Ancient Skeleton May Settle Debate on First Americans

Girl from 12K years ago has same DNA as modern Native Americans

By John Johnson,  Newser Staff

Posted May 15, 2014 4:18 PM CDT

(Newser) – A slight teenage girl who died in a Mexican cave 12,000 years ago may help settle a long-simmering debate in archaeological circles, reports USA Today: Where did the very first Americans come from? The answer doesn't seem to be Europe, Australia, or southeastern Asia, but rather a land that no longer exists called Beringia—it once connected Siberia and Alaska but is now submerged beneath the Bering Sea. Scientists say the nearly intact skeleton of the 15- or 16-year-old girl has the DNA of modern Native Americans, who trace their lineage to Beringia, reports LiveScience. They found her in an underwater cave in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and nicknamed her Naia, after the water nymphs of Greek mythology.

"What this study is presenting for the first time is evidence that palaeoamericans, with those distinctive features, can also be directly tied to the same Beringian source population as contemporary Native Americans," says study co-author Deborah Bolnick of the University of Texas, Austin. Naia, who stood about 4-10, "is the oldest nearly complete, genetically intact human skeleton in the New World," says the Wall Street Journal. One wrinkle is that she doesn't look like modern Native Americans, but more like an indigenous Australian or Pacific Islander. Still, scientists say the DNA link is definite, and the next step will be a thorough genetic analysis of all her bones. (A Vanderbilt anthropologist cautions against overly wide interpretations: "It doesn't mean that all early skeletons from the Americas represent the same story," he tells the Guardian.) The best guess is that Naia ventured into the cave looking for drinking water and fell to her death.

In this photo provided by National Geographic, divers Alberto Nava and Susan Bird transport the ancient skull to an underwater turntable so that it can be photographed.
In this photo provided by National Geographic, divers Alberto Nava and Susan Bird transport the ancient skull to an underwater turntable so that it can be photographed.   (AP Photo/National Geographic, Paul Nicklen)
In this June 2013 photo provided by National Geographic, divers make their way toward Hoyo Negro, an underwater cave in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula where the remains were found.
In this June 2013 photo provided by National Geographic, divers make their way toward Hoyo Negro, an underwater cave in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula where the remains were found.   (AP Photo/National Geographic, Paul Nicklen)
In this undated photo made available by Roberto Chavez Arce in May 2014, divers use lights to illuminate Hoyo Negro, an underwater cave in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula where the remains were found.
In this undated photo made available by Roberto Chavez Arce in May 2014, divers use lights to illuminate Hoyo Negro, an underwater cave in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula where the remains were found.   (AP Photo/Roberto Chavez Arce via Science)
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