Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History said Thursday that a prehistoric human skeleton recently found in a flooded cave system along the country’s Caribbean coast was actually discovered and registered by the institute in 2019 and would not be threatened by a nearby tourist train project.
Earlier this week, archaeologist Octavio del Rio said he and fellow diver Peter Broger saw the shattered skull and skeleton partially covered in sediment in a cave. They reported this to the institute, which had not spoken publicly about the find until its statement Thursday.
“The reference skeleton corresponds to a 2019 discovery and is fully registered and identified as part of the Holocene Archeology program,” the institute said. He added that scientific analysis had not yet been carried out on the remains, but that it was 400 yards (meters) from the path of the government’s Mayan train project and was not threatened.
Del Rio, who has worked with the institute in the past but is not currently affiliated with, said Thursday that the fact that the discovery was made in 2019, but has not yet been analyzed, illustrated how long it takes to explore and investigate the extensive cave systems in the train’s path.
“This demonstrates the archaeological potential of the area for investigating America’s early settlers and what remains to be discovered,” 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.
Given the distance from the cave entrance, the skeleton could not have reached it without modern diving equipment, so it must be more than 8,000 years old, Del Rio previously said, referring to the era when sea level rise flooded the caves.
Some of North America’s oldest human remains have been discovered in sinkhole caves known as “cenotes” on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, and experts say some of these caves are threatened by the Mexican government’s Maya Train tourism project.
Del Rio feared that even if the train did not pass directly to the site, its construction could damage or contaminate the cave system.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is racing to complete his Maya Train project in the remaining two years of his term, despite objections from conservationists, cavers and archaeologists. They say his haste will leave little time to study the ancient remains.
Activists say the heavy high-speed rail project will fragment the coastal jungle and often flow over the fragile limestone caves, which, because they are flooded, winding and often incredibly narrow, can take decades to explore.
The caves along part of the coast have already been damaged by the construction above them, with concrete poles used to support the weight on top.
The 950-mile (1,500-kilometer) Maya train line is meant to run in a bumpy loop around the Yucatan Peninsula, connecting seaside resorts and archaeological sites.