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11,000-year-old mine in underwater cave surprises archaeologists



The mine, described in a new study published in Science Advances, is one of the few archaeological sites to reveal where and how ancient humans extracted pigments that have been put to a host of uses around the world, including mortuary rituals, cave painting, and even sunscreen.

The site is a time capsule of human activity: Pits pockmark the chamber floor, and scattered across are broken speleothems—stalagmites or stalactites—that had been used as makeshift hammers. Burnt rock and charcoal remained from fires that once illuminated the cavern, and tidy piles of rock, known as cairns, marked the miner’s way.


Across 100 dives totaling more than 600 hours underwater, the team collected samples and captured video, along with tens of thousands of photos to construct a three-dimensional model of the La Mina site. The analysis paints a colorful picture of well-planned expeditions underground by generations of people knowledgable of the landscape for some 2,000 years.

The charcoal found around the mines comes from high-resin woods, and was likely selected for its ability to burn bright and long, according to analysis by study author Barry Rock.


The site also seems to preserve the ancient miners’ thought process on excavating materials, notes Reinhardt.

“Caves produce all kinds of good and evil; they’re probably the most sacred natural feature,” Moyes says. Viewed as entrances to the underworld and sources of sacred water, caves are particularly spiritual places for the Maya. Ocher was also sacred to the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures.





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