MEXICO CITY (AP) — A prehistoric human skeleton has been found in a cave system that 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 crushed skull and skeleton partially 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 been there without modern diving equipment, so it must be more than 8,000 years old, Del Rio said, referring to the time when rising sea levels flooded the caves.
“There it is. We don’t know if the body was deposited there or if that person died there,” Del Rio said. He said the skeleton was about 8 meters (26 feet) under water, about half a kilometer (a third of mile) inside the cave system.
Some of the oldest human remains in North America have been discovered in sinkhole caves known as “cenotes” on the country’s Caribbean coast, and experts say some of these caves are threatened by the Mexican government’s Maya Train tourism program.
Del Rio, who has worked with the National Institute of Anthropology and History on projects in the past, said he had informed the institute of the discovery. The institute did not immediately respond to questions about whether it intended to explore the site.
However, Del Rio said Tuesday that Institute archaeologist Carmen Rojas told him the site was recorded and would be investigated by the Holocene Archeology Project of the institute’s Quintana Roo state branch.
He pointed out that the cave – the location of which he did not reveal for fear the site could be looted or disturbed – was near where the government cut a jungle belt to lay train tracks and could collapse, become contaminated or closed by the building project and subsequent development.
“There’s a lot more studies that need to be done to properly interpret” the find, Del Rio said, noting that “chronology, some kind of photographic studies and some collection” will be needed to determine exactly how old the skeleton is.
Del Rio has been exploring the area for three decades, and in 2002 was involved in the discovery and cataloging 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 about 13,000 years ago. It was discovered in a nearby cave system in 2007.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is struggling to complete the 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 leave little time to study the ancient relics.
Activists say the heavy, high-speed rail project would fragment the coastal jungle and often run over the fragile limestone caves, which – because they are flooded, twisting and often incredibly narrow – could take decades to explore.
Caves along part of the coast have already been damaged by structures on top of them, with cement piles used to support the extra weight.
The 950-mile (1,500-kilometer) Maya Train Line is intended to run a rough loop around the Yucatan Peninsula, connecting seaside resorts and archaeological sites.
The most controversial stretch cuts a more than 68-mile (110-kilometer) route through the jungle between the resorts of Cancun and Tulum.
Del Rio said the route through the jungle would have to be abandoned and the train would have to be built over the already affected coastal highway between Cancun and Tulum, as originally planned.
López Obrador abandoned the highway route after hotel owners objected and costs and traffic disruptions became a concern.
“What we want is for them to reroute at this point, because of the archaeological finds that have been made there and their importance,” Del Rio said. “They should take the train out of there and put it where they said they were going to build before, on the freeway … an area that’s already been hit, it’s been destroyed.”