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Divers Find Oldest Ocher Mines in the Americas


Experts in Mexico have discovered what they believe to be the oldest ocher mines in all the Americas. The discovery is helping researchers to better understand the Paleoindian era and how highly valued the red pigment was for ancient societies.

The prehistoric mining operation was uncovered in a coastal cave system in Quintana Roo, Mexico, off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. This system was submerged under the waters during the Last Ice Age but was once part of the land.

In 2017 an international team of divers led by Brandi MacDonald under the auspices of the El Centro Investigador del Sistema Acuífero de Quintana Roo A.C. (CINDAQ) were exploring the underwater passageways. In one cave, they found features that could not be a result of natural processes and knew that they had found something special. INAH Cultura reports the divers were intrigued by ‘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’.

America’s oldest ocher mine discovered in Quintana Roo. (Image: Sam Meacham, CINDAQ. A.C. SAS-INAH / INAH)

Ancient ocher pits

In 2018, with the help of an expert, they established that they had found evidence of an ocher mine. Over the following years, the team conducted many dives and retrieved samples and took photographs and videoed the site and other nearby sites. Then, divers brought their finds to the attention of Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH). They were able to use carbon dating to determine that the site was up over 12,000 years old.

The experts wrote in a study in Science Advances that, ‘The cave passages exhibit preserved evidence for ocher extraction pits’. Divers have named the site ‘La Mina’ and two later discoveries have been called ‘Camilo Mina’ and ‘Monkey Dust’. Eduard Reinhardt from McMaster University is quoted by Heritage Daily as stating that, ‘These underwater caves are a time capsule’. This is because many mines on the surface have been lost due to natural processes. The tools of the miners have also been uncovered and this is offering experts a unique opportunity to learn how ancient people’s mined ocher.

This ocher mine is easily the oldest yet found in all the Americas and one of the earliest sites of mining in all the Western Hemisphere. Brandi MacDonald told Heritage Daily that ‘What is remarkable is not only the preservation of the mining activity but also the age and duration of it’. The mining operation was very sophisticated as the team found evidence of navigational markers, in the form of stone cairns and many fires, presumably to provide light for the miners.

Mining tools were found in and around the many cavities of the cave. (Image: Sam Meacham, CINDAQ. SAS-INAH / INAH)

Before the rise of the Maya

It appears that the miners did not bring tools with them into the cave but used what they found in the underground. MacDonald from the University of Missouri, who led the analysis. “They’re breaking off stalactites from the ceiling and using them as hammerstones and pile drivers to smash through the limestone’ reports Science. Amazingly, it is believed that ocher was mined in the caves for around 2000 years, millennia before the rise of the Maya, Olmecs and other Mesoamerican civilizations.

Dr Roberto Junco Sánchez, a marine archaeologist with the Mexican Ministry of Culture that the site, ‘is a continuation of Hoyo Negro’ reports Cultura. This is an archaeological site where 10 Paleoindian skeletons were found. Among these was one known as ‘ Naia’, which was a name given to the skeletal remains of a young woman found in 2014 inside the Hoyo Negro (Black Hole) archaeological site’ according to Cultura.

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Tulum, Quintana Roo. The labyrinthine subsurface of the Yucatan peninsula continues to be the source of scientific discoveries. SAS-INAH / INAH)

Skeletons of Paleoindians

The remains of Naia and the others may be of those who entered the mines and even worked on them, although no human remains have yet been found in this area. The team of researchers have suggested that, ‘some miners may have died and been left where they perished’ according to Science News . It seems certain that the mining of ocher was abandoned because of the rising seas.

Further analysis has shown that the ocher was of high-quality and would have been very much in demand by artists. Science states that, ‘There’s no evidence to explain how the mine’s riches were used: The hot, humid jungle environment has decayed most archaeological clues. However previous studies can help researchers to understand the probable use of the pigment .

Ocher and human evolution

Ocher is an iron oxide earth mineral pigment that was used by ancient peoples all over the world and still used by many African tribes. ‘Considered to be a key component of human evolutionary development and behavioral complexity’ the experts wrote in Science Advances . It was highly prized, and it was used in rock art, body painting, tanning, adhesive and even as a bug repellent. Typically the pigment is believed to have been used in both ‘utilitarian’ or ‘ritual-symbolic’ contexts’’ according to Science Advances . Numerous examples of ocher grinding stones have been found throughout the world.

