Research ArticleARCHAEOLOGY

Paleoindian ochre mines in the submerged caves of the Yucatán Peninsula, Quintana Roo, Mexico

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Science Advances  03 Jul 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 27, eaba1219
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aba1219
  • Fig. 1 La Mina site context.

    (A) Regional overview of study area. La Mina is situated within the Sagitario cave system, while Camilo Mina is located in Sistema Camilo. Monkey Dust is part of the Borge section of Sistema Dos Pisos. Hoyo Negro and Chan Hol are sites of key importance in Paleoindian archaeology in this region (1, 2). Satellite image modified from Google Earth Imagery (41). (B) Conceptual cross-section showing relationship between geomorphic and cultural features observed in La Mina, Camilo Mina, and Monkey Dust cave systems, including ochre deposits, speleothem and flowstone, mining spoil, charcoal and soot deposition, hammerstone artifacts, hearth features, and calcite rafts. (C) Map of Sagitario and La Mina showing the configuration of the cave system and its geomorphic features, with the location of sample stations and key features. La Mina is defined as areas of concentrated mining activity within Sagitario. (D) Cave profile from the Sagitario and Pu’bix cave entrances showing cave bottom and ceiling heights at survey stations on the main cave line. Profile path is denoted by the restriction between Sagitario and La Mina sections of the cave and sample stations. Horizontal distance (in meters) is measured as the length of the survey line over the irregular topography of the cave and thus represents an overall travel distance for human movement rather than horizontal distance. Cave passage height along the profile shows the restricted nature of the mine site and the difficulties accessing and removing ochre from this location.

  • Fig. 2 Overview of cultural features at La Mina.

    (A) Distribution of charcoal concentrations and sampling locations (ochre, charcoal, and calcite raft). (B) Distribution of ochre mining pits and mine spoil. To date, 352 disturbance features have been mapped. (C) Distribution of stone cairns, rubble piles, and broken speleothem. (D) Mine pit showing associated cultural and geomorphic features found in La Mina [see Fig. 1C for location; frame grab from structure from motion (SFM) three-dimensional (3D) model of the cave floor]. Photo credit (for original photography used to produce 3D model shown in 2D): F. Devos (CINDAQ) and S. Meacham (CINDAQ).

  • Fig. 3 Selected details of cultural features at La Mina.

    (A) Hammerstone made from a selection of speleothem. (B) Conchoidally fractured flowstone floor. (C) A tipped stalagmite showing a series of conchoidal fractures around flowstone of its base. Similar fractures can be seen in the stalagmite bases shown in (D). (D) A carefully stacked pile of three broken stalagmites. (E) Two cairns with elongated central stones. Note that the background cairn supports an ochre-stained segment of stalagmite (see Fig. 1C for locations). (F) Pairing of a burned surface and limestone cairn. See also fig. S3. Images in (A), (B), and (D) are digital still images captured by camera. Photo credit: F. Devos, CINDAQ. Images in (C), (E), and (F) are grabs from SFM 3D models of the cave floor. Photo credit [for original photography used to produce 3D model shown in (C), (E), and (F)]: S. Meacham (CINDAQ).

  • Fig. 4 Dating features.

    (A) Charcoal concentration from sample station S1. The charcoal is sealed above and below by flowstone indicating that it was deposited before the cave was flooded. (B) Sheet calcite rafts deposited in an area of mining activity and below a limestone overhang. Note the large size of rafts (10 to 20 cm in diameter) and sheet-like distribution on cave bottom (S1, B9; Fig. 2C, table S1, and fig. S2A). See text S3 for explanation of calcite rafts. (C) A 3D model showing the relationship between a mine pit and a large stalagmite formed on pit floor (right) and a second stalagmite with flowstone formed over the broken edge of the undermined floor. The speleothems indicate that they formed in a dry cave for a relatively long time after the mining activity had ceased, reinforcing the ~12 to 10 ka radiocarbon age. Note the stack of three tipped stalagmite bases in the distance that is also shown in Fig. 3D. Photo credits: F. Devos (CINDAQ).

  • Fig. 5 Additional mine features in Sagitario and other cave systems.

