INAH will start a multidisciplinary study at mammoth deposits in Santa Lucía. Photo: Alberto Frutos INAH.


*** Under a permission-granted paleontological research project, both archaeologists and paleontologists will combine efforts to achieve a better understanding of the sites.


*** It is scheduled to start during the second half of the year 2020 in Santa Lucía and will cover the northwestern Basin of México



Through a research project headed by two archaeologists and two paleontologists, starting in the second half of the year 2020, the Ministry of Culture, and specifically the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH, by its Spanish initials), will begin the multidisciplinary study of the fossil deposits recently found in the lands where the “Felipe Ángeles” International Airport is being built, inside the Santa Lucía Air Force Base.  The project also will include those deposits in Tultepec II, located in San Antonio Xahuento, both in the State of México, separated from each other by a straight distance of 14 kilometers.

The main objective of the project is learning the 20,000-year history of life in the northwestern Basin of México, right on the border of Xaltocan Lake, one of five regional lakes (the other lakes are Texcoco, Zumpango, Chalco, and Xochimilco). The research team will study the possible interactions between Late Pleistocene fauna with early human populations in this lacustrine area, which was discovered during infrastructure building.

Those were the assertions from Pedro Francisco Sánchez Nava, Archaeology National Coordinator, and Felisa Aguilar Arellano, president of the Paleontology Council, both being INAH´s representatives.

Aguilar Arellano explains that the paleontological project titled “Prehistory and Paleoenvironment from northwestern Basin of México” is coordinated by biologists Joaquín Arroyo Cabrales and Eduardo Corona Martínez, INAH researchers that specialize on megafauna, and archaeologists Rubén Manzanilla López and Luis Córdoba Barradas. This is a joint proposal for the undertaking, through archaeological and paleontological methods, a search for what happened in the region in regards to paleoenvironmental issues, and whether or not humans were associated with the fauna.

“Throughout this project, proposed in February 2020, researchers will collect a large amount of paleontological deposit data, warranting the participation of inter- and multidisciplinary teams, which will undertake pollen, sediments, rocks, and bone sampling for further laboratory analyses. Previously collected information from archaeologists will be reviewed and the associated fossils will be collected.”

“Also, morphological and metric analyses on bones and teeth will provide data for comparisons with different isolated findings in the rest of the country.  Finally, the tiny paleofacts possible associated with this kind of remains will be studied”, explained the paleontologists.

Pedro Francisco Sánchez Nava mentions that it is INAH´s effort to look at these unique deposits with a multidisciplinary approach, with abundant paleofauna remains, mainly those from mammoths, where the work and knowledge of several study fields will be put together: Archaeology, Paleontology, Chemistry, Physics, Geology, Physical Anthropology, among others, for understanding the processes provoking this fauna to be preserved at the site.

“The paleontologists´ participation will provide a story from these unique sites, learning several aspects of mammoth biology, like morphology, size, diet, genetics, as well as burial and fossilization processes. INAH´s laboratories and other institutions, like UNAM (National University), will collaborate with the studies.”

Paleontologists Joaquín Arroyo Cabrales, Subdirección de Laboratorios y Apoyo Académico, and Eduardo Corona Martínez, Centro INAH Morelos, both members of the Paleontological Council, explain that the research of mammoth populations in the northwestern Bain of Mexico will include deposits in Santa Lucía Air Force base, and Tultepec II site. Both localities will be sampled for different paleoenvironmental studies, for reaching a complete reconstruction for that area during the Late Pleistocene.  There will be specialists on pollen, minerals, and ancient DNA as well.

The paleontologists indicate that it could be possible that current excavated remains date between 10,000 and 20,000 years, dates that are reported for a few of the fossil materials found in the Basin of Mexico.  However, confirmation of age will need to wait until dating analyses and taxonomical studies are undertaken to be certain.


Unique Collection for the American Tropics

Toward the tropical area in the Americas, there have been few mammoth discoveries and most are isolated specimens. Mammoths are more common from northern, cooler localities such as Alaska, USA and Yukon, Canada.  Because of this, findings in Santa Lucia are extraordinary, details paleontologist Joaquín Arroyo, advising on its paleontological importance for Mexico and the World since it opens a window to deep learning on mammoth biology and its relationship with humans.

“There are more than 20,000 years of history for northwestern Basin of Mexico that could be learned about; all of the fossil findings will provide important information to know how the animal populations were constituted as an ecological niche at the end of the Pleistocene.  Different aspects of their biology can be studied, including diets and population evolution. Furthermore, we can explore extinction patterns at that period, and finally the paleoenvironmental reconstruction for the site.  Also, possible human interactions could be discovered”, says Arroyo.


Mammoth Conservation and Diffusion for Santa Lucía

For the Basin of Mexico, it is difficult to keep in situ Pleistocene specimens because the water table is shallow which increases conservation costs, mentions Joaquín Arroyo.  This is why most fossil materials are moved to other areas for conservation.

Santa Lucia mammoth remains are kept inside the air force base, in dedicated areas where they are getting “first aid” concerning conservation matters. “As soon as a bone is discovered, it starts drying and decaying, and conservation treatment is required to avoid further damage and eventually their destruction”, explains the paleontologists.

In these regards, archaeologists Rubén Manzanilla, head of the Santa Lucia archaeological salvage project, points out that due to the amount and size of the rescued materials, they were moved to larger sites for storing inside the air force base.  Even though the project assumed there could be oversized specimens (knew from previous findings in the region), they didn’t suspect the amount that has been discovered.

Moreover, a salvage team will bin in place at the old Aviation Museum where an enormous storage area is located.  This is where bone materials will be preserved and studied.

At this time, the project will focus on detailed learning from the findings.  Once the research is initiated and after the initial results, INAH will be able to propose an outline for a forthcoming museum, and at that time, specimens will be shown to the public.

“We have to consider that not all of the remains will have adequate preservation, we have to proceed to evaluate the conservation status, and from that, we can decide which remains are suitable for the exhibit, and which need to be stored in scientific collections for future studies” mentioned the paleontologist Felisa Aguilar.

“Recovered remains in the Santa Lucia Air Force Base have exceeded expectations about the amount of fossil material, and this collection could be suitable for exhibit to Mexican society.  It could also be important to have a museum in the airport to explain how bones were found during the site’s construction, similar to other places were public work was undertaken”.

Since the 1950s, with the dam construction, archaeological salvage has been ongoing at INAH as a research tool to gain in knowledge on sites where developments were not stopped, like in México City and the suburban area. Some outstanding examples are salvage activities during the construction of the underground Public transportation system (Metro), as well as the Urban Archaeology Project (PAU by its Spanish name) near the Great Temple in Tenochtitlan.

Now, in this locality that is unique an outstanding for Mexican paleontology, there is detailed coordination between the National Defense Ministry (SEDENA), in charge of the new airport construction, which is supporting and backing INAH to undertake detailed, careful, controlled research.

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Kora, un instrumento africano