Experts and cave divers on the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula have found ocher mines that are among the oldest on the continent. Old skeletons have been found in the narrow, winding labyrinths of the now-sinking sinkhole caves.
“A young woman who died 13,000 years ago has been found over the past 15 years. Archaeologists have wondered how they ended up in the then dry caves. Roughly 8,000 years ago, rising sea levels flooded the caves known as the Caribbean Cenotes Coastal town of Tulum.
Did these early residents fall in or deliberately go down to find shelter, food, or water? Nine sets of human skeletal remains have been found in the underwater caves, the passages of which can hardly be large enough to squeeze through.
Recent discoveries of approximately 900 meters of ocher mines suggest that they may have been more attractive. The discovery of remains of human fires, stacked mining rubble, simple stone tools, navigation aids and burial sites suggests that people went into the caves about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago to look for iron-rich red ocher that the early peoples of America valued for decoration and Rituals.
Such pigments have been used in cave paintings, rock paintings, burials and other structures among early peoples around the world.
The early miners apparently brought torches or firewood to set fire to their work and broke off stalagmites to knock out the ocher. They left traces of smoke on the roof of the caves, which are still visible today.
“While Naia contributed to understanding the origins, growth, and development of these early Americans, little was known about why she and her contemporaries took the risk of entering the cave labyrinth,” wrote researchers from Quintana Roo’s aquifers research center , known as CINDAQ for its initials in Spanish.
The research was published Friday in the journal Science Advances.
“There was speculation about what would have taken them to places that were as complex and dangerous to navigate as temporary refuge, fresh water, or burial of human remains, but none of the previous speculation was well supported by archaeological evidence,” they wrote.
“Now we know for the first time why people of that time would take the enormous risk and effort to explore these treacherous caves,” said CINDAQ founder Sam Meacham. At least one reason, Meacham said, was to find and mine red ocher.
Roberto Junco Sánchez, head of underwater archeology at the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico, said the discovery meant that the caves were changed early on by humans. The early miners may have removed tons of ocher, which, when ground into a paste, can be used to color hair, skin, stones, or skins in various shades of red.
“Now we know that old people didn’t risk entering this labyrinth of caves just to fetch water or flee from predators, but they also entered them to me,” said Junco Sanchez.
However, James Chatters, forensic anthropologist, archaeologist, and paleontologist at Applied Paleoscience, a consulting firm in Bothell, Washington, found that none of the Mayan human remains were found in the caves right in the mining areas.
Dr. Spencer Pelton, a professor at the University of Wyoming and a state archaeologist, unearthed a somewhat older ocher mine at the Powars II site near Hartville, Wyoming.
Pelton agreed that ocher had a particularly strong appeal among America’s first inhabitants.
Red ocher mining “seems to be particularly important in the first phase of human settlement … it can be found on tools, soils, hunting areas,” said Pelton. “It’s a substance of great power … everyone likes bright red things.”
“It gives them a reason to go into the caves,” said Pelton, adding, “Given the massive scale of this mining, it is the first thing I would strive for.”
The caves offer a well-preserved environment and are the location where one of America’s oldest human remains was discovered in 2007, a young woman nicknamed “Naia”.
Chatters said Naia “most likely died of a 30-meter fall from the dark cave tunnel” onto the floor of a chamber below.