Under Tulum run the two largest underground rivers in the world, Sac Actun and Ox Bel Ha: This is a system of caves flooded with crystalline water, which shaped cenotes with narrow tunnels and huge chambers surrounded by stalagmites and stalactites.

For the Mayans, the cenotes were a portal to the underworld, a sacred site that served as an entrance to another earthly plane where the mysteries of Xibalbá were revealed.

Photo: Unsplash

4,000 years after the first indications of their civilization, archeology confirms that the Mayans were right: cenotes are a unique window to the past, sites that thanks to the chemical characteristics of the fresh water in its interior, the absence of light and temperature, function as authentic portals that help to understand what the flora, fauna and the oldest inhabitants of America of which it is recorded were like.

At over 60 meters deep, the underground caves of Sac Actun and Ox Bel Ha (307 and 235 kilometers long, respectively) are largely unexplored territory and are only accessible to expert cave divers with professional equipment.

However, for 20 years, the INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History) has spearheaded different projects to discover the mysteries of the cenotes.

Naia and the first settlers of Tulum

Photo: Uli Kunz / INAH

In 2007, INAH made one of the most incredible archaeological finds on the American continent: the skull, teeth, and much of the skeleton of a teenage girl It was found 30 meters deep in a network of cenotes known as Hoyo Negro.

Naia (as it was called) is the best preserved skeleton and one of the oldest in America. She was 1.50 meters tall and weighed about 50 kilos and was between 15 and 17 years old when she entered the Hoyo Negro cavern, which today is a cenote.

It is probable that he did it escaping, in search of food or water, since the conditions of 13 thousand years ago were not easy at all:

“Living conditions were very threatening. Giant predators lurking like the American lion, saber-toothed tiger, and short-faced bear; in turn, health conditions were more than precarious, physical anthropology analyzes reveal infections, fractures and oral diseases, not to mention that childbirth represented a high risk factor for women, “said Carmen Rojas, researcher at the INAH Quintana Center Roo, at the conference “The First Settlers of Tulum”.

Naia and her family were a nomadic group and had to travel long distances to find food and shelter. The most widely accepted theory is that after entering with a torch in hand, Naia accidentally slipped and fell to the bottom of the cave, which cost her life.

The ‘band of Tulum’: the mysterious origin of the first settlers of the peninsula

Tulum cenotesPhoto: Aldo Castro / INAH

Thanks to physical anthropology analyzes, it was confirmed that Naia was a mother at some point in his life and that he belonged to a group that migrated 13 thousand years ago and settled in Tulum.

Just like Naia, the accidents they were common in the caves of the Yucatan peninsula. Other skeletons such as Ixchel, a 30-year-old woman who died of skull fractures, or Muknal’s Grandpa, a man between the ages of 45 and 50, and one of the oldest skeletons ever found, account for how our ancestors lived. .

The different skeletal remains found in the Tulum underground network demonstrate morphological differences between them, a clue that points to a diverse origin, which in most cases connects with Asians that confirm the settlement of America from migration from the strait Bering, while in others they have characteristics similar to those of European prehistoric men.

Among the discoveries that have been made in these cenotes, there is also a new species of giant sloths, today extinct jaguars and saber-toothed tigers, all thousands of years before the Mayans dominated the paradise that is currently Tulum.

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