Ancient skeleton found in Mexican cave threatened by train

MEXICO CITY (AP) — A prehistoric human skeleton has been found in a cave system that was flooded at the end of the last Ice Age 8,000 years ago, according to a cave diver archaeologist on Mexico’s Caribbean coast.

Archaeologist Octavio del Rio said he and fellow scuba diver Peter Broger saw the shattered skull and skeleton, partially covered by sediment, in a cave near where the Mexican government plans to take a high-speed tourist train through the build jungle.

Given the distance from the cave entrance, the skeleton couldn’t have gotten there without modern scuba gear, so it must be over 8,000 years old, Del Rio said, referring to the time when rising sea levels inundated the caves.

“There it is. We don’t know if the body was dumped there or if that person died there,” Del Rio said. He said the skeleton was about 8 meters (26 feet) underwater, about half a kilometer ( a third of a mile) in the cave system.

Some of the oldest human remains in North America have been discovered in sinkholes known as “cenotes” on the country’s Caribbean coast, and experts say some of these caves are under threat from the Mexican government’s Mayan Train tourism project.

Del Rio, who has worked on projects with the National Institute of Anthropology and History in the past, said he informed the institute about the discovery. The institute did not immediately respond to questions about whether it intended to explore the site.

He stressed that the cave — which he did not reveal the location of because he feared the site could be looted or disturbed — was near where the government cleared a strip of jungle to lay train tracks, and that they collapsed, contaminated or closed by the construction project and subsequent development.

“A lot more study needs to be done to properly interpret the find,” Del Rio said, noting that “dating, some kind of photographic study, and collection” would be needed to determine exactly how old the skeleton is .

Del Rio has been exploring the region for three decades and in 2002 was involved in the discovery and cataloging of remains known as The Woman of Naharon, who died around the same time as or perhaps earlier than Naia – the nearly complete skeleton of a young woman, who died about 13,000 years ago. It was discovered in 2007 in a nearby cave system.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador wants to complete his Mayan train project in the remaining two years of his term in office, despite objections from environmentalists, cave divers and archaeologists. They say his haste leaves little time to study the ancient remains.

Activists say the heavy-duty, high-speed rail project will fragment the coastal jungle and often pass above the fragile limestone caves that — because they are flooded, tortuous and often impossibly narrow — can take decades to explore.

Caves along part of the coast have already been damaged by construction work above them, using cement piles to support the weight above.

The 950-mile (1,500-kilometer) Mayan train line is expected to make a rough loop around the Yucatan Peninsula, connecting beach resorts and archaeological sites.

The most controversial route cuts a more than 110-kilometer swath through the jungle between the resort towns of Cancun and Tulum.

Del Rio said the route through the jungle should be abandoned and the train built as originally planned over the already affected coastal highway between Cancun and Tulum.

López Obrador abandoned the highway route after objections were raised by hotel owners, and costs and traffic disruption became an issue.

“We want them to switch routes at this point because of the archaeological finds that have been made there and their importance,” Del Rio said. “They should take the train away from there and park it where they said they would build beforehand, on the freeway…an area that’s already affected, devastated.”

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