An ochre mine dating back to 12,000 years was discovered in an underwater cave in Yucatan Penunsyla, Mexico by a team of international scientists, the discovery gives insight into the first inhabitants of the Americas.
Ochre mine in an underwater cave
The discovery took 100 dives from marine archaeologists totaling more than 600 hours at the ochre mine site, the results of the study were published in the journal – Science Advances. A large number of artifacts were found at the site as the divers explored about 7 km of subterranean passages in 3 different caves. The team comprised of archaeologists from National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and Research Centre of the Quintana Roo Aquifer System (CINDAQ).
Yucatan peninsula in Mexico has shown great potential for archaeological discoveries, the most recent one being a flooded cave in Quintana Roo region, where marine archaeologists and divers found indisputable evidence of ancient mining activities. The mining operations at the archaeological site what is now Quintana Roo state started about 12,000 years ago, as human populations first spread through the region, and went on for about 2,000 years. The evidence showed prehistoric artifacts including evidence of ancient mining activities, including; navigational markers, digging tools, ochre extraction beds, and ancient fireplaces,
The research team proposes that the evidence found in 3 underwater cave systems spans about 2,000 years of mining operations, from 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. 3 archaeological sites, namely La Mina, Camilo Mina, and Monkey Dust, are the oldest examples of ochre mining in Americas, but the researchers believe that cave exploration and ochre mining in the area could date back even further, based upon skeletal evidence dated to 12,800 years ago.
The researchers deduced that, the miners in this site stopped their ochre extraction about 10,000 years ago. The researchers are unsure about the reason, as the cave would still have been accessible at that point. It is highly likely that the miners moved on to other deposits in other caves – and with 2,000 kilometres of known cave systems to explore in the region, we might find more evidence of this ancient mining in the future.
Fred Devos and Sam Meacham, co-directors of the CINDAQ, explained that during their first cave dive in 2017, they observed the presence of stalactites and stalagmites broken in half, as well as stones stacked in small triangular piles, an unnatural occurrence. The thing that most caught their attention were the heaps of coal on the floor, the soot on the ceiling of the cave and most of all, the presence of small carved out cavities on the ground, where traces of minerals could be found. After analysis, the minerals turned out to be ocher.
Fred Devos from CINDAQ, co-author of the study said “The alteration in the cave’s landscape reveals that ancient humans extracted tonnes of ochre from the cave, while lighting fire pits to illuminate the space. It is certain that tit took great courage for the miners to delve 100s of meters into these jagged caves, with only a lit torch to navigate in the darkness. The miners risking their lives for the ochre pigment shows how important ochre must have been in Paleoindian rituals and customs.”
Dr. Dominique Rissolo, a co-author of the study, states that the discovery was a result of cave exploration using innovative modern technologies such as photogrammetry and 360 degrees underwater cameras. More than 20,000 photos were taken over the span of 600 hours of diving and almost 100 immersions, which eventually led to a 3D model of the archaeological site, allowing virtual access to archaeologists.
Dr. James C. Chatters, a forensic anthropologist, has recreated in his mind what the cave must have looked like in prehistoric times: “imagine a flickering light, in the middle of deep darkness, that at once illuminates the red-stained hands of the miners as they strike the ground with hammers made out of stalagmites, while it lights the way for those who carry the ocher through the tunnels until they reach sunlight and the forest floor.”