Deep in the waters of the Yucatán Peninsula, Sam Meacham and Fred Devos are maneuvering their way through a network of caves. The pair have been under the surface for some time now, having traveled a half-mile or so submerged. But the ordeal turns out to be worth it, as finally they’re faced with a tiny opening in the rock before them. And what lies behind completely astonishes the intrepid divers.
Even better, Meacham and Devos can take their astonishing find back to the Quintana Roo Aquifer System Research Center (CINDAQ). As that name suggests, the center researches and promotes the natural underground features of Quintana Roo – one of three Mexican states located on the Yucatán Peninsula.
And since CINDAQ was set up two decades ago, its members have undertaken thousands of dives. Thanks to these expeditions, they’ve naturally been able to glean more and more knowledge about the region’s caves, with a greater picture of the place emerging all the time.
However, Meacham and Devos’ dive in 2017 was perhaps the most fruitful of CINDAQ’s so far. You see, the pair exposed something incredibly important behind that opening in the rock. And that fateful discovery has now provided historians with a unique perspective on the Americas’ ancient human inhabitants.
Meacham was actually the director of CINDAQ, in fact, making the find particularly poignant for him. And even three years after the event, his memories of that day remain vivid. Speaking to National Geographic in July 2020, he recalled of the opening in the rock, “That was the portal into this whole other side.”
But while this particular cavern was especially fascinating, it’s far from the only one to be found in Quintana Roo. In fact, as more research is conducted into the region, it’s become clear that the cave network there is incredibly elaborate. Some of these underground spaces can even be found beneath thriving urban centers and tourist spots.
How do we know all this? Well, it’s down in part to information compiled by a group known as the Quintana Roo Speleological Survey (QRSS). And according to QRSS, the region is home to slightly more than 400 submerged caves – that we’re aware of, anyway. In total, this amounts to an astonishing 983 miles worth of subterranean space.
Tens of thousands of years ago, the caves in the area were also dry and accessible. This meant that early humans would have been able to climb inside and investigate. Over the millennia, however, sea levels have gradually risen and ended up submerging the structures – naturally putting an end to any further exploration.
Yes, around 10,000 to 12,000 years back, human beings are believed to have accessed the caves of Quintana Roo. And they wouldn’t have been alone in doing so, as there’s evidence that large creatures such as the giant ground sloth and the saber-toothed cat once traveled through these underground spaces, too.
Today, of course, the caves are uninhabitable and can only be reached through openings in the rock known as cenotes. But while it’s now more difficult to investigate these natural features, discoveries have still been made in the caves over the years. Among the most significant, perhaps, was the finding of a female skeleton in 2007.
Unbelievably, these human remains – found in a cave called Hoyo Negro – were about 13,000 years of age. Researchers named the skeleton Naia, in reference to Greek water apparitions called naiads. And when she died, it seems that Naia was only around 15 or 16 years old and 4’11” tall.
Now, Naia’s discovery is vital as she’s potentially a “missing link” between early American settlers and today’s Native American community. In other words, Naia exhibits many genetic similarities to contemporary Native American people – making her a distant relative of theirs.
James Chatters – who headed up a study on Naia’s genetics – suggested as much when speaking to Live Science in the wake of the discovery. Explaining the exciting breakthrough that the young woman’s remains had provided, he revealed, “Naia is a missing link filling in a gap of knowledge we had about the earliest Americans and modern Native Americans.”
The cave where Naia was found, meanwhile, is known as Hoyo Negro and is part of a network called Sac Actun – an underground labyrinth that snakes through the tropical lands of Yucatán Peninsula’s east. Chatters elaborated, “Hoyo Negro is a more than 100-foot-deep, bell-shaped, water-filled void about the size of a professional basketball arena deep inside a drowned cave system.”
And diver Alberto Nava has detailed the moment of Hoyo Negro’s 2007 discovery. He told CBS News, “We had no idea what we might find when we initially entered the cave, which is the allure of cave diving. The moment we entered the site, we knew it was an incredible place. The floor disappeared under us, and we could not see across to the other side.”
Nava went on, “We pointed our lights down and to the sides. All we could see was darkness. We felt as if our powerful underwater lights were being destroyed by this void, so we called it Black Hole – a cosmic object that absorbs all light. [This name] in Spanish is ‘Hoyo Negro.’”
And as we’ve previously mentioned, it wasn’t just human beings that entered these caves thousands of years ago. Evidence of a wide range of sizable creatures has been found here in contemporary times – and that’s not even mentioning signs of flora, too. As Chatters put it, “[The cave] is a time capsule of climate, plant, animal and human life at the end of the last ice age.”
