Ochre has been part of human history as seen on the smears on shells, piled in graves, stamped and stenciled on cave walls from South Africa to Australia, Germany, and to Peru.
Archaeologists found evidence of the functional uses for ochre and realized that early humans had a complex relationship with ochre, according to a report by Discover Magazine.
Tammy Hodgskiss, an archaeologist from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, said that ochre shows how human brains were developing and were using their environment. Ochre was seen as a bridge art and science.
Recently, a diver discovered mining-related artifacts and digging areas in three of the now-submerged cave systems that indicate ancient humans were there to mine the ochre.
Well-Preserved Ochre Mine in Underwater Caves
Scientists have confirmed that the site in Quintana Roo, a state in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, is one of the Western Hemisphere's oldest known ochre mining sites. This crimson mineral was used for rock art, body decoration, tanning animal hides, and medicine.
It is a precious mineral that miners would go to great lengths to obtain it, from the forests of Mesoamerica to the grasslands of Africa.
Archaeologist Spencer Pelton of the University of Wyoming, who was not involved in the work, said, "The love of shiny red things is a pretty universal human trait. ... It's why we buy red sportscars." Spencer is also excavating another prehistoric ochre cache in Wyoming.
The newly found site is located in a three cave system that was submerged underwater some 7,000 years ago due to the rising water levels.
Divers exploring the tunnels deep within in 2017 noticed that there are broken stalactites and stalagmites, curiously piled rocks, pitted walls and floors, and sooty ceilings.
These sections were located hundreds of meters away from the cave's mouth, where natural light could not penetrate.
Then in 2018, they returned to the site with geoarchaeologist Eduard Reinhardt of the McMaster University. They were able to identify dozens more pits and trenches and took some as evidence of mining activity.
They named the sit as La mina, which means "the mine" in English. Radiocarbon dating revealed that what they found were left about 12,000 years ago, and the youngest among them is about 10,000 years ago.
They also examined the fragments of the charcoal under a scanning electron microscope and found that the soot came from local, highly resinous trees perfect as torchwood.
The scientists also discovered that the ochre the ancient miners were excavating was remarkably high-quality. Brandi MacDonald of the University of Missouri and the one who led the analysis explained that ancient miners made digging tools from cave materials rather than bringing them from outside.
"They're actually breaking off stalactites from the ceiling and using them as hammerstones and pile drivers to smash through the limestone," he said.
Over a decade ago, in 2007, archaeologists found the remains of a 12,500-year-old Paleoamerican teenage girl nicknamed Naia in a cave near Sagitario. This discovery led the archaeologists to believe that people entered these caves, and now they finally know why.
However, there is no evidence as to how the mine's riches were used. Aside from the knowledge that ochre was used as decoration, the mineral's high arsenic content could have made it an effective bug repellant. But whatever its use, Brandon said that the mine was abandoned 2,000 years before it was submerged underwater. There are no clear signs as to why the mining was halted.