It took ten months of intensive exploration, but researchers with the Great Maya Aquifer Project (GAM) discovered the world’s largest flood cave system. The subterranean caverns span an astonishing 347 kilometers (216 miles) and are reportedly full of lost secrets of the ancient Maya civilization.

Said underwater archeologist Guillermo de Anda, of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History:

“This immense cave represents the most important submerged archaeological site in the world. It has more than a hundred archaeological contexts, among which are evidence of the first settlers of America, as well as extinct fauna and, of course, the Maya culture.”

Credit: Herbert Meyrl/GAM

Science Alert reports that de Anda is presently in charge of GAM. For decades, the research effort has explored underwater caves in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Approximately 358 submerged cave systems are located in the region, making up approximately 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) of flooded freshwater tunnels. Recently, the organization made its biggest discovery yet. 

The Sac Actun System was first believed to be two different cave systems. Upon further exploration, however, the underwater explorers determined another system called Dos Ojos (“two eyes”) is actually part of the Sac Actun System. Together, they form a mammoth continuous cavity.

Herbert Meyrl/GAM

“We came really close a few times. On a couple of occasions, we were a metre from making a connection between the two large cave systems,” Robert Schmittner, GAM exploration director told Mexican newspaper El Pais. “It was like trying to follow the veins within a body. It was a labyrinth of paths that sometimes came together and sometimes separated. We had to be very careful.”

The researchers’ hard work paid off, as the Sac Actun is now recognized as the largest underwater cave in the world. The second-largest is the Ox Bel Ha System, also located in Quintana Roo, which extends for 270 kilometers.

In many ways, the researchers’ work is just getting started. This is because Sac Actun may grow even larger. In fact, the underwater divers believe it could connect to three other underwater cave systems. In many of these unexplored pockets lie preserved Maya artifacts and human remains. The researchers are eager to find these treasures so their findings may be analyzed and documented.

Credit: Herbert Meyrl/GAM

De Anda told the Mexican media:

“We’ve recorded more than 100 archaeological elements: the remains of extinct fauna, early humans, Maya archaeology, ceramics, and Maya graves. It’s a tunnel of time that transports you to a place 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.”

Credit: Herbert Meyrl/GAM

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h/t Science Alert