When four amateur cavers climbed over 1,300 feet through narrow crevasses and low-clearance passages into a remote cave in central Mexico in 2023, they came across something that also litters basements, attics, storage units, and cabins across the U.S. — a pile of old hunting gear. Only this gear dated back nearly 2,000 years.
Cavers Carolina Camacho, Paulo Campos, Héctor Fuentes and Jorge Ramos, all of whom belong to the Querétaro Cavers’ Association, discovered an atlatl, or spear-thrower, measuring over 20 inches long and carved out of wood. The atlatl was accompanied by two fragmented wooden hunting darts over 2 feet long and two multi-purpose digging logs measuring between 4 and 6 feet long. They found the weapons and tools in the Cueva del Tesoro, or “Treasure Cave,” near the town of Rancho Quemado in Querétaro, a state in central Mexico.
Despite the discovery taking place early last year, it was made public on Wednesday when the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) published a press release about the find and ensuing research. After the amateur cavers discovered the artifacts, they notified the INAH, who then sent four archaeologists into the cave to extract the items for further study.
Radiocarbon dating put the tools at about 1,900 years old. Researchers believe they stayed in such pristine condition because of how dry the interior of the cave was. They were likely left there by indigenous peoples who populated the area long before the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century. These people were semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers who likely first arrived in the area more than 9,000 years ago. Several other archeological sites in the region reveal similar clues to the hunting lifestyle these people led.
Atlatls were one of the earliest weapons used to hunt big game in North America. Archeologists have found evidence that humans were using these spear-throwers to kill mammoths, mastodons, and other megafauna before these species went extinct roughly 6,000 to 12,000 years ago. Native inhabitants of North America then shifted toward hunting smaller game, along with fishing and foraging. This led to the development of newer weapons, including bows and arrows, but atlatls like the one found in the Cueva del Tesoro would have still been useful around 2,000 years ago. Some hunters use these primitive weapons today in places where they’re allowed. (Hunting deer with atlatls is legal in Missouri, for example.) If you want a tutorial on how to make an atlatl, check out this quick read.