Deep inside an underwater cave in Tulum, Mexico, divers discovered the remains of an ancient human skeleton, possibly over 8,000 years old. Now, diver and archaeologist Octavio del Rio is fighting to investigate the remains before the Mexican government builds a tourist train attraction over the fragile cave system.
Mexico’s Caribbean coast is home to some of North America’s richest archaeological sites due to numerous sinkhole caves known as “cenotes” trapping prehistoric human remains. Del Rio said he noticed the skeleton buried within the sediment when he and his partner, Peter Broger, reached about a third of a mile into the cave.
“There it is. We don’t know if the body was deposited there or if that was where this person died,” Del Rio said.
Due to the bones being within the underwater cave, nearly 26 feet deep, Del Rio concluded that the remains must be ancient. The cave is only reachable with modern diving equipment, so he estimated that the human might have entered the cave 8,000 years ago, before rising sea levels permanently flooded the cave system and made it inaccessible.
Soon after finding the remains, Del Rio notified the National Institute of Anthropology and History of his discovery. The institute responded and stated that the remains would be investigated by the Quintana Roo state branch Holocene Archaeology Project.
However, Del Rio explains that it is now a race against the clock to explore the cave before it is too late. The Mayan Train project, commissioned by the Mexican government and constructed by Alstom, plans to complete 1,525 kilometers of rail through the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo.
Del Rio claims that although he cannot disclose the cave’s exact location, the proposed railway line runs right over it.
“There is a lot more study that has to be done in order to correctly interpret [the remains],” Del Rio said. “We are running the risk that all this will be buried, and this history lost.”
The Mayan Train project has already generated controversy among activists criticizing the railway’s snaking construction lines through ancient jungle land. For over two years, some modern-day Mayan descendants in the area have called for the project to be stopped, claiming that the construction threatens polluting water supplies and deforesting villages.
Jorge Sánchez, village council head, however, supports the train. “It will bring back jobs for our people,” he told NBC.