Prehistoric ocher mine in Mexico delights archaeologists

Prehistoric ocher mine in Mexico delights archaeologists

Cave divers unlock mysteries of the earliest Americans

A new study by the El Centro Investigador del Sistema Acuífero de Quintana Roo A.C. (CINDAQ) together with Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), and an international team of scientists has revealed the earliest ochre mines in the Americas and the first from the Paleoindian period.

A CINDAQ team had been investigating a cave system in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, discovering several kilometres of underwater tunnels when they came across features within the subterranean landscape that had been unnaturally altered.

Quintana Roo ocher mine from 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, submerged by rising seas as the Ice Age ended

They made almost 100 expeditions and collected “ samples, captured over 20,000 images and collected 360 degree video footage for hours so that researchers could study the unnatural structures and remains of the archaeological remains in situ.

Quintana Roo ocher mine from 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, submerged by rising seas as the Ice Age ended

In order to fully understand its significance, the CINDAQ divers brought the discovery to the attention of Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) together with the university experts.

Researchers have determined that the cave system was inhabited from between 12,000-10,000 years ago, predating the rise of Maya culture and was occupied for around 2,000 years.

During this period, the cave was mined for ochre, a natural clay earth pigment which is a mixture of ferric oxide and varying amounts of clay and sand often used in rock paintings, mortuary practices, painted objects, and for personal adornment.

Remains of ochre extraction beds and pits have been identified, along with digging tools, navigational markers, and fire pits. In some parts of the cave complex, the cave ceiling is still visibly blackened by what appears to be soot caused by small fires.

High-grade ocher beneath flowstone in 12,000-10,000 year old mine at Quintana Roo, Yucatan
Narrow passage underwater at Quintana Roo
Taking notes at Quintana Roo: The measuring stick rests on broken flowstone

Eduard Reinhardt from the School Of Geography & Earth Sciences at McMaster University said: “Most evidence of ancient mining on the surface has been altered through natural and human processes, obscuring the record.

These underwater caves are a time capsule. With all the tools left as they were 10,000 – 12,000 years ago, it represents a unique learning opportunity. It took advanced expertise to work in the caves recovering ochre, so we know it was very valuable for the earliest peoples of the Americas.”

The study has also found an abundance of animal and plant remains that enables scientists to recreate what the environment was like for early Americans.

Brandi MacDonald from the Archaeometry Laboratory at the University of Missouri said: “What is remarkable is not only the preservation of the mining activity, but also the age and duration of it.

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.”

Broken stalactite used as improvised hammerstone by the miners at Quintana Roo
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