With twisting passageways completely submerged in darkness, underwater cave systems are daunting to explore. But what lies inside a cave near Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula made all these risks worthwhile.
When a team of divers began exploring the intricate caverns, they uncovered a relic from another era. And for scientists like Brandi MacDonald, the recent discovery might just answer a question they’ve had for years.
For the past 25 years, researchers have worked their way through the puzzling cave systems in the Quintana Roo region of Mexico. In that time, scientists have pulled at least 10 sets of human remains from the site, which led them to one baffling conclusion.
Humans must have once frequented the area. This confused the researchers because the caves seemed inaccessible without scuba equipment. “Over the years, we have seen these anomalous weird things within caves that we couldn’t quite explain,” Samuel Meacham, study co-author said.
“[We saw] rocks out of place, rocks stacked on top of each other, things that just didn’t seem natural. But we didn’t have a really good explanation,” Samuel said. They found evidence of human exploration, but how were the people getting down there?
Finally, after a quarter of a century of work, archaeologists and divers have their answers. When a group of cave divers partnered with local archaeologists, they created a vital symbiotic relationship.
DENVER MUSEUM OF NATURE & SCIENCE
When the divers were exploring the Quintana Roo caves, they collected samples and took thousands of images for researchers, helping them piece together a lengthy mystery. From about 21,500 until about 13,000 to 8,000 years ago, parts of these cave systems were completely dry.
Getting to the caves would have been difficult, even if they were outside of the waterline. To reach them, indigenous peoples would have had to navigate the complete darkness of the passages.
Stalactites jutted from the ceiling, creating another dangerous obstacle. Their intended destination was 2,132 feet away from any light source. Why were they so determined to venue into the hazardous, claustrophobic spaces? What was so valuable?
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Thanks to the partnership, MacDonald’s team determined that the ancient Americans used the sites as mines. By firelight, they ventured into the spaces to gather a valuable mineral: red ochre.
McMaster Museum of Art
Red ochre is a rich red stone that was used by Indigenous peoples as an antiseptic, sunscreen, material for tanning hides, pigment for body and cave painting, and for other ritualistic and symbolic purposes.
The caves were likely flooded and inaccessible for the past 12,000 years. Luckily, the sea water perfectly preserved the mining site and now archaeologists understand the exact process miners used to gather red ochre.
When the divers explored a previously undiscovered tunnel, they found an impressive site. There were mining tools, pits, and plenty of stone markers to help miners find their way as they worked alone in the dark.
As the divers explored the passageway in the Sagitario cave system, they also found the charred remains of plenty of fires. This was the only light source and it was easy to get lost in the labyrinthian space.
Along the path the ancient Americans traveling, divers found chipped stalactites and stalagmites that were fashioned into tools. The indigenous peoples used these materials to smash through the thin sheets of flowstone that covered the red ochre.
When the researchers tested the ochre samples from the caves, they found it contained plenty of high-purity iron oxides. The more of this material that’s present, the deeper red of a pigment it will produce. This was the good stuff.
From their tests, they determined the Native Americans mined this section of the caves from 11,400 to 10,700 years ago — near the transition of the ice age to our current geologic epoch. They were also mining two other passages as well.
This particular ochre had 4,000 parts per million of arsenic, which is just as high as it sounds. Though arsenic is a neurotoxin and dangerous to humans, it’s an extremely effective bug repellent. Locals may have been willing to risk the journey to escape the nuisance of insects — which is completely understandable. Mosquitos are evil.
These caves were particularly exciting to researchers because they represent the oldest ochre mine discovered in the Americas. With 352 pits, these areas were well-explored by the locals, meaning that ochre was likely a prevalent part of their lives.
Though much is known about the Maya who later inhabited the area, not much concrete information is available about the hunter-gatherers who first lived in the space. Bits of information from digs give archaeologists pieces of these strangers’ lives, and the larger picture slowly forms out of them.
A major reason information isn’t available about these ancient Americans is because of religious missionary colonizers, specifically Franciscans (for this area). Missionaries attempted to convert these peoples to Christianity and destroyed much of their historical documents in the process.