Experts have theorized, though, that the creatures found in this cave slipped to their deaths and remained trapped for millennia. Then, over time, glaciers around the globe began to melt, sea levels rose, and the cave became submerged beneath the water – along, of course, with the remains of those unfortunate animals.
And the discovery of Naia made it plain to see that ancient humans entered the caves of Quintana Roo, too. Why exactly would they have done this? Well, the team at CINDAQ may have gone some way to finding the answer, after Meacham and Devos made an amazing discovery of their own.
Back in early 2017, Meacham and Devos were submerged deep underwater, investigating a particular cave known as La Mina. Then, after maneuvering through a tough environment of sharp, protruding rock, they eventually made it to the tiny entrance of the cavern. And the divers likely became the first people to travel inside La Mina in roughly 10,000 years.
But Meacham and Devos certainly weren’t the last people in La Mina, as Eduard Reinhardt – a geo-archaeologist and diver himself – soon followed the pair. Detailing his own experience of the cave and the larger system within which it sits – a place he compared to “Swiss cheese” – Reinhardt reflected, “This was a bonanza.”
Speaking to The Associated Press in 2017, Reinhardt went on to explain just how dangerous diving around La Mina can be. “You have to be very, very careful about not getting lost,” he stated. “You’ve got passages that kind of loop around and interconnect and then branch off and then connect into other systems.”
Some of the spaces that divers have to traverse in order to get to La Mina can be extremely challenging, too. While a lot of the passages measure up at about 80 feet wide, they have ceilings that are less than 6.5 feet high. Other entryways can span just over 2 feet in width. Reinhardt said, “You’ve really got to basically get on your back and kind of wiggle your way through.”
Carefully, though, Reinhardt – and Meacham and Devos before him – made it inside La Mina. This in itself was quite the feat – especially given all of the obstacles that stood in their way. But what exactly did they find after they’d weaved their way through this underwater maze?
Well, the cave exhibited signs that ancient humans had been inside long ago. Tools made of rock littered the site, while there was also evidence of fires having been lit there. But why had people descended into these caverns? Had they been looking for drinking water? Or had they perhaps been laying their dead to rest?
Roberto Junco has a potential answer to this conundrum. He is the head of Mexico’s archaeological regulatory organization, the Underwater Archaeology office of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), and in July 2020 he put forward arguably the most plausible theory to National Geographic. Junco said, “Now we have really, really strong evidence that at least one of the reasons [humans went down there]… was for the mining of ocher.”
Junco and his colleagues had good evidence for this belief, too, as an apparent site of labor had been discovered in amazing condition in La Mina. And all of the tools and pits for fires at the underwater site suggested that ancient peoples had indeed come there to mine for red ocher. Back then, this pigment was used all over the globe in cave artworks, religious practices and as an ingredient of sunscreen.
The relics at the La Mina site certainly impressed Brandi MacDonald, who is the lead author of a paper about the Yucatán Peninsula mines. Speaking to National Geographic, she said, “I’ve spent a lot of time imagining the different ways that people in the past have gone about collecting mineral pigments. But being able to see it like this in such an interesting state of preservation – it just blew me away.”
Talking to the same publication, Meacham also recalled the moment when he and Devos first noted all of the man-made features in the cave. “Fred and I immediately just started pointing at all of this stuff,” he remembered. “It’s not natural, and there’s nothing that could have done this other than humans.”
These new finds also made more sense of previous discoveries. Meacham said of previous expeditions, “We’ve noticed these strange, out-of-place things.” Generally speaking, this often meant that rocks were found in places where you wouldn’t otherwise expect them to be.
But now that La Mina has all but been confirmed as an ocher mining site, researchers can comfortably draw conclusions about other underwater caves in the area. And it seems likely that two others were used for the same purposes. Carbon dating techniques also tell us that all three sites were functional from around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.
It seems probable, too, that there are more mining sites out there in Quintana Roo. As Eduard Reinhardt put it to National Geographic, “It’s not just a one-off sort of thing. There was an active program to prospect, find and extract ocher. There’ll no doubt be more locations.”
And since La Mina’s discovery, a whole host of additional expeditions have yielded samples for scientists to pore over. Intrepid explorers to the site have also taken photos and footage of the surroundings, which will come in useful for creating a 3D rendering of the cave.
That aside, the items found inside La Mina paint a picture of ancient peoples with quite sophisticated levels of knowledge. Charcoal discovered in the mine, for example, appears to have been selected for its capacity to burn for a long time. And we can even see how these humans went about tackling the extraction operation.
