More than 10,000 years ago, the limestone caves near Tulum, Mexico, were an irresistible and occasionally fatal attraction for some of the earliest inhabitants of North America – a past that was preserved for the ages when the caves were inundated with water.
Now, through a series of spectacular finds, an international team of divers and scientists has revealed what drew at least some ancient people into those labyrinthine depths: They were mining for ochre.
The discovery opens a new window into one of the most intriguing archeological sites in the Americas, connecting those who used it to the rust-coloured mineral that has been valued since the dawn of humanity.
“Ochre is a universal,” said Brandi MacDonald, a Canadian archeologist at the University of Missouri who has examined traces of the iron-rich pigment in prehistoric settings from the Pacific Northwest to southern Africa. “What fascinates me is that it’s been so consistently used and sought out,” she said.
Dr. MacDonald is the lead author of a report published Friday in the journal Science Advances that documents extensive ochre mining in three underwater cave sites on the eastern edge of the Yucatan Peninsula.
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