. They left smoke marks on the roof of the caves that are still visible today.
“Although Naia increased the understanding of the ancestry, growth and development of these early Americans, little was known about why she and her contemporaries were at risk of entering the cave maze,” wrote researchers at the Quintana Aquifer Research Center. Roo, known as CINDAQ for its initials in Spanish.
“There was speculation about what would take them to such complex and dangerous places to navigate, such as temporary shelters, fresh water or burial of human remains, but none of the previous speculation was well supported by archaeological evidence,” they said. I wrote.
“Now, for the first time, we know why people at that time took the enormous risk and effort to explore these treacherous caves,” said Sam Meacham, founder of CINDAQ. Meacham said that at least one reason was to prospect and extract the red ocher.
Roberto Junco Sanchez, head of underwater archeology at the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico, said the discovery meant that the caves were altered by humans early on. Early miners may have removed tons of ocher, which, when ground into a paste, can be used to color hair, skin, stones or leather in various shades of red.
“Now we know that ancient humans were not at risk of entering this maze of caves just to get water or to escape predators, but that they also entered mine,” said Junco Sanchez.
However, James Chatters, a forensic anthropologist, archaeologist and paleontologist at Applied Paleoscience, a consulting firm in Bothell, Washington, noted that none of the pre-Mayan human remains in the caves were found directly in the mining areas.
Spencer Pelton, a professor at the University of Wyoming and a state archaeologist, dug a slightly older ocher mine at the Powars II site, near Hartville, Wyoming.
Pelton agreed that among the first inhabitants of the Americas, ocher had an especially powerful attraction.
Red ocher mining “seems especially important during the first period of human colonization … you find it on tools, floors, hunting grounds,” said Pelton. “It is a substance of great power … everyone likes bright red things.”
“It gives them a reason” to enter the caves, said Pelton, adding: “Considering the massive scale of this mining, it is the first thing I would look for.”
The caves provide a well-preserved environment and are where one of the oldest sets of human remains found in the Americas, a young woman nicknamed “Naia”, was discovered in 2007.
Chatters said Naia “probably died from a 30-meter drop from the cave’s dark tunnel” on the floor of a chamber below.