Basically, it seems that the people removed ocher in lines, exhausting a given section until there was no pigment left before moving on to a new segment. And as the University of New Hampshire’s Barry Rock told National Geographic, “They understood… some basic geological principles that weren’t really codified or formalized until the mid-1600s.”
But why were these ancient humans going to the trouble of retrieving ocher from La Mina? Well, it should be known that they were far from the only folks to have done so. As far back as 100,000 years ago, people in South Africa were using the pigment. There’s also evidence of its use in France 30,000 years ago, while in Spain a 19,000-year-old female body was also found coated in ocher.
The pigment has been used for more functional reasons over the years, too – as a sort of glue for binding tools together, for instance. It even appears that ocher was a handy repellent against irksome insects. Yet it’s still unclear how the people working in La Mina were making use of the substance.
Nevertheless, we may know something else about La Mina: namely, that the Mexican cave may have been a site of religious significance. That theory has been put forward by the University of California Merced’s Holley Moyes, who is an expert on the use of caves for spiritual reasons.
Speaking to National Geographic, Moyes said, “Caves produce all kinds of good and evil. They’re probably the most sacred natural feature.” And, interestingly, the Maya civilization of Mesoamerica – who notably saw caves as spiritual places – also made use of ocher. Moyes added, “It’s something about that red color.”
So although we don’t yet understand what the ocher at La Mina was used for, the discovery has undoubtedly been a stunning one. And Roberto Junco of the INAH is certainly enthusiastic about the possibilities in store. He said to National Geographic, “We’re super excited here in Mexico to be working on this project. This is truly one of those moments where there’s a big change in the game.”
But divers in South America came across something even more alluring beneath the waves. A ship had long been resting on the bottom of the sea bed – seemingly gone forever, along with all of her treasure. And judging by the photos that they had snapped, researchers were close to making the discovery of a lifetime.
A research team just off the coast of Colombia is awaiting confirmation of a monumental discovery. And as the images finally come back from a camera nearly 2,000 feet below the surface of the Caribbean Sea, the group finally know that they’ve found something special. Yes, the “Holy Grail” of sunken treasure ships lies beneath them – one that hasn’t been seen for 300 years. Welcome to the final resting place of the San José.
A few months earlier, however, the same team – consisting of experts from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Maritime Archaeology Consultants – had examined the area and come up empty-handed. Searching for centuries-old shipwrecks isn’t easy, after all. And despite all of the scientists’ hi-tech equipment, on that occasion the ocean had refused to give up its secrets.
Undeterred, the team then scheduled a second survey for November, and fortunately this expedition turned out to be rather more successful. But the researchers weren’t the first treasure hunters to go looking for this particular wreck. In fact, more than three decades previously, another group believed that it had found the location of the San José – a Spanish galleon that had sunk in the 18th century. And with her had gone a cargo that was worth a fortune.
Believing that the wreck of the San José had come to rest off Colombia’s coast, Sea Search Armada had contacted the country’s government. Its 1981 request to salvage the site had been met with a somewhat unenthusiastic response from the South American nation’s authorities, however. And years of legal wrangling had followed, too, thus calling a halt to any further exploration of the area.
In fact, it would be decades before anyone went near the wreck – presumably owing in part to the secret nature of her location. Then the Colombian government finally approved a state-sponsored survey of the area. And this meant that the galleon ‒ as well as her cargo of riches ‒ would be seen for the first time in more than 300 years.
The San José had originally sailed at a time known today as the Age of Discovery. From the start of the 15th century to the mid-1800s, European countries explored the world by ship. Spurred on by the desire for fresh trading partners, nations such as Portugal, Britain and France opened up the globe via its oceans.
However, it was Spain that arguably had the greatest success to begin with. After all, Christopher Columbus made his famous journeys to the Americas on behalf of the country. And as historians know, the legendary explorer made landfall in what is now the Bahamas in October 1492 – several months after he’d left Andalusia. He also later ventured to Cuba and the coast of Central America.
Yet Columbus discovered South and Central America entirely by accident. The navigator was originally destined for India, you see, but he came across an island called San Salvador in the Caribbean instead. And this mistake ultimately opened up the New World to European explorers, with Spain soon becoming the area’s dominant power.
In fact, over the next 100 years, Spain took over an enormous chunk of the Americas. After invading Peru and Mexico among other places, the European country extended its rule from Argentina and Chile to the southwest of today’s U.S. And, of course, building this empire led to the plundering of native resources and the near-extinction of many indigenous populations.
