MEXICO CITY — A prehistoric human skeleton has been found in a cave system that was flooded at the end of the last ice age 8,000 years ago, according to a cave-diving archaeologist on Mexico’s Caribbean coast.
Archaeologist Octavio del Rio said he and fellow diver Peter Broger saw the shattered skull and skeleton partly covered by sediment in a cave near where the Mexican government plans to build a high-speed tourist train through the jungle.
Given the distance from the cave entrance, the skeleton couldn’t have gotten there without modern diving equipment, so it must be over 8,000 years old, Del Rio said, referring to the era when rising sea levels flooded the caves.
” There it is. Del Rio said that we don’t know where the body is or whether it was there when this individual died. He said that the skeleton was located about 8 meters (26 feet) underwater, about a half-kilometer (one third of a mile) into the cave system.
A number of North American’s oldest remains have been found in sinkhole caves called “cenotes”, on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Experts believe that some caves could be threatened by the Maya Train tourist project.
Del Rio has previously worked on various projects with the National Institute of Anthropology and History. He said that he had informed the institute of his discovery. The institute did not immediately respond to questions about whether it intended to explore the site.
But Del Rio said Tuesday that institute archaeologist Carmen Rojas told him that the site was registered and would be investigated by the institute’s Quintana Roo state branch Holocene Archaeology Project. He stressed the fact that the cave, which he didn’t reveal the location of because he was afraid it could be disturbed or looted, is near the area where the government had cut down jungle for railroad tracks. It could have been contaminated, collapsed or blocked off due to the development of the building projects.
“There is a lot more study that has to be done in order to correctly interpret” the find, Del Rio said, noting that “dating, some kind of photographic studies and some collection” would be needed to determine exactly how old the skeleton is.
Del Rio has been exploring the region for three decades, and in 2002, he participated in the discovery and cataloguing of remains known as The Woman of Naharon, who died around the same time, or perhaps earlier, than Naia — the nearly complete skeleton of a young woman who died around 13,000 years ago. It was discovered in a nearby cave system in 2007.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is racing to finish his Maya Train project in the remaining two years of his term over the objections of environmentalists, cave divers and archaeologists. They say his haste will allow little time to study the ancient remains.
Activists say the heavy, high-speed rail project will fragment the coastal jungle and will run often above the fragile limestone caves, which — because they’re flooded, twisty and often incredibly narrow — can take decades to explore.
Caves have already been destroyed by the construction of concrete pilings above.
The 950-mile (1,500-kilometer) Maya Train line is meant to run in a rough loop around the Yucatan Peninsula, connecting beach resorts and archaeological sites.
The most controversial stretch cuts a more than 68-mile (110-kilometer) swath through the jungle between the resorts of Cancun and Tulum.
Del Rio said the route through the jungle should be abandoned and the train should be built over the already-impacted coastal highway between Cancun and Tulum, as was originally planned.
Lopez Obrador decided to abandon the highway route because of objections from hotel owners. Traffic disruptions and costs became an issue.
“What we want is for them to change to route at this spot, because of the archaeological finds that have been made there, and their importance,” said Del Rio. “They should take the train away from there and put it where they said they were going to build before, on the highway … an area that has already been affected, devastated.”
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