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Underwater Ochre Mine 8,000 Years Older Than the Mayas Found in Mexico

OK, before there is any confusion like the last time (you know who you are), ‘ochre’ is a natural clay earth pigment which contains ferric oxide, while ‘okra’ is the seed pod you put in your gumbo. Now that we’ve cleared that up (again), it will make more sense when you learn that 12,000-year-old ochre mines have been discovered in submerged caves on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, dating them back thousands of years before the preclassic Maya period – making this the earliest discovery of industry in a Mesoamerican period of nomads and agriculture. Whose mines were these?

“Here, we announce the discovery of the first subterranean ochre mine of Paleoindian age found in the Americas, offering compelling evidence for mining in three cave systems on the eastern Yucatán over a ~2000-year period between ~12 and 10 ka. The cave passages exhibit preserved evidence for ochre extraction pits, speleothem digging tools, shattered and piled flowstone debris, cairn navigational markers, and hearths yielding charcoal from highly resinous wood species. The sophistication and extent of the activities demonstrate a readiness to venture into the dark zones of the caves to prospect and collect what was evidently a highly valued mineral resource.”

“… what was evidently a highly valued mineral resource.” Ochre? Yes, ochre. Its colors range from yellow to red to brown and variations in between. Its usage dates back 200,000 years to prehistory, with evidence of it being used in burial ceremonies in Australia and Europe, as a body or leather paint and even as a medicine (to stop bleeding) or a sunblock. So it seems natural that the first people in the Americas would be excited to find it, but to make and effort to search in caves and mine it?

Not all ochre is easy to get to

“You have to be very, very careful about not getting lost,” he said. “You’ve got passages that kind of loop around and interconnect and then branch off and then connect into other systems.”

CBC.com proudly reported on native son Eduard Reinhardt, a McMaster University geo-archaeologist and expert cave diver who helped discover the mines and co-author the recent study about them in Science Advances.. While there weren’t submerged 12,000 year ago (that happened around 8,000 years ago, 2,000 years after they had been abandoned), these caves were small in many places and have numerous long tunnels and offshoots. Reinhardt found passages that would have been 2,130 feet (650 meters) from an opening. Because they were so long, it’s no surprise that he also found them strewn with cairns (mounds of stones) which may have been markers, and broken stalagmites and stalactites that could have been tools for digging. They also found ashes, possibly used for light – not a good thing, as any canary will tell you.

“It is pretty electrifying to be the first people to enter into an area that has not seen humans for thousands of years and to see what they left behind.”

Study co-author Sam Meacham, founder of El Centro Investigador del Sistema Acuífero de Quintana Roo AC (CINDAQ) and co-discoverer of the mines, indirectly points out what they didn’t find – human remains. While other caves in the area contained remains – including the skeleton of a woman who died 10,000 years ago at age 30 – these ochre mines held no miners. While mining could have drawn early natives to the caves, it seems more likely that most of them arrived later, when the miners had abandoned them, and used to tunnels for ceremonies, or perhaps even for burials.

Ochre was popular for cave art

“Ochre is such a universal material in terms of human history.”

That may be the most interesting part of this discovery – that this one colorful clay could have been used independently by early humans around the world for both common and unique purposes. While this discovery doesn’t change everything, it proves once again how much we don’t know – and that’s the real purpose of studying archeology and history … not to change but to learn more and learn from it.

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Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.
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