Skeleton found in Mexican cave sheds new light on first Americans

Posted on May 16th 2014

THE skeleton of a teenage girl found by divers in a Mexican cave called Hoyo Negro has shed new light on who the first Americans were.

And it also answers the smart alec question most cave divers face once in a while: "So, tell me what's down there to find another than just more rock?"

Nicknamed Naia, after the mythological Greek water nymphs, the remains belong to a teenage girl who fell to her death while collecting water from the pit, near Tulum, in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula.

Her almost complete skeleton, described as a "time capsule" to early life in the region, was found alongside the remains of nine other large mammals, including a saber-toothed tiger and an elephant-like mammal galled a gomphothere, most of which became extinct around 13,000 years ago, reports National Geographic and Scientific American magazine.

Cave divers mapping the site discovered the skeleton seven years ago, at the bottom of a large, bell-shaped pit about 50-metres deep at the end of a 200-metre flooded passageway.

Her pristine preservation enabled the researchers to extract enough DNA to age the skeleton as between 12,000 and 13,000-years-old.

Cave diving scientist Dr Patricia Beddows, of Northwestern University in the United States, said: 'The preservation of all the bones in this deep water filled cave is amazing.

"The bones are beautifully laid out. The girl's skeleton is xceptionally complete because of the environment in which she died. She ended up in the right water and in a quiet place without any soil."

To get to the site, divers first had to climb down a 30-foot ladder in a nearby sinkhole; then they had to swim along 200 feet of tunnel to the pit rim before making a final 100-foot drop.

Describing the site, Dr Beddows added: "Hoyo Negro is a complex site. Research in flooded caves is much like space exploration, with diving similar to astronauts reporting back to 'mission control', a much larger scientific team at the surface. It all has to be done on SCUBA, which is our life support.

"Our science team has been supported by a great number of dedicated non-science cave divers who have committed hundreds of hours at very dangerous depths to complete this exploration.”

The girl was "probably in search of water," said archaeologist Dominique Rissolo, the project's co-director. Due to limestone rock of the Yucatan peninsula, there are no rivers or lakes on the surface and at the time water could only be found underground or in deep sinkholes.

Following the Ice Age, the caves were submerged between 10,000 and 4,000 years ago. This helped preserve Naia's skeleton. "She is heavily mineralized, so there's a strong, hard quality to the bones, which is great for getting skeletal measurements," Rissolo said. "But for dating, it's a different situation altogether."

The team triangulated the skeleton's age by determining the age of calcite crystals known as "florets" growing on the bones, carbon-dating nearby bat guano, and carbon-dating Naia's tooth enamel. Coupled with the nearby animal remains and estimates of when the cave would have flooded, it was concluded she was at least 12,000 years old, and perhaps closer to 13,00.

For full reports on the find, check out National Geographic and Scientific American magazine.

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