The fact that people were prepared to go deep underground illustrates how important ocher was for Paleoindians. MacDonald is quoted by Heritage Daily as stating that, “Our study reinforces the notion that ocher has long been an important material throughout human history.” Animals and plant remains have also been found in the caves and they are helping researchers to understand the environment of the earliest American ocher miners.


MU researchers date mining of cave system to end of last Ice Age

MacDonald and her colleagues have dated this red ochre mining cave system to the end of the last Ice Age, making it the oldest of its kind in the Americas. Image courtesy of Sam Meacham/CINDAQ.org

A team of underwater cave explorers in Mexico has discovered the oldest known system of red ochre mines in the Americas, shedding light on how humans lived as much as 12,000 years ago. The subterranean cave system, known as Sagitario, was once dry but is now completely submerged. It was mined by humans during the tail-end of the Pleistocene era for the highly valued mineral pigment.

Brandi MacDonald, an assistant research professor at the University of Missouri Research Reactor’s Archaeometry Laboratory, led the first study on the discovery in conjunction with researchers from Canada and cultural authorities in Mexico. The study dates the use of the mine system to a 2,000-year period between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago. It also shows that ochre mining played a key role in determining not only how Paleoindians used land, but how they worked as a group to adapt to ecological challenges as sea levels rose and so-called megafauna — large animals such as wooly mammoths and giant sloths — went extinct.

Christophe Le Maillot, an author on the study, examines formations in the underwater cave system. Image courtesy of Sam Meacham/CINDAQ.org

“Until now, no one was really sure why this region’s earliest inhabitants were exploring underground cave systems,” MacDonald said. “The incredibly well-preserved artifacts discovered in Sagitario, including fire pits, makeshift tools and remnants of human-made paths, show us that ochre mining was a large-scale industry. These caves were vital for harvesting ochre that could have been used in painting, jewelry, hide-tanning and many other applications.”

MacDonald believes the extent and intensity of the mining activities suggests that ochre was a highly valued mineral resource. The fact that the large-scale mining operations took place in the cave system during a period of rapid environmental change also indicates what MacDonald considers to be a remarkable level of social organization from a hunter-gatherer society.

In 2017, in association with the Subdirección de Arqueología Subacuáica, part of the Government of Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, the international team of divers went further into the cave system than ever before. Less than 10 kilometers inland from popular beaches on the Yucatán peninsula, the divers navigated narrow passages and plunged nearly 230 feet underwater to take photos and video that allowed off-site researchers — such as MacDonald — to study the caves in detail.

In turn, MacDonald studied the evidence of human activity in the mine to learn more about the people who

Brandi MacDonald led the first study to analyze the discovery of the red ochre mining cave system.

explored the underground caves. These people were known as Paleoindians — those who inhabited the Americas at the end of the most recent Ice Age about 12,000 years ago. In addition to human skeletons and stone cairns used as navigational markers, these Paleoindians also left behind charcoal in the caves, leaving blackened and fire-reddened deposits as they used it to light their way through the subterranean passages. Through radiocarbon dating of the charcoal, MacDonald and her colleagues showed that humans were actively mining red ochre in at least three Yucatán cave systems for a nearly 2,000 year period beginning about 12,000 years ago, before the caves were flooded in a period of global sea level rise.

“Subterranean mining carries inherent risks, and doing so to such an extent during this period is remarkable,” MacDonald said. “Continuing research will focus on determining the extent of the mining activities at other submerged cave sites in the Yucatán Peninsula.”

MacDonald said that while the Mayans are known to have mined caves for pigments and other resources beginning after 4,000 years ago, this is the first known example of red ochre cave mining by Paleoindians. This discovery helps researchers understand later cave mining as a continuation of the knowledge and activities of earlier peoples.

