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Published Tuesday, July 7, 2020

America’s oldest ocher mine
discovered in Mexico

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff and wire services

The labyrinthine subsurface of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico continues to be the source of scientific discoveries. The most recent one is found in a flooded cave in Quintana Roo, where underwater archaeologists and cave divers have found irrefutable evidence of prehistoric mining activities, announced the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico.

According to experts, this archaeological site dates back between 10,000 to 12,000 years, making it the oldest known mine in the Americas.

The mine dating, through laboratory analysis, is comparable to that of ‘Naia,’ name given to the skeletal remains of a young woman found in 2014 inside the Hoyo Negro (Black Hole) archaeological site located near Tulum, Mexico, authorities said.

The newly discovered mine is a continuation of Hoyo Negro not only because of their relative geographical proximity but also because the first archaeological context greatly compliments the existing knowledge surrounding the second one.

"While the discovery of ‘Naia' contributed to our understanding of the ascent, expansion and development of these first Americans, thanks to La Mina we now know that early humans not only risked their lives by entering the labyrinth of caves in search of water or to escape predators, but they also went inside them for mining purposes, thus altering them and creating cultural modifications within," said the institute in its statement.

The mine location, over a six-kilometer radius of uncharted underwater passageways, previously concealed behind clusters of rocks blocking the way and narrow passages, measuring 70 centimeters in diameter, of various spaces and materials rearrangement, proved to be the result of archaic human intervention.

The cave divers Fred Devos and Sam Meacham, as part of the experts in charge of the discovery, explain that during their first scoutings through the underground system in 2017, they noticed the presence of stalactites and stalagmites broken in half, as well as stones stacked in small triangular piles, an unnatural occurrence.

Among the elements that most caught the explorers’ 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, said the institute.

“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.

Until now, no human skeletal remains have been found; however, rudimentary digging tools, signs that would have been used in order not to get lost, and stacks of stones left behind by this primitive mining activity have been located. The abundance of ocher filled cavities has led experts to theorize about the rocks themselves being used as tools to excavate and break down the stone, the experts said.

In the wake of new immersions inside the cave system (whose location remains confidential for conservation purposes) in the upcoming months, laboratory research using computerized reconstructions conducted by experts from Mexico, the United States and Canada, will be ongoing for the La Mina project.

Thanks to technologies such as photogrammetry and 360 degrees underwater cameras, more than twenty thousand photos were taken over the span of six hundred hours of diving and almost one hundred immersions, to create a 3D model of the site that allows virtual access to archaeologists," said Dominique Rissolo, a researcher at the University of California, in USA.

Could new technology accelerate archaeological discoveries? We would like to know your thoughts on this story. Send your comments to


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