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Archaeologists Discover Oldest Mine Site in the Americas

By Alejandro Ehrenberg | Tue, 07/07/2020 - 16:41

Archaeologists have discovered the oldest mining site in the American continent going back 12,000 years. The site is located in a submerged cave in the Yucatan peninsula. Researchers have found strong evidence of sophisticated ochre prospecting and mining activities.

Science Advances explains that in recent years archaeologists had identified a series of ancient individuals in the caves. The most famous among them is a girl that researchers named Naia. Nature describes Naia as “the most complete of the handful of New World skeletons that are more than 12,000 years old. Her bones reveal a teenager aged 15–17 at her death, which was probably the result of a fall into the deep pit where she was found.” The caves used to be dry during Naia’s lifetime, becoming flooded 8,000 years ago as sea levels rose.

Archaeologists struggled with adducing reasons to explain why people visited the caves. The ochre mining site discovery will help them clear up the matter. As reported by Science Advances, the scene is preserved in surprising detail: “The cave passages exhibit preserved evidence of ochre extraction pits, speleothem digging tools, shattered and piled flowstone debris, cairn navigational markers and hearths yielding charcoal from highly resinous wood species.”

Science Advances notes that there are clear signs of extensive and sophisticated mining activities, which “demonstrate a readiness to venture into the dark zones of the caves to prospect and collect what was evidently a highly-valued mineral resource.” Ochre is a natural clay earth pigment prized for its vibrant color and used in religious ceremonies, art and cosmetics. Christopher Davis, an anthropologist who studies rock art in South America, said to Science: “The study is a welcome addition to what we know about humans’ longstanding special relationship with ochre. The findings also suggest people were willing to go through a lot of trouble to get their hands on ochre. We are just really attracted to this substance.”

The findings give us a glimpse of ancient mining methods. As geoarchaeologist Eduard Reinhardt said to National Geographic: “The site also seems to preserve the ancient miners’ thought process on excavating materials. They followed along the deposit beds until the ocher petered out. They then shifted sideways to dig another pit. They understood some basic geological principles that weren’t really codified or formalized until the mid-1600s.” Brandi MacDonald, from the University of Missouri, explained that miners fashioned digging tools from cave materials rather than bringing them from outside. “They were actually breaking off stalactites from the ceiling and using them as hammerstones and pile drivers to smash through the limestone,” she said.

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Alejandro Ehrenberg Alejandro Ehrenberg Journalist and Industry Analyst