Theodor de Bry / “Negotiating Peace With the Indians,” 1634, Virginia Historical Society.
Franciscans led by “word and example” to demonstrate the new faith to the natives. One priest kneeled in a courtyard, confessed his sins in front of a crowd, and then whipped himself. We’re sure this did wonders for their misguided conversion efforts. But this preserved mining site kept this people’s early legacy alive.
Fragments of tools and specialized technology show that this civilization was further advanced than once thought. Archaeologists linked the find to another groundbreaking cavern across the Pacific. This site held far older — and more beautiful — mysteries.
Cave paintings have always been exceptionally interesting to historians because of their multi-faceted value. Not only do they inform us about the resources of early humans, but they give insight into their cognitive and artistic abilities, too.
Analyzing imagination levels and the construction of these cave paintings lets researchers know just how far along certain humans were on the evolutionary chain. Observing their artistic ability helps piece together the human timeline.
Some cave paintings are more telling than others. Scientists are focusing on a particular mural located in in Indonesia, a country that was, up until recently, critically under-explored. Now, it’s home to one of the most intriguing cave murals in history.
It’s a miracle they even discovered this hidden gem. Maxime Aubert and his team of archaeologists from Griffith University were exploring one cave when they noticed a separate, lofted entrance to another crevice. They investigated.
A team member used tree vines to climb the walls of the cave and gained access to the remote and ancient artwork. When Aubert finally laid eyes on the rock art, he could hardly keep his jaw off of the floor.
“I had never seen anything like it,” the expert explained. The team sampled mineral deposits on the surface of the painting to measure the radioactive decay of the artwork, thus determining the age of it. The results were not what they expected.
The painting dated back to around 44,000 years ago, making it the world’s oldest discovered cave art to date. This was an incredible find, but there was something else about the subject of the painting that made it even more insightful.
Depicted on the surface of the rock was not-your-average bout of abstract shapes and symbols common of that era. Instead, the mural boasted an intricate and logical progression of a story. Plus, the major protagonists had some odd qualities.
The early human who created this particular painting didn’t choose a typical human form to depict. The mural showed strange, animal-human hybrid figures called therianthropes. These bipedal humanoids sported snouts and tails.
The therianthropes were portrayed hunting pigs and buffalo. To some, this creation by the artists from eons ago might just be evidence for some nefarious and almost paranormal link on the evolutionary itinerary. This had scientists asking questions about human/animal hybrids.
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Before crossing fully into Ancient Aliens territory regarding the seemingly supernatural beings, it’s worth mentioning an alternate concept. Scientists, of course, were not buying into the existence of these therianthropes, but they were still thrilled by the discovery for one reason.
Katia Innes/The McGill Tribune
Before this, most of the cave art from 40,000 years ago didn’t show evidence of imagination or cognitive progression. It wasn’t until 35,000 years ago that people and animals began to show up in cave art. Now, they had evidence of advanced thought processes 44,000 years ago.
All of this means that humans, at least those in Southeast Asia, were more intellectually progressive than what was widely believed before. There was one more thing that the fanciful cave art showed evidence of — and it’s maybe the most important.
One of the main things that separates us from animals is the capability to use imagination and think up things that aren’t actually real. This early construction of fiction from so long ago shows that we’ve been making up stories for millennia.
To take it a step further, Adam Brumm who co-authored a study on the discovery, submitted that it could be early proof of spirituality. “Therianthropes are perceived as gods, spirits, or ancestral beings in many religions worldwide,” he stated. There was more.
The scene depicted by the prehistoric Picasso may also give evidence of early human strategy and hunting practices, as it showed a scene where the therianthropes were chasing after prey. Clearly, this artwork helped reshape many commonly held views in the scientific community.
Scientists believe that humans arrived in Southeast Asia around 65,000 years ago, meaning there is a possibility that more undiscovered cave art is out there. Given the age of these invaluable murals, time is of the essence.
Researchers are utilizing technology to help preserve the findings because of the original mural’s prolific rate of deterioration. Their aim is to make it possible for future generations to have access to such incredible, ancient treasures.
As deterioration is a huge concern, many fear that unknown art will crumble in the dark depths of some cave before being found. Of course, they’re looking everywhere for clues about our history.