The study, “Paleoindian ochre mines in the submerged caves of the Yucatan peninsula, Quintana Roo, Mexico,” was published in Science Advances. Other researchers involved in the study were David Stalla of the University of Missouri Marc D. Marino of the University of Arkansas James C. Chatters of forensics consulting firm Applied Paleoscience and radiocarbon dating service DirectAMS Eduard G. Reinhardt of McMaster University Fred Devos, Sam Meacham and Chris Le Maillot of Centro Investigador del Sistema Acuífero de Q Roo Dominique Rissolo and Eric Lo of the University of California, San Diego Barry Rock of the University of New Hampshire and Pilar Luna Erreguerena of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.


Divers uncover mysteries of earliest inhabitants of Americas deep inside Yucatan caves

A diver from Centro Investigador del Sistema Acuífero de Q Roo (CINDAQ A.C.) collects charcoal samples in the oldest ochre mine ever found in the Americas, used 10,000-12,000 years ago by the earliest inhabitants of the Western hemisphere to procure the ancient commodity. The charcoal is thought to come from wood burned to light the cave for the ancient miners. The mine holds some the best-preserved evidence of the earliest inhabitants of the hemisphere and was found in a cave that is now underwater in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Credit: © CINDAQ.ORG

It was all about the ochre.

Thousands of years ago, the first inhabitants of the Americas journeyed deep into caves in present-day Mexico to mine red ochre, a highly valued, natural clay earth pigment used as paint.

Now, according to a new study, scientists and divers have discovered the first evidence of this mining operation deep within underwater caves in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

"What is remarkable is not only the preservation of the mining activity, but also the age and duration of it," said study lead author Brandi MacDonald of the University of Missouri. "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."

While MacDonald and her colleagues are uncertain exactly how this ochre was used, evidence from other parts of North America suggest it may have been used as an antiseptic, sunscreen or vermin repellent or for ritual and symbolic purposes such as funerals or art decoration.

from a piece of speleothem and used 10,000-12,000 years ago by the earliest inhabitants of the Western hemisphere to mine for ochre in the oldest such site ever found in the Americas. The mine holds some the best-preserved evidence of the earliest inhabitants of the hemisphere and was found in a cave that is now underwater in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Credit: © CINDAQ.ORG

Scientists said it's the oldest known ochre mine in the Americas.

This evidence of ancient cave exploration and mining spans a period of many generations over about 2,000 years and dates from 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, according to the study. That was 8,000 years before the establishment of the Maya culture for which the region is well known.

The caves have all filled with water in the thousands of years since the original mining was done because of rising sea levels that led to floods.

Cave divers made the discovery hundreds of feet into an underwater cave, at some points squeezing themselves through tiny crevices to reach the find. During nearly 100 dives totaling more than 600 hours, divers found extensive evidence of the prehistoric ochre mining operations.

The finds included remarkably preserved ochre extraction beds and pits, digging tools, shattered debris that has been piled by human effort, navigational markers and fire pits.

A diver from Centro Investigador del Sistema Acuífero de Q Roo (CINDAQ A.C.) in the oldest ochre mine ever found in the Western hemisphere, used 10,000-12,000 years ago by the earliest inhabitants of the hemisphere to procure the ancient commodity. The mine holds some the best-preserved evidence these ancient peoples was found in a cave that is now underwater in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Credit: © CINDAQ.ORG

"Most evidence of ancient mining on the surface has been altered through natural and human processes, obscuring the record," said study co-author Eduard Reinhardt, expert diver and professor at McMaster University in Ontario. "These underwater caves are a time capsule. With all the tools left as they were 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, it represents a unique learning opportunity."

In addition to the international team of scientists, the divers were also from Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History and from the Quintana Roo Aquifer System Research Center (CINDAQ).

Experts say the find is only the beginning of discoveries possible in the caves of the Yucatan.

"It is not what we have found so far, but what we have yet to discover that gets us out of bed every morning," said Sam Meacham, cave exploration researcher and founder of CINDAQ. "We have no doubt that there is so much more out there just waiting to be found and understood."

The study was published Friday in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances.


Oldest ocher mines in America found in the Yucatan peninsula

Evidence of mining activity indicates that this spanned a period of 2,000 years and occurred between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago.

An international team of scientists announced the discovery of the oldest ocher mines in the American continent, exploited by humans at least 10,000 years ago, in underwater caves in the Yucatan peninsula, a finding that opens the door to better understand the life of the first inhabitants of what is now southern Mexico.

