The diving team managed to explore at least seven kilometres of subterranean passages in three separate cave systems, with ochre mining spreading about 900 metres.
An international team of researchers and divers has discovered red ochre mines in submerged caves on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, according to their study published by the journal Science Advances on Friday.
In previous years, scientists found human skeletons in the caves but failed to understand what ancient people were doing there. The caves were finally abandoned and became submerged about 8,000 years ago amid rising sea levels after the last Ice Age.
Study lead author Brandi MacDonald from the University of Missouri, for his part, touted the discovery as “remarkable”, citing “the preservation of the [human] mining activity” as well as its age and duration.
MacDonald was echoed by study co-author Eduard Reinhardt, expert diver and professor at McMaster University in Ontario, who described the underground caves as “a time capsule”.
According to him, “with all the tools left as they were 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, it represents a unique learning opportunity”.
The research team said that the artifacts included ochre extraction pits, digging tools made of stalagmites, navigational markers, and hearths used to maintain light.
With the scientists still uncertain how the ochre could be used, evidence from other parts of North America indicate that the mineral might have been applied as an antiseptic or for symbolic purposes such as funerals and art decoration.