One of the oldest skeletons ever seen in the Americas was found in a flooded cave -- and it could reshape our understanding of human history

PBSThe remarkably intact skeleton can help researchers shine a light on how the earliest Americans lived.

Deep within a flooded cave in the remote Mexican jungle, archaeologists came across a stunning find: An almost completely intact skeleton of a teenage girl.

A new documentary from PBS’s NOVA, “The First Face of America,” investigates the bones, and what they reveal could be a critical piece of evidence for the decades-long effort to understand the origins of Native Americans.

The skeleton was first discovered by a team of underwater divers in 2007. Snce then, the skeleton has been excavated and analysed by archaeologists and forensic anthropologists to paint a complete picture of how it lived and died.

After the bones were extracted from the cave and brought to a lab in Mexico City, the researchers were astonished to learn that the items were over 13,000 years old – and could be one of the oldest examples of human remains ever found in North America.

Researchers think the find, which has been linked through DNA analysis to similar finds in Alaska and present-day Native American groups, is proof that all Native Americans descended from a single population of intrepid hunter-gatherers who crossed a land bridge from Siberia 15,000 years ago.

Underwater archaeologists first found the skeleton deep within the flooded Sac Aktun Cave System in Mexico in 2007.

Alberto NavaThe archaeologists dive in Hoyo Negro.

Within the flooded caves, the archaeologists uncovered a deep pit — dubbed the Hoyo Negro (Black Hole) — containing fossils of Ice Age beasts and an almost completely intact human skeleton.

Alberto Nava

NOVA followed the divers through the narrow, submerged passageways as they excavated the find.

Roberto Chavez Arce

Bringing an intact skeleton up through pitch-black passages like these requires careful teamwork, top-notch equipment, and coordination.

Roberto Chavez Arce

The divers named the skeleton, a girl who was approximately 15 or 16 years-old, “Naia.”

Francis Cordero RamirezNaia’s skeleton

Dr. James Chatters, a forensic anthropologist, analysed the bones and found that Naia lived a life of hardship.

Roberto Chavez Arce

Based on an analysis of her teeth, Chatters found that Naia was malnourished and that her diet was based mostly on hunting big game.

Francis Cordero Ramirez

Despite being discovered in a cave a short distance from the ocean, Chatters couldn’t find any indication that Naia had feasted on marine life.

Francis Cordero Ramirez

This led the team to conclude that Naia and her group were probably new arrivals to the area and ill-equipped to survive.

Francis Cordero Ramirez

Further DNA analysis of Naia’s skeleton shows an even more astonishing find. Naia is directly related to 11,000-year-old graves excavated by anthropologists and archaeologists in Alaska.

Researchers think this means that the entire population of Native Americans, from the tip of South America to the Arctic, are descended from the same population of intrepid hunter-gatherers who crossed a land bridge from Siberia thousands of years ago.

By reconstructing Naia’s life, researchers hope to gain a critical window into understanding the lifestyles of the earliest Americans.

Francis Cordero RamirezThe remarkably intact skeleton can help researchers shine a light on how the earliest Americans lived.

Naia represents a huge milestone in the decades-long effort to understand where Native Americans came from – and the history of North and South America.

You can stream the documentary now on PBS.

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