“It is one of the great discoveries that have been taking place in these decades,” Dr. Roberto Junco, deputy director of underwater archeology at the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico (INAH), one of the institutions that has participated in the discovery.

The researchers, who have published their findings in the scientific journal Science Advances, have established that the mines, found by divers Fred Devos and Sam Meacham, of the Research Center for the Aquifer System of Quintana Roo (Cindaq), inside a system of three caves that were submerged thousands of years ago, were exploited by humans more than 10,000 years ago and for a period of about 2,000 years.

Ocher to create art

But as Dr. Junco and Professor Brandi MacDonald, from the University of Missouri and who have analyzed the cave samples, pointed out to Efe, the most important thing is that the finding connects with the remains of Naia , the most complete skeleton found in Yucatan of an adolescent woman and between 12 thousand and 13 thousand years old.

Photo: Reuters

“The possibility that the exploitation of ocher opens up in those very early times is incredible. There are multiple hypotheses but I like to think of Naia with the possibility of painting on the wall of a cave or Naia decorating her face with colored symbols,” Junco said. .

“This possibility of generating art, symbolism, opens a very interesting door for the study of prehistory in Mexico and the Americas. These mines are truly sensational. The oldest known so far in the Americas,” added the scientist. Mexican.

Canadian MacDonald, one of the world’s leading specialists in the study of ocher, a pigment that has fascinated humans for thousands of years and was used to paint caves, decorate bodies, and treat fur, agrees with Junco on the possibilities that opens the discovery of Devos and Meacham.

Preservation is incredible and allows us to contemplate the mental process of the inhabitants of Yucatan 10,000 years ago. It is not an activity (the extraction of ocher in the depths of a complicated network of caves) that can be carried out by just one person. it needs the collaboration of a lot of people, “said MacDonald.

Photo: Reuters

The value of the ocher

“And there are few opportunities to interpret how the inhabitants of prehistory in Yucatan lived, collaborated and what activities they carried out. This discovery can allow us to do so. For me, one of the most interesting questions that arise is whether the exploitation of ocher was a defining characteristic of Yucatan, “he continued.

“Did people come to this region because of the ocher? For me that is very interesting,” MacDonald concluded.

Devos, the discoverer of the cave network, also highlighted during an interview with Efe the perfect state of preservation of the site.

Devos, who for more than 30 years has been dedicated to exploring underwater caves, recognized his “emotion” when realizing while diving that other humans had walked in those caves 10,000 years ago and that everything was as it was about 7,000 years ago. years.

“It was very impressive,” he explained.

Devos and Meacham made the discovery casually .

“It is a cave previously explored but in 2017 I was asked to make a map, which is one of my specialized ones. During the process I discovered a tunnel in a wall and when we passed we reached a restriction of about 70 centimeters wide,” he explained.

“But since during the tour we saw strange things, stones stacked on top of each other, broken stalactites, we thought that someone had been there before, which was impossible. That made us want to move on. Although it was not easy to pass the restriction with everything the team, we did it, “he continued.

“On the other side we began to see changes in the cave made by humans very clearly. It was the most memorable dive I have done in my almost 30 years of profession,” added the diver.

Devos, Meacham and other Cindaq divers took more than 20,000 360-degree photos and hours of video during that initial dive and another hundred submerged in the following months.

With the help of a supercomputer from an American university, those photos and videos have become a three-dimensional model of the caves, allowing scientists to study the find without having to dive into the caves.

Photo: INAI video capture

Devos also extracted samples of ocher from underground mines and coal from the remains of fires that the initial explorers used to illuminate the caves. With that material, MacDonald was able to establish the composition of the ocher and date the remains to determine the age of the find.

The analysis of the ocher allows us to venture what may be the reason why the inhabitants of Yucatan ventured for generations inside the caves to extract the pigment.

“The ocher in these caves is of very high quality. It is basically ready-to-use paint. Other deposits are not of such high quality and the ocher has to be purified. The one in the Yucatan caves, when dried and heated, turns from a vibrant red color. It sticks to everything. That’s probably why it was so valued and they took the risk to undermine it, “MacDonald said.


