LOS ANGELES – The divers called her Naia, for “water nymph,” because they discovered her teenage remains in a dark, underwater cave in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
She had been hidden there for more than 12,000 years – along with the bones of dozens of extinct ice age beasts – and divers quickly spotted her skull as they swept the chamber with flashlights.
“It was a small cranium laying upside-down with a perfect set of teeth and dark eye sockets looking back at us,” recalled diver Alberto Nava of Bay Area Underwater Explorers, a nonprofit conservation organization based in Berkeley, Calif.
On Thursday, researchers published a formal analysis of Naia’s skeletal remains in the journal Science, calling it the oldest, most complete specimen ever discovered in the Americas.
The study authors say that the buck-toothed 15- or 16-year-old girl did not resemble today’s Native Americans – her cheeks were narrow and her forehead very high – but that her mitochondrial DNA reveals she is related to 11 percent of living American Indians, and links them genetically to a population of early humans who inhabited a land now submerged beneath the Bering Sea.
The study is among a number of recent genetic findings that have radically altered the long and heated debate over how humans came to inhabit the New World.
Faced with stark differences of appearance between present-day Native Americans and ancient fossils, some archaeologists argued that the Americas were originally populated by people from Europe as well as Asia.
Within the last 10 years, however, DNA research has suggested that America’s early dwellers emerged from a single ancestral population that initially came from Asia.