A recent discovery of a human skull along with mastodon bones at the bottom of a submerged cave in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula near Belize may be the remains of the earliest human yet to be found in the Americas. It is also reviving the debate as to when and how the very first people arrived in the Americas, according to reports in National Geographic.
The ancient human remains were found at the bottom of a cenote (derived from the Maya word dzonot) located more than 2,000 feet (610 meters) below sea level. Known as Hoyo Negro, or Black Hole in Spanish, the deep pit is located inside the massive Aktun-Hu cave system on the Yucatan Peninsula coast north of Belize.
A team from the Projecto Espeleológico de Tulum initially found megafauna remains and mastodon bones at the bottom of the approximately 200-feet (60 meters) deep and 120-feet (36 meters) wide pit, prompting further investigation.
Then, at 140 feet (43 meters), the team discovered a human skull.
“I had thought we already had a great discovery after finding the remains of several Pleistocene animals… but finding a human skull was totally amazing for us,” one diver said, calling the find “the Holy Grail of cave exploration.”
University of Yucatan in Merida (UADY) archaeologist Guillermo de Anda said the skull looks “pre-Maya” after examining it.
Earlier, a female skeleton dated at 13,600 years old and dubbed the Eve of Naharon was found in a nearby submerged cave.
“We don’t now how (the people whose remains were found in the caves) arrived and whether they came from the Atlantic, the jungle, or inside the continent,” Arturo González, director of the Desert Museum in Saltillo, Mexico said.
“But we believe these finds are the oldest yet to be found in the Americas and may influence our theories of how the first people arrived.”
In addition to possibly altering the time line of human settlement in the Americas, the remains may cause experts to rethink where the first Americans came from, González added.
Clues from the skeletons’ skulls hint that the people may not be of northern Asian descent, which would contradict the dominant theory of New World settlement. That theory holds that ancient humans first came to North America from northern Asia by way of a now submerged land bridge across the Bering Sea.
Several other theories, including the Solutrean hypothesis, which holds that the first Americans were of European descent who crossed over from the Atlantic, are now attracting greater interest.
Approximately 12,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, Earth experienced great climatic changes. The melting of the ice caps caused a dramatic rise in global sea levels, which flooded low lying coastal landscapes and cave systems. Many of the subterranean spaces that once provided people and animals with water and shelter became inundated and lost until the advent of cave diving.
Belize’s cave systems have recently yielded treasure troves of ancient Maya artifacts. Now, as divers explore deeper, we can expect even more profound discoveries into the pre-Maya, earliest habitation of Belize and the entire Americas.
Photo credit:Daniel Riordan-Araujo