    (A). Detrital ochre pile in Monkey Dust and adjacent marker speleothem. The source of the ochre is an overhead dissolution pipe (~10 to 20 cm in diameter), which has iron oxide–stained sides. Ochre pile is ~35 cm high. (B) Stone marker cairn approximately 50 cm high in Monkey Dust. (C) Charcoal deposit between flowstone in close proximity to the ochre pile shown in (A). (D) Mine pit from Camilo Mina, the cave floor in the Grand Canyon Passage, is completely exploited, with pits reaching a constant depth to access the bedding plane ochre shown in (E) (see text S3 and fig. S2, B and C). (F to H) Ochre occurrence in Sagitario (La Mina). (F) Mine pit following a soil pipe within the limestone. Note the original fill line of the ochre, which has been removed and scraped clean. Soil pipe ochre is only found in La Mina. The pit is ~1 m deep and 3 to 4 m long. (G) Flowstone ochre from detrital sources is thin and discontinuous, requiring excessive effort to break the hard flowstone for little volume return. In contrast, soil-pipe ochre in La Mina has no flowstone covering and can be recovered easily (see text S3 and fig. S2, B and C). (H) Vug ochre that has been exposed with speleogenesis and cave formation. Vug is ~1 m above the cave floor. (I) Surficial ochre percolating through the overhead limestone and being incorporated into speleothem in the airdome at S19 (Fig. 1C). Photo credit: C. LeMaillot (CINDAQ) (A to E) and F. Devos (CINDAQ) (F to I).

  • Table 1 Radiocarbon ages and taxonomic identification of charcoal from Sagitario (La Mina), Camilo Mina, Monkey Dust, and Hoyo Negro.

    Site sampleStationDepth (m)Identification (common name)D-AMS #14C age (yr B.P. ± 1σ)Age cal yr B.P. (2σ)
    Sagitario (La Mina)
      P06710.7Bursera spp.
    3061910,013 ± 4511,720–11,290
      P07511.0Bursera spp.306209,118 ± 4210,400–10,210
      P10711.0Protium copal
    206219,041 ± 4710,280–10,150*
      P14811.0Protium copal3062310,123 ± 5712,020–11,410
      P15208.9Amyris spp.
      P16159.2Amyris spp.306249,728 ± 5111,240–10,870
      P1119.0Amyris spp.274679,650 ± 4311,200–10,790
      P1217.8Unidentifiable274689,555 ± 3711,090–10,720
      P1319.3Protium copal306229,685 ± 6711,230–10,790
      P21179.3Unidentifiable306259,812 ± 7411,410–11,080*
      P22188.9Protium copal306269,845 ± 5511,390–11,180
    Hoyo Negro
      111204-1027Zanthozylon spp.179329,549 ± 4211,090–10,710
      150515-3d42Protium spp.341489,581 ± 3611,110–10,750
      150515-6d42Clusia spp.958129,565 ± 4011,100–10,740
      150515-6e42Ficus spp.341469,600 ± 4511,150–10,760
      171128-1246Non-resinous265169,313 ± 3610,650–10,410
      171128-1645Ficus spp.265179,478 ± 3911,070–10,590
      171128-2540Zanthozylon spp.275439,744 ± 4111,240–11,110
      171128-34a41Ficus spp.349959,570 ± 3711,100–10,740
      181120-10a43Brosimium or
    Bursera spp.
    315789,650 ± 4511,110–10,730
      181120-23a44Metopium brownei315809,277 ± 4610,580–10,290
      181120-23b44Non-resinous315818,982 ± 5410,240–9,920
      150515-642Bursera spp.Association~9,600~11,200–10,700
      171128-16b45Swientenia spp.Association~9,500~11,070–10,590
      171128-25b40Amyris spp.Association~9,750~11,240–11,110
      181120-841Brosimium spp.Context10,500–8,800~11,700–9,900
      S1123.3Not identified343869,850 ± 4111,330–11,200
      S1523.4Not identified343859,644 ± 4011,090–10,710
    Monkey Dust
      S5a7.5Not identified3438410,146 ± 4512,030–11,510

    *Excluding low percentage outliers of probability curves. Retain > 92% probability.

    †These are age estimates based on ages of other charcoal fragments in the same collection unit, as presented for samples 150515-6d and 150515-6e. This is true also for the two samples below, which come from collection units 171128-16 and 17128-25, for which estimates are based on dates for 171128-16a and 171128-25a, respectively.

    ‡Age estimate is the interval between the maximum and minimum documented ages of organics in the site.

    Supplementary Materials

    • Supplementary Materials

      Paleoindian ochre mines in the submerged caves of the Yucatán Peninsula, Quintana Roo, Mexico

      Brandi L. MacDonald, James C. Chatters, Eduard G. Reinhardt, Fred Devos, Sam Meacham, Dominique Rissolo, Barry Rock, Chris Le Maillot, David Stalla, Marc D. Marino, Eric Lo, Pilar Luna Erreguerena

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      The PDF file includes:

      • Text S1 to S5
      • Figs. S1 to S7
      • Tables S1 and S2
      • References

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