The Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) recently unveiled an amazing discovery made by archaeologists and divers in the Hoyo Negro (Black Hole) Cenote in Tulum. Three years ago, an expedition discovered the intact skeleton of a young girl now known as “Naia” in a flooded cave. Fragments of bone and teeth were carefully removed for study and after exhaustive testing and dating in Mexico and abroad, it has been revealed that the girl was 15 or 16 years old when she died, some time between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago.

Not only is Naia’s skeleton the oldest found to date in the Americas, the analysis of mitochondrial DNA in the bones matches her genetic code to that of nomadic tribes from the area of Beringia in Siberia who crossed the Bering Straits and spread out through the Americas. Naia is the missing link that proves once and for all the origin of modern-day indigenous groups, from common ancestors who made their way south, adapting to new environments during their long journey.

The cave where Naia was found was flooded after the end of the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago and is a veritable time capsule. Sea levels were at least 120 meters lower than they are today when the girl died and the climate was cooler and drier, very different from the modern-day Yucatán. Seeds, charcoal and the bones of 26 mammals dating from the Late Pleistocene were discovered on the cave floor. They have been identified as belonging to saber tooth tiger, elephant-like gomphotheres, Shasta sloths, giant tapir, wild boar, bear, puma, lynx, coyote, coatimundi and fruit bats.

During this project, the INAH department of underwater archaeology collaborated with National Geographic, Applied Paleoscience, the Tulum Speleological Project, Waitt Institute, the Archaeological Institute of America and the National Science Foundation.

As archaeologist and divers venture further into the Yucatán Peninsula’s vast network of cenotes, caves and underground rivers, more amazing discoveries and evidence of the area’s earliest nomadic inhabitants will surely come to light.

Source and photo courtesy of INAH