Ancient Skeleton of Woman Who May Have Been Bludgeoned to Death Discovered in Submerged Mexico Cave

The skeleton of a woman who appears to have been bludgeoned to death 9,900 years ago has been discovered in a submerged cave in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. The woman, who was around 30 when she died, had three cracks in her skull that indicate she was hit with something hard.

Researchers say it is possible she was cast out by her group and then killed in the cave, or attacked outside and then placed there to die.

The woman is the third human skeleton to have been found in the Chan Hol cave near Tulum in the state of Quintana Roo. The oldest skeleton, discovered in 2009, was a young man who lived 13,000 years ago—making him one of the earliest examples of humans being in South America. As a result, the Yucatán caves have become the subject of much research in recent years, with experts realizing their potential importance to the story of human migration into the Americas.

Wolfgang Stinnesbeck, from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, is lead author of a study published in PLOS One reporting the discovery of the latest skeleton, which has been named Chan Hol 3. He told Newsweek that they believe Yucatán was isolated for repeated periods during the Pleistocene era, when these early humans would have lived. The cave system would have been above ground at this time, only being submerged when sea levels rose thousands of years later. Humans appeared to have used the cave for at least 1,200 years before it was flooded, Stinnesbeck said.

Mexico cave skull
Image showing the skull of Chan Hol 3, a woman who died in the cave almost 10,000 years ago. The woman had been hit over the head three times and was suffering from a bacterial disease, arthritis and a tooth abscess. Jeronimo Avilés Olguin

All three skeletons are believed to have died in the caves. In nearby cave systems, where other ancient human remains have been found, bodies appear to have been taken there as parts of burials. "For other human individuals found by us in the Tulum caves it is likely that these persons were important in their society," Stinnesbeck explained. "Their bodies were laid to rest in deep parts of the cave, which must have been a dangerous undertaking at that time in this unknown labyrinthic system and absolute darkness in the absence of fire. For Chan Hol 3, we do not have this evidence and the traumas rather point towards a different interpretation, i.e. the woman might have been killed there."

Analysis of the woman's skull suggests she was hit over the head with a hard object three times. There were some signs of healing, with different blows at different stages. "It is likely that they caused her death, but there is no positive evidence for this scenario," Stinnesbeck said.

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The team also found evidence to suggest she was suffering from treponemal bacterial disease, because of signs of skull deformation related to inflammation. Subspecies of the bacteria Treponema pallidum, which is thought to be responsible, is known to cause diseases like syphilis and yaws.

She also had a tooth abscess that went "deep into the bone" and "must have caused severe pain." She also had arthritis in her hip and signs of it in her back. "It really looks as if this woman really had a hard time and a very unhappy end of her life," Stinnesbeck said. "Obviously this is speculative, but given the traumas and the pathological deformations on her skull, it appear a likely scenario that this woman was expelled from her group and killed in the cave, or was placed there to die."

Biological and forensic anthropologist Samuel Rennie, an author on the study, told Newsweek that a CT scan could help confirm the diagnosis of a bacterial disease, as well as giving a better insight into the traumas she suffered.

"The healing [of the skull] tells us that she was alive for at least short period of time following the trauma," he said. "What happened after that however, is unknown until further analysis is completed."