Underwater caves once hosted the Americas’ oldest known ochre mines

A diver collects burned wood from a fire pit in the oldest known ochre mine in the Americas. People extracted red pigment from chambers deep in a now-submerged Mexican cave system between around 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, scientists say.

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Ancient Americans ventured deep into caves along a stretch of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to mine a red pigment that could have had both practical and ritual uses, researchers say.

Discoveries of mining-related artifacts and digging areas by divers in three now-submerged cave systems indicate that people there removed a natural pigment called red ochre, say archaeologist Brandi MacDonald of the University of Missouri in Columbia and her colleagues. Radiocarbon dates of burned wood from fires used to illuminate mining areas place humans at these sites between roughly 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, making it the oldest evidence of ochre mining in the Americas, the investigators report July 3 in Science Advances.

Previous finds have suggested that ancient Americans used red ochre in many ways, including as an antiseptic, sunscreen, hide-tanning agent and for body painting and other symbolic purposes (SN: 2/12/14).

Remnants of ancient pigment mining uncovered by MacDonald’s team raise the possibility that some miners may have died and been left where they perished. Divers previously found at least 10 human skeletons in Yucatán caves dating to as early as around 12,000 years ago, before rising seas inundated the underground chambers (SN: 2/6/20).

In one cave system, an approximately 900-meter-long series of tunnels dubbed La Mina contained extensive evidence of red ochre extraction. Several narrow passages leading into La Mina contained piles of stones and broken pieces of cave growths that miners apparently used as navigation guides. Other broken-off cave growths had been wielded as digging tools. Most of the 352 pits and other intentionally disturbed areas in La Mina contain remnants of ochre deposits, the researchers say. Ochre samples from La Mina were bright red and chemically suitable for making paint, they add.

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Ocher mine in Quintana Roo is at least 10,000 years old

Divers have rediscovered an ocher mine in a submerged coastal cave system in Tulum, Quintana Roo, that is more than 10,000 years old.

Two cave divers from the Quintana Roo Aquifer System Research Center (CINDAQ), Sam Meacham and Fred Devos, located the mine in 2017 and showed it to Eduard Reinhardt, a geoarchaeologist at McMaster University in Canada, the following year.

The three men concluded that ocher – an earthy yellow, red or brown-colored substance used for a variety of purposes including rock art, body painting, the tanning of animal hides and possibly as a medicine – was mined in the now-submerged cave system thousands of years ago.

Radiocarbon dating confirmed that the earliest deposits of ocher were left there some 12,000 years ago while the most recent deposits originated about 10,000 years ago. Rising seas inundated the three-cave system approximately 7,000 years ago but by that time it is believed that the mine had already been abandoned for several millennia.

Dubbed La Mina (The Mine), the site is one of the oldest known ocher mines in the Western Hemisphere.

A research article published in the journal Science Advances on Friday details the rediscovery of the mine and the academic implications.

“The cave’s landscape has been noticeably altered, which leads us to believe that prehistoric humans extracted tonnes of ocher from it, maybe having to light fire pits to illuminate the space,” Devos said.

The divers found piles of coal on the floor of the caves and soot on the ceiling, indicating that fires were once lit there.

Brandi MacDonald, an archaeological researcher at the University of Missouri and lead author of the research article, said that there is evidence that ancient miners broke stalactites off the ceiling of the cave system and used them as tools to smash through limestone and extract high-quality ocher.

MacDonald said that there is no conclusive evidence that indicates how the ancient miners used the ocher, explaining that the hot and humid climate has corroded archaeological clues.

However, she said that the ocher’s unusually high arsenic content could have made it an effective insect repellant.

MacDonald also suggested that it was used for decoration, a hypothesis shared by a University of Wyoming archaeologist who is excavating an ocher deposit in that state.

“The love of shiny red things is a pretty universal human trait. … It’s why we buy red sports cars,” Spencer Pelton told Science magazine.

Roberto Junco, head of the Underwater Archaeology Department (SAS) at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), said that La Mina is a continuation of the Hoyo Negro, or Black Hole underwater chamber, where the skeleton of a teenage female known as “Naia” was discovered in 2007.

Experts have concluded that early inhabitants of the Yucatán Peninsula entered cave systems to search for water and to take shelter from predators. The discovery of La Mina indicates that they had another reason to go inside.