In addition to creating an empire, the Spanish also funded and successfully completed the first round-the-world sailing expedition. In 1519, under the command of Ferdinand Magellan, five vessels left Seville to undertake this quest. But more than three years later, only one of these ships returned to Spain. The other four, along with most of the crew – including Magellan – never made it back.
In addition, any plunder – often gold, exotic foods or precious stones – unearthed during Spain’s conquest of the oceans and the Americas would subsequently be taken to Europe. And, as it happens, the San José was one of the ships on which this valuable cargo would be transported. Built in 1698, she sailed at the head of a fleet of 17 treasure vessels.
And at the turn of the 18th century, these ships became all-important. Spanish king Charles II died without an heir, you see, and so he had willed the monarchy to a Frenchman: Philip, Duke of Anjou, who was Louis XIV’s grandson. Yet other European empires were uncomfortable with a joint French and Spanish power, and this prospect prompted a battle that would encompass much of the known world.
The conflict in question became known as the War of the Spanish Succession. Britain joined the skirmish, too, fighting against Spain in its American territories. And it was against this backdrop that the San José fulfilled her purpose, ferrying taxes and treasures from the New World. Attacks on the fleet weren’t unusual at the time, though, and on one occasion, at least, they were very effective.
That moment came in June 1708, when the treasure fleet was journeying from Portobelo in Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. Laden with cargo including gold, silver and emeralds, the San José was leading the way. But just 30 miles from the vessels’ destination, a British contingent intervened. And the ensuing battle had tragic consequences for both the Spanish and the San José.
The conflict – later named Wager’s Action – lasted more than 12 hours, even continuing through the night. But while much of the Spanish fleet ultimately survived the clash, the San José did not. Nevertheless, the ship didn’t actually go down as a result of direct action from the British. Instead, the treasure vessel apparently exploded unexpectedly before the enemy was able to board her.
Then, after the San José had blown up, she sank, with her entire load – tons and tons of precious stones and metals – headed for the ocean floor. All but 11 of her 600-strong crew were also sent to watery graves. And there they stayed, undisturbed for 300 years.
But although the San José’s crew and cargo lay resting on the seabed for centuries, they were never forgotten. Efforts to find the wreck – popularly described among treasure hunters as “the Holy Grail” of archaeology – and the treasure that she holds have continued for decades, in fact. And in 1981 a group of salvagers believed that they’d discovered the San José’s precise location.
Even so, the salvage company, Sea Search Armada, never got the chance to go down and look for the sunken treasure. Since the wreck lay in Colombia’s territorial waters, you see, the organization needed permission to retrieve her. But the request was denied. And after that, the Columbian government created a law that essentially banned access to the San José and her precious cargo.
This decision kicked off years of legal wrangling over rights to the wreck. In fact, Sea Search Armada sued the Colombian government on three separate occasions between 1989 and 2015. But in the end, the site was designated state property. And all the while, the San José’s alleged location was kept a strict secret.
However, in 2015 a team of scientists went looking for the San José and her treasure – and this time, they had the blessing of the Columbians. In that year, a research vessel called A.R.C. Malpelo carried archaeologists out to the Caribbean Sea just off Cartegena with a marine submersible in tow.
This hi-tech submersible is called Remus 6000 and is capable of seeing things that humans can’t. And the machine –which is operated by a team from Massachusetts’ Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute – has an amazing history, too. In 2011, for example, its services were called upon to find wreckage of a very different kind as part of a very high-profile case.
On June 1, 2009, the deadliest accident in Air France’s history occurred off Brazil’s northeastern coast. Flight 447, which had been heading to Paris from Rio de Janeiro, had had 228 passengers and crew on board. However, after a series of mechanical and human errors, the Airbus A330 fell out of the sky. And the craft was destroyed when it hit the Atlantic, with everyone on the plane tragically perishing as a result.
Yet although initial salvage efforts turned up some parts of the craft, its black boxes remained elusive. These pieces of equipment ‒ the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder ‒ are vital to understanding the last moments of a journey by air. And owing to the extremely rough underwater terrain at the plane’s presumed crash site, two years were spent in vain trying to locate the technology.
In 2011, though, the Woods Hole team took Remus 6000 out to the Atlantic to aid in the hunt for the black boxes. And in less than a week, the submersible’s sonar technology located a significant amount of debris from Flight 447. This discovery then led French authorities directly to the boxes.
