Naia, named affectionately for the ancient water nymphs of Greek mythology is actually the face of the oldest Native American. At least, the oldest one whose skull is complete and whose face we can reconstruct. Naia was a teenager when she died between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago by falling into a cave in the Yukatan. In 2007, her remains were found in a submerged cavern, and history was about to be made, after waiting some 12,000+ years.
A scientific team would study her remains, sample her DNA and reconstruct her face. The January 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine has an absolutely wonderful article and the online magazine version does as well.
Start by reading the wonderful story, of course, but don’t miss the video about how they recovered the remains and the subsequent analysis. There is also a photo gallery and several other links, across the top of the article – all worth seeing.
One of the unexpected findings was how different Naia looks than what we would have expected based on what Native people look like today. She had a more African and Polynesian facial structure than later Native people, and she was much smaller. Be sure to check out Nat Geo’s “clues to an ancient mystery.”
The accompanying academic paper was published in the May 2014 issue of the Journal Science, titled “Late Pleistocene Human Skeleton and mtDNA Link Paleoamericans and Modern Native Americans” by James Chatters et al.
The article is behind a paywall, but the abstract is as follows:
Because of differences in craniofacial morphology and dentition between the earliest American skeletons and modern Native Americans, separate origins have been postulated for them, despite genetic evidence to the contrary. We describe a near-complete human skeleton with an intact cranium and preserved DNA found with extinct fauna in a submerged cave on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. This skeleton dates to between 13,000 and 12,000 calendar years ago and has Paleoamerican craniofacial characteristics and a Beringian-derived mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) haplogroup (D1). Thus, the differences between Paleoamericans and Native Americans probably resulted from in situ evolution rather than separate ancestry.
A second article, published in Science, also in May 2014, “Bones from a Watery “Black Hole” Confirm First American Origins” by Michael Balter discuss the fact that the earlier skeletons of Native people often don’t resemble contemporary Native people.
Also behind a paywall, the summary states:
Most researchers agree that the earliest Americans came over from Asia via the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska, beginning at least 15,000 years ago. But many have long puzzled over findings that some of the earliest known skeletons—with long skulls and prominent foreheads—do not resemble today’s Native Americans, who tend to have rounder skulls and flatter faces. Some have even suggested that at least two migrations into the Americas were involved, one earlier and one later. But the discovery of a nearly 13,000-year-old teenage girl in an underwater cave in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula argues against that hypothesis. The girl had the skull features of older skeletons, but the genetic profile of some of today’s Native Americans—suggesting that the anatomical differences were the result of evolutionary changes after the first Americans left Asia, rather than evidence of separate ancestry.
Of course, the fact that Naia was found so early in such a southern location has spurred continuing debate about migration waves and paths, land versus water arrivals. Those questions won’t be resolved until we have a lot more data to work with – but they do make for lively debate. Dienekes wrote a short article about this topic when the paper was first released, and the comments make for more interesting reading than the article.