Scientists discover oldest intact skeleton in New World
Scuba divers discover 12,000-year-old skeleton in Yucatán, lending clues to the origins of the first Americans
The discovery and scientific examination of one of the oldest human remains found in the Americas confirms what Native people have known all along, that they are the original inhabitants of this hemisphere.
For the past 15 years the question of whether modern American Indians were descended from the ancient people who lived in North and South America more than 10,000 years ago has been the subject of a contentious and bruising scientific debate. This debate has had profound legal implications, since under the current laws in the United States, the custody and control of human remains is dependent on whether or not there is a relationship to a modern Indian tribe.
The new discovery of “Naia,” as the human skeleton found off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico has been named, as well as the recent examination of the Anzick child, may have now put this debate to rest.
Naia, Greek for “water nymph,” was discovered by divers in 2007, in an underwater sinkhole called Hoyo Negro (Black Hole), about 20 miles north of the ancient Mayan city of Tolum. Part of the Sac Actun underwater cave system, the largest underwater cave system in the world, Hoyo Negro also contained a trove of extinct prehistoric animal skeletons such as saber-toothed cats, gomphotheres (elephant-like animals related to mastodons) and giant sloths.
Naia, believed to have been a young girl of 15 or 16, apparently fell to her death in the sinkhole sometime between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago. About 10,000 years ago, as the Ice Ages came to an end and melting glaciers raised sea levels around the world, the cave system was flooded. Her remains, now 130 feet below sea level, were preserved. Under Mexican law her skeleton could not be disturbed, even for scientific study, but the cave systems are a popular tourist dive location and divers had been found digging around her, prompting the government and scientists to recover her.