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First Kennewick Man, Now Naia: Seattle-Area Scientist Probes Secrets In Ancient Skeleton

They call her Naia. She was probably about 16, a forager living mainly on fruit in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. One day she ventured into a cave when the floor gave out. She plunged maybe 100 feet and died.

And that’s how divers would find her, some 12,000 years later, alongside saber-tooth cats and other extinct animal bones in the now-underwater cave system.

“It’s the most complete female paleoamerican skeleton, period,” said James Chatters, owner of the Bothell-based company Applied Paleoscience.

Chatters is famous in his field for his work on the 9,000-year-old remains of Kennewick Man, discovered on the banks of the Columbia in 1996. He led the analysisof this new specimen.

Credit Roberto Chavez Arce (left image), Daniel Riordan Araujo
The left image shows the skull of Naia on the floor of Hoyo Negro, as it appeared in December 2011. The right image shows The skull of Naia as it was discovered in 2007, resting against the left humerus (upper arm bone).

Chatters says Naia offered the chance to probe a big open questionabout how the Americas were first populated. Modern DNA suggests Native Americans are descended from migrants who crossed into North America from Asia over what is now the Bering Strait. But there was a problem: ancient Americans just didn’t look like modern Natives.

“The extreme difference between the earliest human skeletons from the Americas and the later peoples of the Americans seemed to suggest that there might be an alternative, earlier migration that could have come in,” Chatters said.

Naia had that distinct look of the ancients: long skull, narrow face, wide-set eyes. And crucially she had, in one of her molars, a little bit of tissue containing DNA. Chatters and collaborators at Washington State University and elsewhere tested it. They determined that Naia did, in fact, descend from those Bering Strait migrants, not some other group that, say, canoed over from Polynesia.

That suggests ancient Americans and modern Native Americans sprung from the same original population. The findings are published in the journal Science.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.