In the spring of 2017, a pair of divers shimmied fin-first through a narrow passageway in a water-filled cave beneath Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. They had already swum for nearly half a mile through the cave system, winding around spires of rock jutting from the ceiling and floor, when they finally arrived at the threshold that spanned a mere 28 inches across.
In the chamber that lay beyond the tiny passage was an ancient scene preserved in stunning detail: an 11,000-year-old mining site for red ocher pigments, complete with tools and fire pits. The mine, described in a new study published today in Science Advances, is one of the few archaeological sites to reveal where and how ancient humans extracted the vibrant pigments that have been put to a host of uses around the world, including mortuary rituals, cave painting, and even sunscreen.
“I’ve spent a lot of time imagining the different ways that people in the past have gone about collecting mineral pigments,” says study author Brandi MacDonald, an archaeologist at the University of Missouri and expert on ocher pigments. “But being able to see it like this in such an interesting state of preservation, it just kind of blew me away.”
The discovery also gives a rare glimpse into the lives of some of the first residents of the Americas, who lived in...