Across the world, a territorial dispute caused by a single archaeological discovery is unfolding. The indigenous people to British Columbia’s Rainforest, the Heiltsuk have claimed the remote Triquet Island for nearly 5,000 years. But archaeologists have dismissed their claim of ownership for one glaring reason.
Simon Fraser University
The continental glacier that formed over Canada during the last Ice Age would’ve also covered Triquet Island, making it uninhabitable. But even with the facts stacked against the Heiltsuk, a small group of researchers took it upon themselves to uncover the truth once and for all.
The Robinson Library
The archaeologists began an extensive excavation of the remote island in the hope of discovering traces of a past civilization. What they found there not only shocked the entire archaeological community, but it also changed history forever.
Beneath several layers of earth, they found remnants of an ancient, wood-burning hearth. But how could this be? According to researchers, it would’ve been impossible for humans to dig their way through the glacial ice to get to the soil below.
As they continued digging, researchers unearthed additional artifacts, including tools and weapons. This discovery stumped the team as the Heiltsuk people traditionally didn’t use tools of this kind.
The Heiltsuk people had derived their food source from fishing and smoking salmon, utilizing small, precise tools to harvest the fish. The tools and weapons found were much larger and likely would’ve been used to hunt large sea mammals, such as seals, sea lions, and walruses.
What’s more, the team also uncovered shards of obsidian, a glass-like rock only found in areas of heavy volcanic activity. This discovery also puzzled the archaeologists, as there were no known volcanoes near that part of British Columbia. So, how did this rock — and these people — get there?
The historians deduced that whoever left these artifacts must have traversed the land bridge that existed between Siberia and Alaska during prehistoric times. Yet researchers still needed cold-hard facts…
Luckily, a closer inspection of the hearth revealed ancient charcoal remains, which the archaeologists quickly brought to the lab for carbon dating. When they received the results, the researchers couldn’t believe their eyes: everything they knew was a lie.
According to the carbon dating report, these bits of charcoal were an astonishing 14,000 years old, making them the oldest carbon remains ever to be discovered in North America.
Even by global standards, this was an extraordinary find. After all, these simple pieces of charcoal were older than the Great Pyramid of Giza and even predated the invention of the wheel! But that’s not the most remarkable fact about this discovery.
The 14,000-year-old discovery placed the earliest Heiltsuk at Triquet Island 2,000 years before the end of the ice age. Therefore, the island couldn’t have been covered by the massive continental glacier. And that’s not all.
Since Triquet Island was surrounded on all sides by water, the early Heiltsuk would’ve used boats to traverse the open waters. Because boats were not believed to have been invented until centuries later, this presented the possibility that early humans could’ve navigated along the North American coastlines in order to settle the continent.
This meant that the Heiltsuk settled the area 2,000 years before initially believed. If this was the case, then these early men likely crossed paths with some of history’s most formidable beasts.
As the Heiltsuk people made their way south from the land bridge, they likely had to fend off giant creatures like mastodons, woolly mammoths, and giant sloths. But somehow, these humans survived, and it’s likely for one crucial reason.
Thanks to the Pacific Ocean itself, the sea level at Triquet Island remained constant for over 15,000 years. So as the sea gradually eroded the surrounding islands, the great beasts of the Pacific Northwest were kept at bay, leaving the Heiltsuk to a peaceful, secluded existence.
The most astounding realization that’s come to light is the fact that the Heiltsuk people were able to preserve their history orally for nearly 14,000 years. However, they are still being deprived of their history’s legitimacy.
When the media caught wind of the story, they seemed to focus more on what the discovery meant for the scientific community rather than acknowledge the rich history of the Heiltsuk. To many, the media’s portrayal of the nation was seen as highly disrespectful.
As a result, the University of Victoria student Alisha Gauvreau — who was present during the excavation — has dedicated herself to shifting the focus of the dialogue toward the Heiltsuk people.
The Heiltsuk claim to Triquet Island stands as one of the oldest land-ownership claims in the world. Not only does this discovery speak volumes about the strength of the Heiltsuk people, but it also represents the indomitable spirit of mankind.
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