Naia was about 15 when she fell in a hole around 12,000 years ago in what today forms a cenote in Yucatan, Mexico. Since then, the remains of her nearly complete skeleton remained hidden in a fascinating underwater cave. But the incredible story of Naia, which means “water nymph,” began to unfold in 2007 when a group of divers discovered Hoyo Negro ("Black Hole" in Spanish). In a report published Thursday, National Geographic explained that the finding is very important because it helps us better understand the origins of the first inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere. Furthermore, it also sheds light on the mystery about the differences in body types between the first humans to arrive in the Americas and later Native Americans.
Naia was found surrounded by several extinct animals more than 40 meters below sea level. "These discoveries are extremely significant," said Pilar Luna, INAH's director of underwater archaeology. "Not only do they shed light on the origins of modern Americans, they clearly demonstrate the paleontological potential of the Yucatán Peninsula and the importance of conserving Mexico's unique heritage."
Citing a report from LiveScience, study author Alberto Nava of Bay Area Underwater Explorers said...."We had no idea what we might find when we initially entered the cave, which is the allure of cave diving." He continued..."The moment we entered the site, we knew it was an incredible place. The floor disappeared under us, and we could not see across to the other side."
"We pointed our lights down and to the sides — all we could see was darkness," Nava added. "We felt as if our powerful underwater lights were being destroyed by this void, so we called it 'Black Hole', which in Spanish is Hoyo Negro."
Thus began the adventure of this finding, which later involved an interdisciplinary group of scientists. However, the discovery presented many challenges. The team of professional divers, archaeologists and paleontologists had to document everything for archaeological purposes. This included collecting information to properly record the general context, sampling, measurements, photos, videos, etc.., -- despite the complexity and the dangers of the cave itself.
Based on a combination of direct and indirect radiocarbon dating methods, scientists were able to determine that Naia is the oldest human skeleton ever discovered in the Americas. It also marks the first time researchers were able to link a skeleton with facial features and skull of an early American settler or Paleoamerican with DNA associated with hunter-gatherers who crossed the Bering land bridge from northeast Asia between 26,000 ago and 18,000 years.
But the shape of Naia's skull is different from modern Native Americans which led scientists to believe in the past that these people came from a separate population that could have come from as far as Polynesia.
After closely analyzing the 12,000-year-old remains, scientists concluded that Naia was a buck-toothed 15- or 16-year-old girl who did not resemble today’s Native Americans — her cheeks were narrow and her forehead very high. However, her mitochondrial DNA reveals she is related to 11% of living American Indians, and links them genetically to a population of early humans who inhabited a land now submerged beneath the Bering Sea.
The researchers say the girl was probably very small in stature, standing just 4 feet, 10 inches tall. Her eyes were wide-set and low, and her nose was broad, The Chicago Tribune wrote.
James Chatters, study co-author, was left stunned after discovering the significance of the incredible find. He said... "This project is exciting on so many fronts: the beautiful cave, the incredibly well-preserved animal skeletons, the completeness of the human skeleton, the success of our innovative dating approach."
"But for me," he said, "what is most exciting is that we finally have an answer, after 20 years, to a question that has plagued me since my first look at Kennewick Man: Who were the first Americans?''
He went on to say..."Paleoamerican skeletons are rare for several reasons, the people themselves were few; they were highly nomadic and seem to have buried or cremated the dead where they fell, making the locations of graves unpredictable; also, geologic processes have destroyed or deeply buried their graves."
Analyses of DNA extracted from the skeleton's wisdom tooth found it belonged to an Asian-derived lineage that occurs only in America.What this suggests is that the physical differences between Paleoamericans and Native Americans are the result of evolution, rather than separate migrations in the Old World. Scientists have long debated the origins of the first people of the Americas but Naia's 12,000 year-old-skeletal remains are answering some questions about the origins of the New World's (western hemisphere's) first people.