Tulum yields potential discovery of America's oldest female remains

April 13, 2024
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Tulum yields potential discovery of America's oldest female remains

Tulum yields potential discovery of America’s oldest female remains

She was baptized as Naia by the speleologists; according to their estimates, she was between 15 and 17 years old when she died, which occurred 12 or 13 thousand years ago. The Tulum Speleological Project (PET), which is made up of Alejandro Alvarez, Alberto Nava, and Franco Attolini, may have found the oldest lady in America.

They discovered her in 2007 in a location known as Hoyo Negro, a hole that was 60 meters in diameter and 55 meters deep. At the time, realizing the significance of the discovery, they recorded it on film and in images without disturbing anything they had discovered there.

Following the discovery of Naia, they informed the INAH Subdirectorate of Underwater Archaeology of her whereabouts. As a result, the Hoyo Negro Underwater Archaeological Project was established in 2011 with the assistance of archaeologist Pilar Luna Erreguerena and researchers from Mexico, Canada, Denmark, and the United States.

The skeleton is mostly entire and in exceptional condition, making it possible to identify the age and date of death using tests like radiocarbon and DNA. This is the most astounding part of the discovery.

Tulum yields potential discovery of America's oldest female remains
Las cuevas donde fue encontrada Naia, alguna vez estuvieron secas.

Among the analyses, the most important is that of mitochondrial DNA, which confirmed that Naia came from Beringia, a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska that existed 40 thousand years ago, with a duration of 4 thousand years, and then 25 thousand years ago until 11,000 – 10,500 years before the present. This natural bridge was used by plants, animals and humans to reach the American continent from Asia. In the words of archaeologist Pilar Luna:

“This is of utmost importance since it is possible to say that Naia is the missing link to prove that the contemporary indigenous or Native American groups come from the first settlers of America -Paleoamericans-, who arrived from Siberia through the Bering Strait, at least from the group of which Naia was part. Although Naia’s craniofacial characteristics differ from modern Native Americans, we can say that he shares ancestry with them.”

The ancient America’s most complete female skeleton uncovered

Tulum yields potential discovery of America's oldest female remains

From the analysis of the skeleton, we know that Naia was approximately 1.52 meters tall, weighed about 50 kilos, suffered a fracture in her left wrist and had a soldier before she died. It is important to point out that Naia is the only female of more than 9 thousand years of antiquity that preserves both humeri and a complete femur.

In addition, due to her bone structure, scientists have determined that she had growth problems, either due to poor health or malnutrition. But Naia was not the only thing discovered in Hoyo Negro, 27 skeletons of different animals were also found there, including a gonphotherium, saber-toothed tiger, giant ground sloth, bear, tapir, puma, wild cat, coyote, dog, bat, among others.

The recovery of these skeletons has made it possible to incorporate more specialists into the research, not only to learn about the animals and their environment, but also to find out more about the formation of the caves and how evolution had to take place so that sites that were dry some 10,000 years ago are now submerged in water.

Tulum yields potential discovery of America's oldest female remains

Collaborative work is the key to unravel all the secrets that since ancient times have been submerged in the waters of the caves of the Yucatan Peninsula, undoubtedly speleologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, paleontologists, biologists and geologists among others, do a great job allowing us to know a little more about how the primitive inhabitants of America were.

Discovering the Depths: “Hoyo Negro” of Tulum Reveals New Insights into the Peninsula’s Past

Tulum yields potential discovery of America's oldest female remains
In this undated image distributed by the National Institute of Anthropology and History, divers explore the Hoyo Negro underwater cave in Tulum, in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico (National Institute of Anthropology and History via AP).

Under the Yucatan Peninsula’s soil, two new animal specimens were discovered, and many substances, including the synascum of a massive ground sloth, were retrieved for laboratory research. With the most recent discovery of a reptile and a tiny feline, there are now 17 known current and extinct species.

Samples of organic material and the skeletal remains of animals that fell into the natural trap during the Late Pleistocene have also been found, according to archaeologist Helena Barba Meinecke, who is in charge of research at the SAS’ Yucatan Peninsula Office.

Tulum yields potential discovery of America's oldest female remains

The information represents the outcome of the most recent field season of the National Institute of Anthropology and History’s Hoyo Negro Underwater Archaeological Expedition in Tulum, Quintana Roo (INAH).

“The study and analysis of these materials, recovered in November 2019, will enrich the information we have regarding what the paleoclimate was like in this peninsula more than 10 thousand years ago, as well as learn about the diet and mobility pattern of both fauna and megafauna, as well as the group to which “Naia” belonged, the name by which the only human skeleton found at this site is known, which corresponds to a young woman who lived almost 13 thousand years ago, and died when she was between 15 and 17 years old,” published the INAH.

Tulum yields potential discovery of America's oldest female remains
The caves where Naia was found were once dry.

The project was created and co-coordinated by archaeologist Pilar Luna Erreguerena (1944-2020) in 2011, together with doctors James C. Chatters and Dominique Rissolo, and scientific divers Alberto Nava Blank and Robert Chávez Arce.

Evoking her founder, who passed away last March 15, Helena Barba recalls: “Pilar wanted to continue the same line of scientific work with which she founded the project; developing rigorous research that incorporated the most outstanding specialists from Mexico and abroad”.

Aided by the reconstruction through 3D models of Hoyo Negro and the system of tunnels leading to the site, elaborated by cavers Alberto Nava, Roberto Chávez, Alejandro Álvarez and Samuel Meacham, the specialists identified the two new species.

To this finding is added the recovery of skeletal remains of several species of giant sloths and short-faced bears, said INAH.

