Did these early inhabitants fall or did they intentionally descend to seek shelter, food or water? Nine sets of human skeletal remains have been found in the underwater caves, the passages of which can be barely large enough to sneak in.
Recent discoveries of about 900 meters of ocher mines suggest that they may have had a more powerful attraction. The discovery of remains of human-made fires, stacked debris, simple stone tools, aids to navigation and excavation sites suggests that humans entered the caves about 10,000 to 12,000 years, in search of red ocher rich in iron, which the first peoples of the Americas appreciated. for decoration and rituals.
These pigments were used in cave paintings, rock art, burials and other structures among the first peoples of the world.
The first miners apparently brought torches or firewood to light their work and broke pieces of stalagmites to pound the ocher. They left traces of smoke on the roof of the caves which are still visible today.
“While Naia added to the understanding of the ancestry, growth and development of these early Americans, it was unclear why she and her contemporaries took the risk of entering the labyrinth of caves”, wrote researchers from the Quintana Roo Aquifer System Research Center, known as CINDAQ for its initials in Spanish.
The research was published Friday in the journal Science Advances.
“There had been speculation about what would have taken them to places so complex and dangerous to navigate, such as temporary shelters, fresh water or the burial of human remains, but none of the previous speculation was well supported by archaeological evidence, “they said. wrote.
“Now, for the first time, we know why people of this time would undertake enormous risks and efforts to explore these treacherous caves,” said CINDAQ founder Sam Meacham. Meacham explained that at least one of the reasons was to prospect and extract red ocher.
Roberto Junco Sánchez, chief of underwater archeology at the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico, said the discovery means that the caves have been modified by humans at an early date. The early miners may have removed tons of ocher which, once ground into a paste, can be used to color hair, skin, rocks or skins in different shades of red.
“Now we know that ancient humans did not risk entering this labyrinth of caves just to obtain water or flee predators, but that they also entered it to exploit,” said Junco Sanchez.
However, James Chatters, 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.
University of Wyoming professor and state archaeologist Dr. Spencer Pelton 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 a particularly powerful attraction.
The extraction of red ocher “seems particularly important during the first period of human colonization … you find it on tools, soil, hunting sites,” said Pelton. “It is a substance of great power … everyone likes bright red things. ”
“It gives them a reason” to go to the caves, said Pelton, adding, “Given the massive scale of this mining, this is the first thing I would go. ”
The caves provide a well-preserved environment and are where one of the oldest collections 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 fall from the dark cave tunnel” onto the floor of a room below.