Mining for ochre in ancient Mexico

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Caves in Quintana Roo, Mexico, are home to the Americas’ earliest known ochre mines, in use between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago. The people who ventured into the now-flooded caves used piles of broken speleothems and stones as markers to help them navigate. [Image: CINDAQ.ORG]

Divers exploring the now-submerged caves of Quintana Roo in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula have uncovered evidence for red ochre mining between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, the oldest known example of the exploitation of this mineral resource in the Americas.

In 2017, a team of divers from CINDAQ (Centro Investigador del Sistema Acuífero de Q Roo), working in association with the Subdirección de Arqueología Subacuáica of Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, found highly modified cave tunnels in La Mina, a section of the Sagitario cave system. They returned to investigate further in 2018, collecting samples and recording footage of their dive so researchers above ground could explore the site, and, in 2019, carried out a preliminary survey of two other cave systems along the eastern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula – Camilo Mina and Monkey Dust – and obtained samples from these sites.

As well as high-quality red ochre, mine pits and well-preserved artefacts were found in La Mina, including digging tools made out of speleothems (cave formations like stalagmites and stalactites). The researchers also identified concentrations of charcoal, where fires were likely lit to illuminate the dark caverns, and small piles of stones that could have served as way-markers in the cave systems. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal samples taken close to cultural features like these cairns, mine pits, and spoil heaps, and of calcite rafts, indicates that mining activity in the caves took place over a 2,000-year period between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Artefacts found within the mines include this hammestone, adapted from a piece of speleothem. [Image: CINDAQ.ORG]

Red ochre had a wide range of uses in ancient North America, but it is unclear what the ochre from these caves was intended for. Brandi MacDonald of the University of Missouri told CWA, ‘Unfortunately we aren’t able to tell much about the final use contexts of the ochre in the Yucatán Peninsula during the late Pleistocene. Due to the acidic jungle soil conditions, above-ground archaeological sites of that age simply do Mining for ochre in ancient Mexiconot survive. This is why the “time capsules” of the submerged caves are of such high heritage value to us as they are one of the few places where such excellent preservation has taken place.’

‘What we do know is that in other regions of North America during the same time period (including parts of northern Mexico and south-central and midwestern US), it was used to paint/decorate objects such as lithic tools, animal skulls, and personal ornamentation, as well as to commemorate the deceased. We could reasonably extrapolate to suggest that the inhabitants of Quintana Roo used it for the same purposes, but we do not have any hard evidence as of yet.’

This article appeared in issue 103 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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