Back in 2012, divers in Mexico discovered a human skeleton submerged in a cave on the Yucatan Peninsula and posted photos to social media, drawing the attention of scientists. "I immediately knew that we had something special," paleontologist Wolfgang Stinnesbeck tells Inverse. But by the time researchers arrived at the cave known as Chan Hol, thieves had already absconded with the skeleton, leaving behind only fragments and a pelvic bone partially embedded in a stalagmite, Nature reports. "What would you want with a skeleton? Would you take it home?" Stinnesbeck wonders. Now it appears the boosted bones comprise one of the oldest skeletons ever found in the Americas. A study published Wednesday in PLOS ONE states the remains are likely more than 13,000 years old.
It turns out the stalagmite represented—in the words of Stinnesbeck, who eventually dated the bones—a "perfect opportunity." Not only did it prevent the thieves from taking the pelvic bone, it allowed scientists to date the skeleton in a roundabout way. Earlier attempts to date the bones were all over the place because years of being underwater had stolen the collagen typically used to do so, Cosmos reports. Instead, researchers were able to accurately date the stalagmite growing around the bone. They say the results show the skeleton—which likely belonged to a young man who died back when the cave was above water—is at least 11,300 years old but likely more than 13,000 years old. (A student discovered a 14,000-year-old village in Canada.)