Published On: Tue, Jan 16th, 2018

World’s largest underwater cave system discovered near Tulum, Quintana Roo

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A team of experts from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) has discovered a link between two systems of flooded caverns that together form the world’s largest underwater cave.

The multidisciplinary team made the discovery during work on the Great Mayan Aquifer (GAM) project, in which archaeologists, biologists, underwater photographers and cave divers are exploring, documenting and mapping the extensive subterranean network of water deposits on the Yucatán Peninsula.

GAM project director Guillermo de Anda told the newspaper Milenio that the discovery of the connection between the 263-kilometer-long Sac Actun system and the 84-kilometer Dos Ojos system in Tulum, Quintana Roo, was made on January 10 following 10 months of intense work.

The interconnected system measures 347 kilometers and has an average depth of 20 meters, although in some sections it is as shallow as two meters and in others as deep as 100.

In accordance with speleology conventions, the combined network will be named after the larger of the two systems: Sac Atun, which in the Yucatec Maya language means the White Cave.

“Without a doubt, it’s the most important submerged archaeological site in the world,” de Anda said.

“We’ve recorded more than 100 archaeological elements: the remains of extinct fauna, early humans, Mayan archaeology, ceramics and Mayan graves. It’s also very significant that this discovery enables us to see the possible patterns of past settlement. From the Pleistocene through to the ancient Mayans and up to the colonial era, they developed parallel to this enormous flooded fresh-water cave,” he added.

De Anda also said that within the underwater system there are dry and partially dry caves where the research team has documented age-old modifications that include walls and staircases and discovered cave paintings and other signs of ancient human presence.

Documentation of the extensive cave system is a great achievement as the aquifer represents one of the final frontiers of exploration, the underwater archaeologist said.

“INAH authorities are conscious of the challenge represented by properly documenting, studying and recording all the [different] elements and placing them under the same lens in order to stop seeing them in an isolated context [but rather] make a comprehensive interpretation,” de Anda said.

German explorer Robert Schmittner, who leads the diving team, said the discovery of the link between the two systems is the result of years of hard work and his team’s dedication, passion and desire to find it.

“It’s a titanic effort from the whole team . . . I didn’t rest for 14 years until I found the interconnection . . .” Schmittner explained.

However, de Anda said that there is still a lot of work to be done to better understand the value of the natural resources, the morphology of the Yucatán Peninsula subsoil and the biodiversity of the subterranean cave networks.

Another challenge is finding whether any links exist between Sac Actun and three other nearby underwater cave systems. One located to the north of Sac Actun is considered “the mother” of the cenotes, or sinkholes, and until now at least, believed to be an independent system.

According to data from the Quintana Roo Speleological Survey, there are 358 underwater cave systems in the north of the state alone.

Together, they are made up of around 1,400 kilometers of underwater passages including the 270-kilometer-long Ox Bel Ha system located to the south of Tulum.




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