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Ancient Skeleton of Teenage Girl Discovered in Underwater Cave

May 16, 2014 10:17 AM EDT
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The pristine remains of a teenage girl who lived about 13,000 years ago were found in an underwater cave in Mexico, providing scientists a glimpse into the history of America's early inhabitants.

Named Naia, Greek for "water nymph," the bones of the 15- or 16-year-old girl were discovered 130 feet (40 meters) below sea level at the bottom of the underwater chamber Hoyo Negro ("black hole"), a deep pit within the Sac Actun cave system on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula.

Cave divers actually stumbled upon the remains back in 2007 when they were mapping such water-filled caves.

"The moment we entered inside, we knew it was an incredible place," one of the divers, Alberto Nava, said, according to The Associated Press.

Scientists speculate that the girl, from the late Pleistocene era, was searching for fresh water some 12,000 or 13,000 years ago when she accidentally fell into the then dry cave.

Divers found her near-complete human skeleton with an intact cranium and preserved DNA - scattered around her were also the bones of 26 large animal species, among them sabre-tooth tigers, giant ground sloths and cave bears.

Via DNA analysis of Naia's remains, reported in the journal Science, researchers determined that her and other early Americans crossed the Bering Land Bridge from northeast Asia (Beringia) between 26,000 and 18,000 years ago, spreading southward into North America.

Most scientists had thought that the first Americans came from the Siberian ancestors who crossed this ancient land bridge. But ancient American skeletons - including Naia's - have very different skulls than these ancestors, suggesting that early Americans came from somewhere else.

Naia provides a crucial link between these two peoples, who may indeed come from the same roots.

"This expedition produced some of the most compelling evidence to date of a link between Paleoamericans, the first people to inhabit the Americas after the most recent ice age, and modern Native Americans. What this suggests is that the differences between the two are the result of in situ evolution rather than separate migrations from distinct Old World homelands," lead author James Chatters said in a statement.

More details about the researchers' findings can be found in this accompanying NWN article.

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