February 21, 2011

Earliest American Found in Quintana Roo

Mexico often has the air of an archaelogists' adventure paradise about it. I defy anyone to visit Cobá, without feeling like they are on the set of an Indiana Jones film. But beyond the vacationers, the experts are flooding in too. So many of Mexico's treasures lie undiscovered beneath the surface of the soil. This past week has seen not one, but two highly significant finds. One of these might change what we know about the history of the Americas. Has the first trace of humanity, on this continent, just been found in Quintana Roo?

Mastodon

In a previously unknown cavern, 4,000ft (1,200 meters) below the surface of the Yucatán Peninsula, diving explorers found the remains of dinosaurs, alongside a human skull. They have yet to be officially dated, but the presense of many megafauna bones, including that of a mastodon, suggests that they date from the Pleistocene Period. In short, they could be over 12,000 years old.

Mastodon
These Mastodons once roamed the Americas.

The remains were discovered in the depths of the labyrinthine Aktun-Hu system. These are a series of subterranean caves and tunnels, beneath Quintana Roo, which were flooded during the last Ice Age. Quintana Roo (famous for being the state where Cancún is) lies upon limestone, through which groundwater easily seeps to create this vast underground world. However, caves like this one, where the discoveries were made, weren't always so far down. The human being inside could well have simply walked in there, before it was ever flooded.

If this human is as ancient as the explorers believe, then (s)he may pre-date even La Mujer de las Palmas (the Lady of the Palms). It certainly adds credence to the theory that the earliest human settlers, on the Americas, came from Europe. They would have sailed from modern-day France, following a wall of icebergs, lining the Atlantic. Until recently, the most common belief was that humans reached the Americas from the north, crossing the Bering Strait, between modern-day Russia and Alaska.

La Mujer de las Palmas
La Mujer de las Palmas - does the latest find pre-date her?

The team, who made these discoveries, had to trapse through dense jungle, carrying their heavy equipment, before even making the deep dive. More details can be read at National Geographic: Skull in Underwater Cave May Be Earliest Trace of First Americans.

Also in the spotlight this week are reports of the discovery of a 3,000 year old Olmec sculpture, in Ojo de Agua, in the state of Chiapas. Standing at 3ft (0.9 meters) tall, it is made of carved, volcanic rock. It depicts a figure, with his hand held up to the Heavens, though no-one knows precisely who he is. The best guesses are Corn God, Tribal Chief, Tribal God or Priest.

Olmec Sculpture
Olmec Sculpture found in Chiapas

It was a chance discovery, uncovered by locals, in 2009. Fortunately there was an archaelogist in the area, who was able to quickly reach the site and document precisely how and where it lay. John Hodgson, an anthropology doctorial candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, immediately sealed off the area, into a 250 hectare archaeological zone. This allowed experts to thoroughly chronicle the site.

The intervening years have shown that Ojo de Agua was once a thriving Olmec settlement. Raised platforms and formal pyramids can be discerned around central plazas. It was abandoned around 2,000 years ago.

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