With only a flashlight to light the way, a CINDAQ diver explores the ancient ochre mine. At the end of the last ice age, these caves were dry, but would have been devoid of any natural light. (Credit: CINDAQ.ORG)
At the end of the last ice age, Indigenous miners in what is now the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico risked life and limb — venturing into pitch dark caves illuminated only by fire — to extract a prized mineral, a new study finds.
That mineral wasn’t gold or diamonds, but red ochre, a valuable crayon-like pigment that prehistoric people used for both ritualistic and everyday activities, including rock paintings, burials and possibly even insect repellent.
No one knows, however, how the Indigenous people of the Yucatan Peninsula used ochre. After Indigenous people mined the caves, between about 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, the caves flooded as the ice age ended and sea levels rose. But the still water in the caves preserved the miners’ camps — even the charred remains of their fires — allowing archaeologists to see exactly how the mineral was extracted.
The site is basically “a time capsule underwater,” study lead author Brandi MacDonald, an assistant research professor in the Archaeometry Laboratory at the University of Missouri Research Reactor, told Live Science. “It’s a really rare opportunity to get to see something with such amazing preservation.”