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Rock Doc: An ancient American woman buried by the sea

By E. Kirsten Peters, College of Agricultural, Human & Natural Resource Sciences 

peters-e-k-2010-80PULLMAN, Wash. – I need a cap on my front tooth redone – it has a significant chip. Luckily I live at a time when dentists are in every city and town, plying their trade in ways that can help us each day.

A young woman who scientists are calling Naia was not so lucky. She lived about 12,000 to 13,000 years ago in what’s now the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. A recent article in New Scientist reports that her teeth contain a number of large cavities. Her mouth likely hurt a lot when she was alive.

The name Naia comes from a derivative of the Greek for “water nymph.” Naia’s remains got the name because they were found in a flooded cavern.

Rising sea level preserves remains

She was covered by water owing to ancient climate change. During the end of the Ice Age, when she lived, sea level was a great deal lower. Worldwide, glaciers melted as major climate change moved the globe in a warmer direction, so sea level rose. The waters covered Naia’s remains, helping preserve them for modern divers to discover.

Naia probably fell into a sinkhole in the rock of the area where she lived. She was not alone. Animals also fell into the hole, as we know from their remains.

Some of the animals were creatures like giant sloths and saber-toothed cats – creatures that went extinct between their time and ours. But some of the animals, like the puma or cougar, are still with us. All of their remains were covered by water as sea level rose.

While Naia’s remains don’t represent a complete skeleton, they constitute more than just a skull. There are complete arms and shoulders, one leg and a pelvis.

DNA clues to early migration

But back to her teeth. They show cavities and pits around the gum line, leading scientists to think Naia ate a lot of fruit or honey. Her small size and delicate bones suggest she may not have eaten much meat. And she may have gone hungry a good proportion of the time.

Her bones contain a special type of DNA known as mitochondrial DNA. Actually, all of us have mitochondrial DNA – it’s passed down from mother to child. I sometimes call this type of genetic material “mama-DNA.”

Different populations of humans have different mama-DNA. Naia’s indicates she is related to ancient groups of people who lived in eastern Siberia. This fits with the view that North America was populated by people who crossed from Siberia to northern North America over a land bridge exposed because sea level during the Ice Age stood so very low.

Discovery of Naia in a flooded cave is an exciting development for archeologists and other researchers who study early human history in the Americas. We doubtless have a lot to learn about the people who first reached our shores. But with each discovery of bones and teeth we come a bit closer to understanding the earliest history of those who originally populated our continent.


Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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