Science and Tech


13,000-Year-Old Skeleton A Clue To Native American Origins

The earliest complete skeleton found in the Americas could help answer the question, "Why do Native Americans look different from their ancestors?"
Posted at 9:16 PM, May 15, 2014

Her name was Naia, she was 16 and she died nearly 13,000 years ago. And her sad story may help settle a debate in the world of anthropology.

Divers discovered a stadium-sized cavern at the bottom of a long underwater cave system in 2007. The tunnel leads to the top of the cavern, and back in the Ice Age when it was dry, dozens of animals — and one teenage girl — fell to their deaths there. (Via National Institute of Anthropology and History)

Naia's bones proved to be a huge archeological find. They've been called "among the oldest human remains discovered in the Americas," and are definitely the oldest complete skeleton. (Via Archaeological Institute of America)

"We're always like, 'This is the discovery of our lifetimes. It's not going to get any better than this.'" (Via National Geographic)

A skeleton this old no doubt has a lot of things to teach scientists about life in the ice age, but the first lesson has to do with the origins of Native Americans.

Recent studies have shown that the earliest inhabitants of the Americas, those that crossed the land bridge from Asia, are genetically related to modern Native Americans, but they look nothing alike. That leads to some speculation that maybe other populations, say, from Europe, also made it to the new world and influenced the early Americans' features. (Via Science, Nature)

But the researchers found that Naia is definitely related to modern Native Americans, even though her skull more resembles native Africans. 

They both trace back genetically to Beringia, a landmass that used to connect Alaska to Russia thousands of years ago. It was the main corridor for migration into the Americas. (Via U.S. National Park Service)

The lead researcher tells Popular Archeology, "This project is exciting on so many fronts. ... But for me, what is most exciting is that we finally have an answer, after 20 years, to a question that has plagued me. ... 'Who were the first Americans?'"

Of course, while it's definitely a piece of the puzzle, Naia's skeleton might not answer that question quite as definitively as the lead author claims. 

Other scientists quoted in the media are skeptical, with one telling The Washington Post Naia represents "a sample of one," and another told The Guardian, "It is simply one life story of one individual. ... It doesn't mean that all early skeletons from the Americas represent the same story."

But hopefully there's more to be learned from Naia. A facial reconstruction is planned for the coming months that should show what she looked like, and the research team will also try to get more DNA samples.