You could begin the story like a pitch-black fairy tale. “Once upon a time, there was a young girl, barely sixteen years old. She had just given birth to her first child and, after wandering through unknown territories, she desperately searched for water in a region where there seemed to be neither rivers nor lakes…”
Unfortunately, what the young girl did next cost her life, although it ensured her archaeological immortality. This was not because her story is tragic, but because she died during the late Pleistocene, 13,000-12,000 years ago, at the time of the earliest human settlements in the Americas. The girl’s remains are thus the oldest human skeleton discovered in America to date.
The remains of this young woman, given the name Naia (meaning “nymph” in Greek), were found underwater in a deep cave at the end of a kilometer-long submerged passage. The divers who reached her risked their lives. Cave diving is a perilous endeavor, particularly when it occurs in a cenote, an underground karst cave. The archaeologists led by renowned researcher Pilar Luna, who spearheaded the operation, were mostly left at the cave entrance, despite their considerable diving expertise. The girl’s bones, along with a collection of fossilized primitive animals such as sloths and saber-toothed tigers that had accumulated in the cave over thousands of years, were recovered underwater by specialized divers and meticulously brought to the surface in pre-prepared polystyrene containers. “The speleologists underwent special training to gather archaeological information, properly understand the overall context, take samples, measurements, photos, videos, etc., and meet all the expert requirements despite the complexity and dangers of the cave,” explained Pilar Luna (INAH) to the BBC.
It has been found that the girl came from the north and had wandered for a long time before she was forced to search for water in an underground cave system in Quintana Roo, Mexico. In the area, the soil is karst and all water flows underground in extensive cave systems. These partly consist of kilometre-long corridors in absolute darkness. And they hide traps. It happens that the corridors collapse in larger caves and form a huge cave underground. A Hoyo Negro – a black hole. In such cases it can happen that the access to the cave formed through the collapse is not on the bottom but above, at the cave’s ceiling. Whoever crawls groping in the dark in search of water, falls unawares dozens of meters into the depth and never again finds the way back to the inaccessibly high exit. This happened to the poor girl from our history and many animals of prehistoric times. One after the other.
A story preserved under water
At that time the water was much lower in the caves. Animals and woman fell into the bottomless void. With the rise of the sea level, however, the cave is now completely flooded. Under water biological material preserves surprisingly well. Thus one could find out that the young girl had lost her front teeth through pregnancy, was exposed to malnutrition in her youth and had pronounced leg muscles from long hiking. From hiking throughout America, to the south.
Analyses of the human skeleton and the skeleton of a gomphothere, a kind of elephant, allowed dating and identified in the bones of Naia intact human mitochondrial ADN. It turned out to belong to D1 – a Beringish-derived sub-haplogroup. However, one of the mysteries of the ancestry of this first American remains intact. Her head and face look completely different from modern ‘natives’. Nevertheless, Naia has much in common with the few Paleo-American skulls known to science and she shares her Siberian/Bering mtDNA with modern indigenuous populations. This link between a Paleoamerican and modern Indians suggests, according to James Chatters, lead author of a study on Naia, that the morphological differences that exist between the two groups are the result of evolutionary changes that occurred after migration and within America. Naia’s tribe evolved.
Scientists have long been discussing the origins of the first settlers on the American continent. The most widespread theory – confirmed by several genetic analyses – suggests that the original immigrants crossed a land bridge that once connected Northeast Asia with present-day Alaska. Independent genetic analyses carried out in three different laboratories produced the same result here: Naia’s genetic line is only shared by Indians.
“We were able to identify their genetic lineage with a high degree of certainty,” said Ripan Malhi of the Institute of Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois, one of the laboratories involved in the study. “This shows that today’s Indians and the remains of this young woman we’re analyzing come from the same population that America once began to populate.”
Th threat of pillage
Given these groundbreaking results, it is understandable that researchers are increasingly interested in skeletons from the cenotes of Mexico. And unfortunately not only them. A particularly important old skeleton disappeared from a cenote in Yucatán in 2012. The 10,000-year-old skeleton was discovered in 2010 at the same place where another 10,000-year-old skeleton, the young man of Chan Hol, was found in 2006. The skeleton is important because research on the 2006 find, the young man of Chan Hol, indicated a common ancestry of the person with Indonesians and South Asians. The stolen skeleton is now being sought via Interpol.
Let us hope it returns to the hands of the great scientists of INAH and their associates and they can bring us new discoveries soon.
Image: Cenote (c) Gerdel
To see more about Naia including a facial reconstruction, go to the project’s website.
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