Earliest Traces of Humans in the Americas Found in a Submerged Cave

Head-to-HeadPhoto: courtesy Daniel Riordan-Araujo

Diving in the pitch black with just their flashlights to light the way, a team of three divers from PET (Projecto Espeleológico de Tulum) – a group dedicated to mapping Mexico’s underwater caves – came across a find that many archaeologists would give their firstborns for: perhaps the oldest trace of humans in the Americas. Hearts pounding, the team first found a long tunnel with what felt like a drop off into an immense canyon at the end. Back 12,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene era, sea levels rose enough to submerge many of the shelters and the areas used by animals and humans, and these lay hidden until cave divers come along thousands of years later to expose their secrets.

The National Geographic News Gallery has the exciting images and story.
Mammoth bonesPhoto: courtesy Daniel Riordan-Araujo

The team had already found the remains of mastodons and other animals, and yet the entrance to the cave was too small for a grown mastodon – even a small
one – to have entered. The current theory is that paleoindians butchered the animal and carried it inside afterward.

Alex Alvarez, one of the divers, said: “I was searching for more of the mastodon remains, when I saw what looked like a human skull. I had thought we already had a great discovery after finding the remains of several Pleistocene animals… but finding a human skull was totally amazing for us. All of our efforts… walking through the jungle, carrying all the gear, securing the helium required to do such a deep dive, laying thousands of feet of exploration line… paid off at that moment. This is the Holy Grail of underwater cave exploration.”

Entrance to a Mexican cavePhoto: Walter Pickel

Right now the skull is still in its watery grave. Since context is so important to information about any archaeological finding, those involved will not be removing it until everything in place is first understood. Then they will be prepared to remove it safely.

In an interview with News Watch, Guillermo de Anda, an archaeologist from the University of Yucatan in Merida, said: “The findings of Hoyo Negro are a once-in-a-lifetime discovery. The skull looks pre-Maya, which could make it one of the oldest set of human remains in the area. Gaining an understanding of how this human and these animals entered the site will reveal an immense amount of knowledge from that time. Therefore, protecting and learning the secrets of Hoyo Negro should be one of the main priorities for the archaeologists in the region.”

One piece of information it might lead to is where the first Americans came from. Was it from the east as many believe?

A special thank you to National Geographic News Gallery for allowing the use of two of the images. The exploration was partially funded by the National Geographic Society.

Sources: 1, 2

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