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Is This Cave ‘The Americas’ Oldest Ever Hotel?’

Men walking in cave
Devlin A. Gandy

Before there was Trip Advisor or Travelocity, people had to sort out their own accommodations while traveling. New research shows that a cave in Mexico might have served just such a purpose for people who arrived in the Americas about 15,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Winter and Summer Resort?

Based on the research to date, the first people to likely show up on our continent were the pre-Clovis, who arrived about 15,000 years ago. But a 10-year long study that’s just been described in the journal Nature says that the high-altitude Chiquihuite Cave cave located at 2750 meters above sea level shows the first evidence that there were people here way before the Clovis—15,000 years before.

“For decades people have passionately debated when the first humans entered the Americas,” said DNA scientist Professor Eske Willerslev, of St John’s College and the University of Cambridge. “Chiquihuite Cave will create a lot more debate as it is the first site that dates the arrival of people to the continent to around 30,000 years ago—15,000 years earlier than previously thought. These early visitors didn’t occupy the cave continuously, we think people spent part of the year there using it as a winter or summer shelter, or as a base to hunt during migration. This could be the Americas’ oldest ever hotel.”

Time For A Rethink

While the researchers found plenty of animal DNA and almost 2000 stone tools and tool fragments in the cave, they didn’t find any human DNA, which lends credence to the idea that people used the cave temporarily, as no one was likely buried there. 

“We identified DNA from a wide range of animals including black bears, rodents, bats, voles, and even kangaroo rats,” said Dr. Mikkel Winther Pedersen, a geneticist from the University of Copenhagen and one of the first authors of the paper. “We think these early people would probably have come back for a few months a year to exploit reoccurring natural resources available to them and then move on. Probably when herds of large mammals would have been in the area and who had little experience with humans so they would have been easy prey. The location of Chiquihuite Cave rewrites what has conventionally been taught in history and archaeology and shows that we need to rethink where we look for sites of the earliest people in the Americas.”

The cave’s location at such a high altitude would have given it strategic advantages, as inhabitants would have had a great view of the surrounding countryside. 

Dodging Drug Cartels

As if spending ten years in a cave doing research wasn’t challenging enough, Chiquihuite Cave is located smack dab in the middle of Mexican drug cartel territory. As a result, the scientists had to be escorted to the base of the mountain by armed police, and then walk up the mountain to the cave in pre-dawn darkness to avoid being spotted.

Archaeologist Ciprian Ardelean, of the University of Zacatecas in Mexico, who also participated in the study (even to the point of sleeping in the cave for several months), believes the danger and hard work were well worth it. 

“The peopling of the Americas is the last holy grail in modern archaeology,” he said. “Unconventional sites need to be taken seriously, and we need to go out and intentionally look for them. This site doesn’t solve anything, it just shows that these early sites exist. We are dealing with a handful of humans from thousands of years ago so we cannot expect the signals to be very clear. We have literally dug deeper than anyone has done in the past.”

Willerslev agreed.  “I will never forget being part of this research, it was an unbelievable experience,” he added. “The implications of these findings are as important, if not more important, than the finding itself. This is only the start of the next chapter in the hotly debated early peopling of the Americas.”

The research has been published in the journal Nature.