“We can now imagine ‘Naia’ entering the caves in search of ocher, an element that to this day is the most widely used inorganic body paint amongst African communities to create a red pigment,” Junco said.

“This opens up the possibility that the mineral not only had an ornamental value, but also a significance in terms of identity, or that it was used to create artistic manifestations, amongst many other hypotheses.”

INAH said in a statement that experts from Mexico, the United States and Canada will continue to conduct laboratory research in coming months to learn more about the mine and the cave system in which it is located.

Dominique Rissolo, an archaeology researcher at the University of California in San Diego and one of the research article authors, said that a 3D model of the site was created from more than 20,000 photos that were taken during almost 100 dives.

The model allows archaeologists to continue exploring the site virtually without getting wet.

“The team of explorers and researchers assembled for this project is delivering outstanding results,” Junco said.

“The SAS acknowledges … the work of each and every one of them, especially the explorers from the CINDAQ, and their commitment towards the underwater cultural heritage of Mexico.”

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This 12,000-Year-Old Ochre Mine Is the Oldest One Discovered in America

A screenshot showing a diver exploring the now sunken ochre mine in Quintana Roo, Mexico. Image Credit: McMaster University / Vimeo.

Researchers have discovered what they believe is the oldest ochre mine in the Americas. The ancient mine is believed to date back around 12,000 years and was discovered in underwater caves on the Mexican coast.

The discovery was made in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo and accounts for mining activity, particularly the extraction of ochre, carried out by prehistoric American populations.

The submerged caves along the Yucatan peninsula represent a genuine maze filled with archaeological artifacts, perhaps unmatched on the planet. Within this vast network of underground tunnels, the various cenotes are flooded —literally— with ancient treasures.

Now, a new discovery opens the door to better understand the life of the first inhabitants of this area.

In a new study published in ScienceAdvances, researchers report what they believe is the oldest mine in the entire American continent some 12,000 years ago, an ancient population saw the need to extract ochre, and they did so, leaving behind traces for us to find thousands of years later.

The underwater caves serve as a time capsule.

“This is clear evidence that the extraction of ochre took place here thousands of years ago,” revealed micropaleontologist Ed Reinhardt of McMaster University in Canada.

In 2017, Reinhardt and his colleagues explored the caves along the east coast of Quintana Roo, known to contain remains of the people who inhabited the area before the water level rose and the caves were flooded.

Why people ventured into these dangerous labyrinths thousands of years ago remains a mystery, though the recent discovery suggests a valuable reason.

“The cave landscape has been remarkably altered, leading us to believe that prehistoric humans extracted tons of ochre from it, perhaps having to light fires to illuminate the space,” explains diver and archaeologist Fred Devos of the Center for Research of the Quintana Roo Aquifer System (CINDAQ) in Mexico.

Among the evidence of this prehistoric mining activity, the team found rudimentary excavation tools, ochre extraction beds, markers, and campfire remains. All indications suggest that ochre mining was practiced in three cave systems now submerged: La Mina, Camilo Mina, and Monkey Dust.

Furthermore, the study suggests that the ochre was mined across long periods. The evidence so far suggests that the material was mined for at least 2,000 years, between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, making the mines the oldest in America.

For unknown reasons, miners ceased mining work around 8000 B.C. when the caves were still accessible. It is possible, as scientists suggest, that the people that mined the ochre moved to another area, abandoning not only the mines but settlements as well.

“With 2,000 kilometers of known cave systems to explore in the region, we are likely to find more evidence to solve this mystery in the future,” experts have revealed.

Although many questions remain unanswered, researchers say that the prehistoric miners must have had great courage to venture hundreds of meters into these jagged caverns, with only a torch to light the way in the underground darkness. This already tells us the importance of obtaining ochre, used by the Palaeoamericans as a pigment for rituals, art, and decoration of bodies.


Divers uncover mysteries of earliest inhabitants of Americas deep inside Yucatan caves

Divers in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula say they have discovered the world’s largest underwater cave.

Story Highlights

  • “What is remarkable is not only the preservation of the mining activity, but also the age and duration of it."
  • Ochre has long been an important material throughout human history.
  • Cave divers made the discovery several hundred meters into an underwater cave.

