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Octavio del Rio recording one of the bonfires in the Yucatan cenote, Aktun Ha. 	Source: Krzysztof Starnawski / INAH

Ancient Fires In Yucatán Cenote Dated To 10,000 Years Ago

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The oldest charcoal remains ever discovered in Mexico have been found submerged in a Yucatán Peninsula cenote.

New archaeological evidence from burnt charcoal samples has determined the earliest settlers in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula built bonfires over 10,000 years ago in a cave which is now flooded with water. In 2017 and 2018 charred organic samples from 14 prehistoric bonfires were removed from the Aktun Ha cenote (sinkhole), about nine kilometers from the town of Tulum in Quintana Roo , and they were analyzed by scientists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico ( UNAM).

In late April this year archaeologist Luis Alberto Martos López authored an article about the charcoal sample analysis which was published in the journal  Geoarchaeology detailing how they had all been found in the Ancestors Chamber of the Aktun Ha cenote. The subsequent study included controlled heating experiments, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and carbon dating to determine the fires had burned between “10,250 and 10,750 years ago.”

Studies show that bonfires in the Aktun Ha cenote were created by man more than 10,000 years ago. Aktun Has Access, Photo ODRL/INAH)

Studies show that bonfires in the Aktun Ha cenote were created by man more than 10,000 years ago. Aktun Has Access, Photo ODRL/ INAH)

Were the fires local, or swept into the sinkhole from elsewhere?

Located beside the Tulum-Cobá highway the cenote is known locally as the Car Wash,” for before becoming a major heritage and tourist attraction taxi drivers used to get water for washing their cars. The dating of the fires corresponds to the early Holocene period , which is the geological epoch we are still in that began more than 11,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age , and the 14 charcoal remnants have been called the “oldest ever discovered in a Yucatán Peninsula cenote” according to a report in Mexico News Daily . Mr Martos López said this finding is helping him and his fellow scientists to reconstruct the history of fire in the Americas which he believes is of great importance for the “study of evolution and human migration.”

Before this discovery was cemented as bonafide archaeology the scientists first had to negate the possibility that waters from elsewhere had swept the charcoal remains into the cenote cave . And increasing this possibility, in 2018, the discovery of an underground link between the Sac Actun underwater river system which is approximately 263 kilometers long, and the Dos Ojos system in Tulum which is 84 kilometers long, which Geo Mexico called “the world's largest underwater cave system .” However, the archaeologists were able to determine that the fires had been burned locally to the cenote.

Studies show that bonfires in the Aktun Ha cenote were created by man more than 10,000 years ago. Octavio del Río in front of the main bonfire. (Image: INAH)

Accessing the well-ventilated hunting camp and sacred site

Analysis of the charcoal revealed the fires had reached temperatures as high as 600 C and archaeological divers discovered stone tools and artifacts in the cave, such as hammers and scraper tools, suggesting it was a temporary shelter where butchery and cooking occurred. But the researchers say the early hunter-gatherers who lived on the Yucatán Peninsula may have used the Ancestors Chamber “for ritual purposes”.

Describing how the ancient sacred site was accessed over 10 millennia ago, Martos explained that to get into the cave in prehistoric times people would have had to crawl through “a narrow five-meter-long tunnel whose entrance was hidden by a mound of rocks.” At the end of the tunnel the Ancestors Chamber of the Aktun Ha cenote measures 20 square meters high and five to six meters wide, and around 10,000 years ago a natural well formed at the back of the cave and Martos explained that before it was flooded with water it had been “well ventilated allowing the fire smoke to escape.”

Inhabitants of the Chamber of Ancestors of the Aktun Ha cenote. Illustrated by Octavio del Río. (Image: INAH)

Inhabitants of the Chamber of Ancestors of the Aktun Ha cenote. Illustrated by Octavio del Río. (Image: INAH)

Penetrating Mexico’s Ancient Origins

This new discovery jigsaws into the content of a Feb 2020 news article I wrote for Ancient Origins about new research published in the journal  PLOS One detailing the discovery of “a 9,900-year-old human skeleton,” found in the Chan Hol cave, near the Tulum archaeological site in Quintana Roo. Belonging to a woman who had died in her 30s, the archaeologists referred to her as being among the “first people to set foot in the Americas.”

In context, when this 9,000 year old woman sat around a fire at night considering where she might have come from, her fire burning ancestors who left the charcoal behind in the Aktun Ha cenote were as distant to her as the Norman Invasion of Britain in 1066 AD is to us, having occurred almost 1,000 before our present day. It seems that as technologies rapidly advance, every few months archaeologists in Mexico push back the anthological clock penetrating deeper into our Ancient Origins, and very soon we may have an answer to the big question: where did the 10,000-year-old fire starters come from?

Top image: Octavio del Rio recording one of the bonfires in the Yucatan cenote, Aktun Ha.           Source: Krzysztof Starnawski / INAH

By Ashley Cowie

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