A story of thirst

Anyone who has ever been to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico will have noticed a special feature of the area there. Rivers and lakes are almost non-existent. The karstic soil causes water to sink underground. The dissolution of the limestone forms caves, called Cenotes, and underground watercourses. Many of these are connected to what is probably the largest continuous underwater cave system on earth. The total length of all the systems in Quintana Roo that have been explored by daring divers to date is, according to current knowledge, approximately 1.085 km. Some of these cenotes are filled half with salt and half with fresh water, and surprisingly, the waters do not mix, but form rather a very special place. Researchers refer to it as the “Great River of the Maya”.

For humans and animals, the Yucatan context has always meant that they had to search for water underground or use broken Cenotes as wells.

As the water level used to be lower in past centuries, these caves are now flooded at a higher level than before. Prehistoric people – just like animals – therefore accessed places that are not reachable on dry foot anymore today. They often had to walk a long way underground through tunnels to reach the water. No easy task in the dark.

Every now and then, animals and people paid for their vital daring and thirst with their lives, as they could no longer find their way out of the labyrinthine tunnels or fell into broken system parts that forms huge caves. To date, underwater archaeologists have found twelve human skeletons from early history in this zone, in the company of primeval animals including elephants.

What can be found out in looking at these bones, which are now as fragile as glass, but which have been perfectly preserved by the water, is amazing. From the bones of a young girl, which the researchers around the great Pilar Luna christened Naia, they were able to learn that the young woman came from far, had a child, walked a lot, suffered from malnutrition in her youth, had never eaten fish (while the cave she was found in is near the sea) and finally that the prehistoric hunters from 13.000 years ago in Yucatan are related to the Maya who still live there today.

The Fuerte El Alto Museum in Campeche tells the story of Naja and also that of a magnificent shipwreck on a reef. But that one is then already another story …

U.C. Ringuer

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