It was all about the ochre.

Thousands of years ago, the first inhabitants of the Americas journeyed deep into caves in present-day Mexico to mine red ochre, a highly valued, natural clay earth pigment used as paint.

Now, according to a new study, scientists and divers have discovered the first evidence of this mining operation deep within underwater caves in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

“What is remarkable is not only the preservation of the mining activity, but also the age and duration of it," said study lead author Brandi MacDonald of the University of Missouri. "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.”

A diver examines a landmark of piled stones left in the oldest ochre mine ever found in the Americas, used 10,000 to 12,000 years ago by the earliest inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere to procure the ancient commodity. (Photo: © CINDAQ.ORG)

While MacDonald and her colleagues are uncertain exactly how this ochre was used, evidence from other parts of North America suggest it may have been used as an antiseptic, sunscreen or vermin repellent or for ritual and symbolic purposes such as funerals or art decoration.

Scientists said it's the oldest known ochre mine in the Americas.

This evidence of ancient cave exploration and mining spans a period of many generations over about 2,000 years and dates from 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, according to the study. That was 8,000 years before the establishment of the Maya culture for which the region is well known.

The caves have all filled with water in the thousands of years since the original mining was done because of rising sea levels that led to floods.

Cave divers made the discovery hundreds of feet into an underwater cave, at some points squeezing themselves through tiny crevices to reach the find. During nearly 100 dives totaling more than 600 hours, divers found extensive evidence of the prehistoric ochre mining operations.

The finds included remarkably preserved ochre extraction beds and pits, digging tools, shattered debris that has been piled by human effort, navigational markers and fire pits.

“Most evidence of ancient mining on the surface has been altered through natural and human processes, obscuring the record," said study co-author Eduard Reinhardt, expert diver and professor at McMaster University in Ontario. "These underwater caves are a time capsule. With all the tools left as they were 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, it represents a unique learning opportunity."

In addition to the international team of scientists, the divers were also from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History and from the Quintana Roo Aquifer System Research Center (CINDAQ).

Experts say the find is only the beginning of discoveries possible in the caves of the Yucatan.

“It is not what we have found so far, but what we have yet to discover that gets us out of bed every morning," said Sam Meacham, cave exploration researcher and founder of CINDAQ. "We have no doubt that there is so much more out there just waiting to be found and understood."

The study was published Friday in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances.


Deep in since-flooded caves, researchers find evidence of America's first miners

Sam Meacham has spent years studying the miles of caves beneath Mexico’s Yucatán region.

Although they are now flooded, most of the caves in Quintana Roo state were dry and accessible until about 8,000 years ago, when sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age. It was known that the ancestors of modern Native Americans ventured into the pitch-dark caves, which extend for hundreds of miles beneath the limestone landscape. Human bones have been found deep within the caves, hundreds of yards from the entrances, and archaeologists have proposed that people went there in search of fresh water or to perform rituals.

Meacham and his CINDAQ dive team had seen “weird” things in other parts of the Sagitario cave, such as signs of digging and piles of rocks, that they could not explain. Then, in 2017, Meachem was mapping a section of the cave known as La Mina, beyond a narrow part of their passage from the surface, when he encountered something that has changed how archaeologists think about the earliest peoples of the Americas.

"When we slipped through the narrow passageway to the other side … it all kind of finally fell into place for us,” Meacham said.

Meacham found signs people mined there more than 10,000 years ago for a valuable pigment — red ochre — known to be used in rituals, according to research published Friday in the journal Science Advances.

The divers saw extensive evidence of red ochre mining – including pits dug in the cave floor, vivid traces of ochre, stone tools, and charcoal from fires to provide light.

The discovery makes the ancient explorers of the cave perhaps the earliest miners anywhere in the Americas.

Red ochre is a mineral rich in iron oxides used as a red pigment by many ancient cultures.

Its color has been likened symbolically to the color of blood, and it was used in rituals for hundreds of thousands of years, especially in burials and in body paints.

It may have had medicinal uses, too, and could be used to tan hides or as a pest repellent.

