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

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.
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.

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. 

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