In Search of Naia

An interview with explorer Alex Alvarez


Divers Alberto Nava and Alejandro Alvarez search the walls of Hoyo Negro, an underwater cave on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula where the remains of “Naia,” a 12,000- to 13,000-year-old teenage girl, were found. Paul Nicklen/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Formerly a civil engineer in Mexico, Alvarez is one of the original divers who discovered Hoyo Negro, an underwater site in the Yucatan Peninsula filled with ancient human and animal bones. Years later, he returned to Hoyo Negro as part of the expedition to retrieve  and research Naia, one of the oldest and best preserved skeletons ever discovered in the Americas. Alvarez and his colleagues discovered the bones of the teenaged girl who fell to her death more than 12,000 years ago. They kept the discovery secret for nearly two years, fearing what might happen to the site. He lives in Tulum, about 12-13 miles south of Hoyo Negro.

Can you describe discovering the site and the skeleton?

My role in this dive was going first, scouting the cave. Beto and Franco [Alvarez’s colleagues] were placing line and surveying respectively, when suddenly I saw no more refraction of my light from the walls of the tunnel. My heart started beating rapidly when I realized I was suddenly on the edge of a deep pit, experiencing only darkness. I could not see any wall or floor with my light.  

When I turned back to see Beto and Franco still busy surveying, the seconds seemed endless. When they finally turned to see me, I signaled my surprise. We had Diving Propulsion Vehicles (DPV) with us, so we decided to leave Franco holding on the line at the edge, while Beto and I rode with the DPVs along the wall, surrounding the hole to find another two tunnels leading to the pit. However, when we turned to see Franco’s light, it was very small and far away and we decided to head straight back to his light. Then I did another turn around with Franco, leaving Beto holding the line and the light, to confirm the round shape of the pit. We named it “Hoyo Negro” (The Black Hole). 

Weeks after we came back with the proper gases to allow us to dive deeper into the pit. Once at depth, we began finding groups of big bones. We were amazed and I realized we had discovered something big.  

As we continued looking around, I saw a human skull upside down resting on a humerus bone. I signaled Beto and Franco to show them what I had found. The three of us hovered over the skull, not believing what we saw. It blew our minds. 

How did the discovery change the expedition?

After this discovery our project transformed from a purely exploration project for Proyecto de Espeleologia de Tulum (Tulum Caving Project) to a scientific and multidisciplinary project.  

The first two years after the discovery, we did not know what to do or how to manage the information so we kept it secret. In this era, divers who discovered something of interest and value were hesitant to report the finding to the authorities. 

Given the secrecy surrounding the discovery, how did you finally decide to involve others?

We decided to visit our friend Guillermo de Anda, an archeologist, and diving instructor who worked in the Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan. We thought he could give us some advice and more knowledge about the subject and legal protocol. Guillermo created a series of meetings and workshops with different paleontologists, geologist, archeologists and others to help us increase our knowledge base on the subject and understand what to do with it. However, at the end, the advice from everyone was to report the find to the federal authorities, namely the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) who are by law the only agency to handle this sort of discovery. 

In November of 2009 I went to Mexico City with our maps, photographs and videos. I also carried an official announcement of the finding to give to Pilar Luna, head of Subaquatic Archeology for INAH. I met with her and we had a long conversation. Among the topics was the status of cave explorers and their relation with INAH as an authority, the issues related to the growth of the diving industry in the area, and the danger of having unprepared divers find places of archaeological interest and taking tourist to such fragile places.  

In the announcement we expressed our intention to help protect the site and to continue working together with INAH. We also expressed our desire to be part of a multidisciplinary project, in order to retrieve as much information as the site could give us. Easy to say, but we still needed a third party to finance the project. 

After months of meetings and negotiations, INAH, as the federal authority, and National Geographic as the sponsor, established an agreement and a course to follow using our team of divers as the underwater team. The name of this new multidisciplinary scientific project was “Proyecto Arqueologico Subacuatico Hoyo Negro, Tulum Q. Roo.” 

What has been your individual role in the project as it has grown in size?

My role from the beginning has been one of almost pulling the group together in a cohesive form. Because I am the only team member who lives in Tulum, I have happily been the one who is able to do whatever needs to be done to make sure that when the team is here, we mostly spend our time exploring and working with the other scientists. That meant using all my expertise as a diver, as an engineer, and as a person concerned with preserving history. The project has tested all my skills and resources from using my engineering skills to design and build an access ladder and platform 10 meters below the surface, to designing and finding the right people to build the road and to get the area secured with fencing and even to using my 4 x 4 jeep to get to places un accessible in other vehicles. 

What challenges did the continued presence of divers pose for the site?

In 2011 the sponsors began to pay some expenses like the gases including oxygen and helium for breathing at depth. We began to notice damage at the site caused by the bubbles of our SCUBA tanks, and decided to switch from the open circuit to a closed circuit system. The closed circuit system is called a re-breather. The system recycles the gasses, which means no bubbles damage the environment.  

When you began exploring the caves around Hoyo Negro, did you know there was a chance of finding anything as significant as Naia?

When I began exploring caves, I never thought I would find anything as significant as a human skull. It was enough satisfaction to be able to explore. I was never looking for more. At some point, exploring becomes the way to maintain the challenge of my profession, always finding out more, never knowing what might come next.  

As an experienced professional in the field, how did it feel to enter the cave, and then to realize the significance of what had been discovered?

I felt so humble and small in this big space, hundreds of thousands of years old. People may believe that underwater cave explorers get enough satisfaction doing something that not many other people can do.  

I also love it because of the communion you experience with such an incredible environment. These kinds of caves took thousands of years to form and are incredibly magnificent. They are so beautiful but at the same time they are intimidating because of the dangers involved in getting to know them given the immensity and their complexity. But at the same time you get to experience the peace that those places transmit.  

I used to believe that we were in places that nobody had been before, until you encounter what I was privileged to see. Then you realize that people were there a long time before us. You start to understand the tremendous complexity of the geological events that took place which kept those remains far from the eyes of any other human being for thousands of years.  

Originally published by Medill Reports Chicago




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