“Red ochre played multiple roles within these communities,” said Brandi MacDonald, an archaeologist at the University of Missouri and a lead author of the research. “It could have served both symbolic and utilitarian functions, and its uses could have changed over time.”

The researchers can’t tell exactly how the ochre from the Quintana Roo caves was used, but it may have been especially valuable because it is exceptionally fine-grained – “ready-made paint,” MacDonald said – and has high traces of arsenic, which could have enhanced its medicinal qualities.

The ancient ochre mine was discovered in 2017 in the Sagitario cave, about 5 miles from the Caribbean coastline.

Research shows the mine dates from between 11,400 and 10,700 years ago – a few thousand years after humans arrived in the Americas from Asia – and that at least two other nearby caves were also used to mine red ochre.

“It must have been quite valuable in terms of the amount of effort to find it and [mine] it,” said geoarchaeologist Eduard Reinhardt of McMaster University, a lead author who dived into La Mina to take samples from the ancient mine. “It required a lot of social organization.”

Teams of at least three people carried out the mining, removing rocks and stalagmites to dig pits in the floor of the cave where the ochre deposits were found, said archaeologist James Chatters of Applied Paleoscience, another of the lead authors.

Others probably carried in firewood to keep the cave lit and carried the mined ochre outside, he said.

Some of the bones in the Quintana Roo caves appear to be from people who had lost their way.

“If you let your fire go out, 600 [yards] deep in the cave system, you’re in trouble,” Chatters said. “It’s a labyrinth.”

Archaeologist Loren Davis of Oregon State University, who was not involved in research, explained that very little evidence of early humans survives in the Yucatán.

“It is a hot, steamy jungle and things just don’t preserve well there,” he said. “The researchers have basically found the sweet spot where archaeological information is going to be preserved.”

Anthropologist Matthew Des Lauriers at California State University, San Bernardino, said the study showed America’s earliest peoples went to incredible lengths to mine ochre – an unmistakable sign that they shared the same interests as other ancient peoples.

“The pathway that our ancestors took is marked with red ochre,” he said. “To find these uniquely human expressions, and at this great antiquity, in the Americas is really special.”


Prehistoric mine discovered in flooded cave complex in Mexico

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A prehistoric ocher mine has been discovered in a flooded cave complex in Mexico.

Underwater archaeologists discovered the mine in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. According to Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the ocher mine dates back 10,000 to 12,000 years and is the oldest discovered in the Americas.

The 0.5 miles of ocher mines were found in a 3.73-mile flooded cave complex. The discovery of remains of human-set fires, stacked mining debris, simple stone tools, navigational aids and digging sites suggest humans went into the cave seeking iron-rich red ocher, which early peoples in the Americas cherished for decoration and rituals.

Such pigments were used in cave paintings, rock art, burials and other structures among early peoples around the globe.

Diver Christophe Le Maillot documents the site. (Photo: Sam Meacham, CINDAQ. AC SAS-INAH)

"The landscape in this cave is notably altered, which leads us to think that prehistoric human beings extracted tons of ocher from it, perhaps, seeing the need to light bonfires to illuminate their space," said Fred Devos, co-director of the Research Center for the Aquifer System of Quintana Roo, known as CINDAQ, in the statement. Devos and his CINDAQ co-director Sam Meacham first visited the underground system in 2017. The research is published in the journal Science Advances.

No human remains have been found in the mine, although other skeletons have been found elsewhere in the cave complex.

Since skeletal remains like “Naia,” a young woman who died 13,000 years ago, were found over the last 15 years, archaeologists have wondered how they wound up in the then-dry caves. About 8,000 years ago, rising sea levels flooded the caves, known as cenotes, around the Caribbean coast resort of Tulum.

“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,” wrote researchers from CINDAQ.

“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,” they wrote.

“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," said CINDAQ's Meacham. At least one reason, Meacham said, was to prospect and mine red ocher.

Mexico continues to reveal new aspects of its rich history. Experts, for example, recently announced the discovery of the largest, oldest Maya monument near Mexico’s border with Guatemala.

In a separate project, the capital of a long-lost Maya kingdom was recently discovered in the backyard of a cattle rancher in Mexico.

In 2018, an ancient mask depicting a seventh-century Maya king was discovered in southern Mexico.