“Dr. Blaine Schubert, lead paleontologist of the project, pointed out that this is the first time that remains of this type of bear have been extracted, as well as a tree porcupine skull, identified by Dr. Josh Daniels, who discovered that it is much larger than the known Mexican species and the first fossil of this type ever reported for the Pleistocene in Mexico.”

Hoyo Negro Underwater Archaeological Project

Tulum yields potential discovery of America's oldest female remains

Both specialists belong to the Center of Excellence in Paleontology at East Tennessee State University, where most of the recovered materials are located, in order to be subjected to various studies and analyses; other specimens are being studied at the DirectAMS laboratory in Bothell, Washington.

During the 2019 work, bone remains of saber-toothed tiger, gonphotherium, tapir, peccary, canid and tlacuache were also recovered; and tooth enamel of three giant herbivores were extracted: highland gonphotherium, tapir and collared peccary; as well as a stalagmite, charcoal fragments and bat guano, inside which palm seeds were found. The analysis and study of the latter will help in paleoecological research.

The extraction of the sinsacrum of the ground sloth (Nohochichak xibalbahkah), which is a new species and genus, stands out; the recovered specimen will serve as a reference element for the multidisciplinary team. This complex recording and recovery process was filmed in its entirety. The sinsacrum remains stored in the Laboratory of Archaeozoology of the Subdirection of Laboratories and Academic Support of INAH, under the responsibility of Dr. Joaquín Arroyo Cabrales.

Tulum yields potential discovery of America's oldest female remains

Regarding new objectives for the Hoyo Negro Underwater Archaeological Project, Helena Barba added that in the future they will seek to generate research alliances with more Mexican and foreign specialists, with the objective of deepening the understanding of the Pleistocene and Holocene periods on a global scale and the way in which Hoyo Negro was inserted in that prehistoric planet.

Likewise, he pointed out that it will be sought to complement actions with those of the Underwater Archaeological Atlas of Cenotes, Flooded and Semi-flooded Caves and other Continental Water Bodies of the Mexican Republic Project, of which Barba is the head.

Uncovering the Past: Human Remains Dating Back 13,000 Years Discovered in Yucatan’s Cenotes!

Tulum yields potential discovery of America's oldest female remains

Today we know that the American continent was the habitat of a very diverse mega fauna during the Pleistocene, among them the mammoth, the saber-toothed tiger, and the giant sloths. We also know that these animals coexisted with the first settlers of America, more than 13 thousand years ago.

Dr. Rojas Sandoval’s lecture dealt precisely with the discovery of bone remains of the American mega fauna and of the first settlers of America in the deep river system and cenotes of Quintana Roo.

The Mexican archaeologist graduated from the National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH), internationally certified as a professional diver, and with a long media career, having been invited to participate in several documentaries by television networks such as National Geographic and the BBC, currently coordinates the INAH Center in the state of Quintana Roo.

In her explorations through the chain of subway rivers and cenotes of the Yucatan peninsula -a complex that in its two main slopes totals more than 500 kilometers and makes it the longest on the planet- she has managed to recover and date the skeletal remains of 10 human skeletons ranging in age from 8,000 to 13,000 years before our era.

The oldest of these, known as the Naharon woman, which was preserved almost intact underwater, dates back to 13,721 years before our era, as proven by carbon-14 studies applied to the remains.

Tulum yields potential discovery of America's oldest female remains

With the collaboration of an interdisciplinary team of scientists from Mexico, France and the United States, it has been possible to establish that it was a woman between 20 and 30 years of age, 1.40 meters tall and weighing 52 kilos. Likewise, with 3D technology it has been possible to reconstruct her physical appearance and the details of her face.

Some of the skeletons found so far indicate that they were found in fetal position, so it is probably a burial site, while in other cases it could be people who died accidentally falling into the abysses when walking through the caves in the dark.

It has also been possible to establish that some of the skeletons found were submerged under water with the passage of time, since paleoceanographic studies have been able to determine that 13,000 years ago the sea level was 65 meters below the current one. This, he commented, is a result of the climatic change that the planet experienced, since with the global warming that brought the end of the ice age, large areas of the polar ice caps melted, causing the ocean levels to rise. In the case of the island of Cozumel, 13 thousand years ago it had more than twice the surface it has today.

The first settlers of America

Tulum yields potential discovery of America's oldest female remains

The first settlers of America explored the caves and cenotes in the area using torches and bonfires to orient themselves, and the archaeologist has also managed to discover remains of this human activity. “They did not inhabit the caves, but they went to them in search of water and to deposit their dead,” she said.

She recalled that today we know that the members of populations that arrived approximately 14 thousand years ago to the territory that today occupies the Yucatan peninsula, are part of the same population, and that in the process of climatic adaptation they modified their physical condition -among them a smaller stature to adapt to the tropical and humid climate- and that throughout 4 thousand 500 years they inhabited the area, until the prelude of the first Mayan populations.

We also know that these people traveled great distances daily to subsist, as evidenced by the wear and tear of their leg bones, which is a distinctive feature of nomadic populations.

Journey Back in Time: Witness Tulum’s Natural Splendor from 14,000 Years Ago

Fourteen thousand years ago, the current area of Tulum was a mosaic of open forests, surrounded by grasslands with variants of jungle vegetation.

In the case of the Paleo-American fauna, remains of the gonfogeterio, a relative of the mammoth, of an American camel, ancestor of the South American llama, of the American horse, of the giant sloth, of the saber-toothed tiger, and of an ancient jaguar of much larger size than the present one, have been discovered in the underwater tours.

The archaeologist concluded that thanks to the investigations of the last 20 years, prehistoric archaeology and underwater paleontology in Quintana Roo have been able to integrate a more comprehensive and profound vision of human and animal life in the region, thousands of years before the appearance of the Mayan civilization.

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