A human skeleton that is believed to be over 8,000 years old has been found in an underwater cave, or cenote, near the proposed Playa del Carmen-Tulum section of the Maya Train railroad.
Speleologist and archaeologist Octavio del Río said that he and diver Peter Broger saw the skeleton under sediment in a cave system that was flooded at the end of the last ice age 8,000 years ago. The skeleton, including the skull, is broken into small pieces, del Río said.
Broger led the archaeologist to the skeleton last weekend after discovering it during a prior diving expedition.
Del Río – who has collaborated with the underwater archeology division of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) for almost three decades – told the Associated Press that the remains are at a depth of about eight meters some 500 meters from the entrance to the cave system.
“Because of where it was found [and] the depth, it could only have arrived there when the cave was dry. This was at least 8,000 years ago,” del Río said.
He said it was unclear whether the body was deposited in the cave after death or whether the person died where the skeleton was found. In an interview with the Reforma newspaper, del Río said that the gender of the person is also unknown.
“We don’t yet know the sex or the size [of the person], how much he or she weighed, whether the person had a disease. We don’t know how he or she died,” he said.
Del Río said that laboratory analysis would determine such details after the remains have been removed from the cave. “A long study that could last months or years starts now,” he said.
The archaeologist hasn’t revealed the exact location of the cave where the skeleton was found but said in a post to his personal Facebook account that it’s in the Tulum area. He noted that it was the 11th discovery of ancient human remains in the area.
“They date from the origin of man in America, with a chronology that ranges from 13,700 years ago to 8,000 years ago,” del Río wrote. “The caves were their homes in life and their tombs in death.”
The archaeologist was involved in the discovery and cataloguing of the skeleton of Eve of Naharon, which was found in an underwater cave near Tulum about 20 years ago and has been carbon-dated to 13,600 years ago.
Del Río told AP that he notified INAH of the most recent discovery and was told by INAH archaeologist Carmen Rojas that the site was registered and would be investigated by the institute’s Quintana Roo division.
Del Río warned that construction of the Maya Train could collapse, contaminate or close off the cave system where the skeleton is located.
The #SelvameDelTren (Save me from the Train/Save the Jungle from the Train) collective, an outspoken critic of construction of the controversial Playa del Carmen-Tulum section (Tramo 5 Sur) of the Maya Train, said that the discovery emphasized the importance of protecting caves in the area.
The cave where the ancient skeleton was found and other archaeological and paleontological relics “could be affected by the train work,” the collective said in a statement. It called for Tramo 5 Sur to be built parallel to Federal Highway 307, as was originally planned, in order to “protect the history of our country.”
The federal government decided to move the route inland earlier this year after the Playa del Carmen business community complained that the construction of the railroad parallel to the highway would effectively divide the city in two. Large swaths of the Mayan Jungle have been cut down to create a passage for the rerouted section.
Del Río said that “the train will go through a 60-kilometer area that is a unique archaeological site” if construction of Tramo 5 Sur continues as planned.
“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,” he told AP.
“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.”