The Quintana Roo Caves are a popular tourist attraction. With over 216 miles of submerged caves in Mexico, they are the longest continuous underwater cave system on Earth. But beyond the fascinating stalactites and light blue water, these caves also appear to be archaeological time capsules preserving how Ancient Americans lived. While skeletal remains of Ancient Americans have been found in these caves, the reasons why they were exploring these underground caves was unclear. 

A study co-first authored by Assistant Research Professor Brandi L MacDonald, forensic anthropologist James C Chatters, and Professor Eduard Reinhardt presents evidence that Ancient Americans were engaging in subterranean ochre mining in three cave systems in the region. Red ochre, or iron oxide earth mineral, was used widely in painting, mortuary rituals, pest repellants, and adornment by North America’s earliest inhabitants. However, tools used for mining ochre, including grinding stones, extraction pits, and digging tools, had not been found in the Americas until this study. By exploring three cave systems along Quintana Roo, researchers found marked surface entry points into the caves, stacks of debris in the creation of passageways, broken rocks resembling hammer-like tools, and pits where ochre was removed–all evidence of humans were mining in the region ending around 10,000 years ago. The complexity of the ochre mining tools indicates that Ancient Americans were mining these caves for over 2000 years. 

Ancient Americans may have sought out different products, such as charcoal, in other caves, and this study is just the tip of the iceberg. As other caves are explored and analyzed, the rich history of the Quintana Roo caves will only grow. And as we learn more, it’ll be interesting to compare their techniques to modern mining operations – maybe we can learn something new on that front, too.

Corresponding Author: Eesha Khare

Press article: Underwater caves once hosted the Americas’ oldest known ochre mines

Original article: Paleoindian ochre mines in the submerged caves of the Yucatán Peninsula, Quintana Roo, Mexico in Science Advances


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