So, the submersible has some form when it comes to locating wreckage in hard-to-reach areas. And with that in mind, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Colombian government invited the Woods Hole team to help hunt for the San José. In fact, as Woods Hole’s team leader Mike Purcell said in a press release, “Remus 6000 is the ideal tool for the job, since it’s capable of conducting long-duration missions over wide areas.”
That said, Woods Hole’s initial sweep of the area in June 2015 turned into a disappointment. Not only were the team unable to find anything in relation to the San José, but they also ran out of time during their mission. And as a consequence, parts of the search location weren’t surveyed at all. Regardless, though, this setback didn’t put the experts off.
Indeed, the research team actually went back to those Colombian waters five months later. And their determination started to pay dividends. In a 2018 press release, Purcell explained, “During that expedition, we got the first indications of the find from side-scan sonar images of the wreck.”
What’s more, these sonar results showed a debris field that convinced the Woods Hole team into believing that they’d found the San José herself – or at the very least, another incredible discovery. Purcell revealed, “From those images, we could see strong sonar signal returns. So we sent Remus back down for a closer look [and] to collect camera images.”
To get that better view, the researchers sent Remus 6000 down to almost 2,000 feet below the surface, with the submersible ultimately coming to rest close to the debris field. And the images that the craft sent back were simply astonishing. Pots, weapons and even hundreds of teacups littered the ocean floor. Yet it was a collection of cannons that really caught the experts’ eyes.
“I just sat there and smiled,” Woods Hole engineer Jeff Kaeli told CBS News of the images. He had been alone when the pictures came in. “I’m not a marine archaeologist, but I know what a cannon looks like,” he went on. “So, in that moment, I was the only person in the world who knew we’d found the shipwreck.”
At this point, then, the Woods Hole researchers were convinced that they’d found the San José. Nonetheless, even closer images of the wreck were needed before they could make a final confirmation. You see, the team knew that the ship’s cannons feature intricately engraved details. And sure enough, when Remus 6000 got nearer to the wreck, it took snaps that showed dolphins had been carved into the weapons.
Proof of these features were all the team needed, then, to corroborate that they had discovered the site of the long-lost San José. Purcell explained, “With the [new] images, we were able to see new details in the wreckage. And the resolution was good enough to make out the decorative carving on the cannons.”
From there, the Woods Hole team’s lead archaeologist, Roger Dooley, confirmed the incredible find. Yes, three centuries after the ship had sunk, human eyes had once again glimpsed the San José. But while the breakthrough was heralded at the time, details about the wreck’s artifacts and exactly how they’d been found weren’t made public until three years later. So why all the secrecy?
Well, the scarcity of details about the wreck – even now – has its roots in a couple of issues. The first is the legal wrangling that started up again after the announcement of the discovery. Upon the find, Sea Search Armada repeated its claim to any loot, since it had, it claimed, originally found the wreck. In addition, Spain, which had once owned the galleon, and those countries whose wealth she contained may also have a right to claim the valuable artifacts.
But the second and perhaps most important cause of the information vacuum is the treasure itself. And if the cargo indeed comprises untold riches, as the logbook of the San José’s sister ship indicates, whoever owns the wreck would instantly become obscenely wealthy. You see, estimates of the value of the sunken silver, gold and emeralds top out at a whopping $17 billion. Yes, you read that correctly: $17 billion.
The location of such a precious haul is a secret well worth keeping, then. Indeed, as one lawyer told National Geographic in 2018, “sober people just lose their minds” when it comes to treasure. But while the ownership wranglings continue, the wreck of the San José is unfortunately off-limits to anyone wishing to get their hands on the loot.
Still, as the legal arguments can’t go on forever, what could happen once all’s said and done? Well, for one, the Colombian government has pledged to build a new research facility and accompanying museum for the preservation and display of any recovered artifacts. That said, some believe that raising the San José and her contents could lead to significant loss.
In 2018, for instance, UNESCO publicly asked the Colombian government to leave the San José and her cargo exactly where they are. This is partly due to the agency’s insistence that any commercial gain from the wreck will threaten the cultural significance of the site.
And there’s yet another reason to keep the location pristine: as so many of the San Jose’s crew members died during a battle, the wreck is considered a war grave. In 2015 Stanford University archaeologist Juston Leidwanger told CBS News, “It makes [salvage] very touchy because one is not supposed to intervene in war graves. Can you pluck treasure from the sea without disturbing a war grave? I doubt you can.”
So, while the arguments over the San José and her bounty continue, the wreck herself remains at the bottom of the ocean. But, one day, we just may see the riches to which 18th-century Spanish royalty once laid claim. And then, finally, we’ll know what $17 billion worth of treasure really looks like.