A Yucatan Discovery Redefines Early Human History
The Mexican Yucatan today is known as a place of jungles, ancient pyramid tourist sites, and warm beaches with tropical waters. However, centuries ago, it was also a thriving network of civilizations, from ancient small migratory tribes to entire networks of cities and trade from ocean to ocean. Geologically, the area is replete with gaps, dips, caverns, and caves (6,000 plus) as well, which makes the area that much more interesting for explorers. One particular feature is that of the cenote, or underground lake. Created by shelves of hard penetrating stone underneath soil, these caverns form from permeating rainwater that collects until it can finally drain to the oceans. The water is pure and clean, a great source of freshwater, and also a common trap that has captured many living creatures over time. The case of one particular “black hole” cenote has recently produced one of the earliest known samples of human beings in the Americas to date.
In 2007 a cartographer, Alberto Nava, was working on a larger project of tracking and mapping the Yucatan’s many underground caves and waterways. Near Tulum, Mexico, an ancient coastside ruins from Mayan times, Nava found a notably large pit, named El Hoyo Negro, going 100 feet deep. No one had fully explored it yet, so it was a prime location for Nava’s work.
The El Hoyo, the Black Hole of Death, is as dangerous now as it was thousands of years ago. Cave diving in general is dangerous due to the risk of being trapped, falling rock, unstable geological features and more, but people still do it to explore. Nava’s team was no exception.
Like most cenotes, access to El Hoyo requires some means to go straight down, whether by rope or ladder. After a 30-foot ladder path, divers then face cold waters that pull body heat out quickly and require body suits as well as proper diving safety equipment and extra air tanks. Most channels are entirely filled with water and there are no safety places to surface, so getting trapped is very possible in the dark if the lights go out.
After some extensive exploring, gingerly moving to avoid destruction of the environment, one of the tunnels opened to a huge cavern about the size of a basketball stadium. That’s were a big surprise was waiting and required them to go back, get more equipment and more air tanks, and do the exploration job safe and right.
Going in with the right equipment, the team found multiple sets of skeletons, many clearly from prehistoric times. Among the collection there was giant ground sloths, short-faced bears, a sabre-tooth cat, and the most valuable skeleton set, a human being.
The human skeleton was unique and magnificent for a number of reasons. First, when exposed in an environment, the body and bone tend to deteriorate quickly. Bone lasts the longest but, if left open to air, most forensic anthropologists will agree it begins to dry out, splinter and fall apart. In the Black Hole case, the skeleton was under water void of predators or scavengers. It was complete, pristine, and intact due to no air exposure.
Propped up on an arm as if in a laying position, the body was a huge find, but Nava’s team didn’t want to disturb what they knew they didn’t understand at the time. Instead, of moving anything, the team left the body intact for two years. A combined effort including expert teams from Canada and the U.S. came back repeatedly to run tests on the human skeleton as collected underwater. The results where shocking.
A number of theories exists as to how humans first arrived in the Americas, one being the Beringia theory, or land mass passage from eastern Siberia to Alaska and then southward. Many of the genetic tests run show a link between Asian populations and that of Native Americans and indigenous cultures. However, others have no such genetic linkage are completely unique.
The tests on the Black Hole body came back with amazing details. An age factor of 12,000 or 13,000 years old was the big one. Second, the body was that of a female, likely a 15-year-old teenager. Third, the body was very much homo sapien, a modern human being. Dubbed Naia by the teams, an ancient Greek name for water nymph, the skeleton takes the title as the oldest known recovered human being in the Americas.
The discovery is significant because humans in general are only known to have been in existence for the last 200,000 years, and in the Americas they didn’t appear until approximately 14,000-15,000 years ago. Given the date of the skeleton, Naia represents one of the earliest inhabitants in the Mexican region as well as the entire Western Hemisphere.
Phyiscally, Naia’s body did not have many of the same characteristics found in today’s American indigenous people. This was concluded by skull and skeleton measurements and comparison with forensic data from modern Native Americans. Yet the body did provide a treasure trove of details for analysis: a complete teeth set, almost all of her skeleton, intact bones, and many extremity parts normally missing due to time.
It is assumed that Naia fell into the Black Hole cenote which sealed her fate. Estimates put her fall at approximately a half-mile of descent, which easily would have killed her. Clearly, she was not the only victim; many larger creatures twice to five times her size had been trapped as well.
Other features determined found Naia had given birth, was much smaller than today’s similar teenager, and weighed no more than 110 pounds. Life was rough in her time; Naia had a mended broken arm among other injuries. Given her teeth and skull form, she would not have resembled today’s Native American. However, her DNA did trace to the same markers as Native Americans.
Once testing was complete, it was determined Naia and the other artifacts needed to be moved and protected. Unauthorized viewers and looters were coming and intruding, eventually destroying much of the site will ill-prepared swimming practices and equipment (bubbles can easily damage underwater stone formations). Fortunately, Nava’s team created a 3D map of the entire cave system, preserving its information for archaeologists to still study regardless of the damage done.