Thanks to the growing interest in Indian country and the accessibility of genealogical records online, there has never been a better time to investigate old family rumors about Native ancestry. And as with all genealogy, though it’s entertaining to dig up the roots of one’s family tree, even positive verification of a Cherokee grandmother or Choctaw grandfather often leads to as many questions as answers.

The best thing a curious person can do is start tracing your ancestry back using something like, or Or you can find a genealogist willing to help with the search—professionals are listed by specialty including Native American at If that isn’t something you’d like to do, local libraries can often help as well with research into your genealogy. Either way, you have to start tracing your lineage back and creating a family tree. That’s the best way to get started. That often means interviewing friends and elders who may be able to identify key dates, towns and lineages.

Divers use lights to illuminate Hoyo Negro, an underwater cave in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula where the remains of “Naia,” a teenage girl who lived 12,000 to 13,000 years earlier, were found.

The discovery and scientific examination of one of the oldest human remains found in the Americas confirms what Native people have known all along, that they are the original inhabitants of this hemisphere.

For the past 15 years the question of whether modern American Indians were descended from the ancient people who lived in North and South America more than 10,000 years ago has been the subject of a contentious and bruising scientific debate. This debate has had profound legal implications, since under the current laws in the United States, the custody and control of human remains is dependent on whether or not there is a relationship to a modern Indian tribe.

The new discovery of “Naia,” as the human skeleton found off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico has been named, as well as the recent examination of the Anzick child, may have now put this debate to rest.

RELATED: DNA Politics: Anzick Child Casts Doubt on Bering Strait Theory


Naia, Greek for “water nymph,” was discovered by divers in 2007, in an underwater sinkhole called Hoyo Negro (Black Hole), about 20 miles north of the ancient Mayan city of Tolum. Part of the Sac Actun underwater cave system, the largest underwater cave system in the world, Hoyo Negro also contained a trove of extinct prehistoric animal skeletons such as saber-toothed cats, gomphotheres (elephant-like animals related to mastodons) and giant sloths.

Naia, believed to have been a young girl of 15 or 16, apparently fell to her death in the sinkhole sometime between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago. About 10,000 years ago, as the Ice Ages came to an end and melting glaciers raised sea levels around the world, the cave system was flooded. Her remains, now 130 feet below sea level, were preserved. Under Mexican law her skeleton could not be disturbed, even for scientific study, but the cave systems are a popular tourist dive location and divers had been found digging around her, prompting the government and scientists to recover her.

On May 15, a team of 15 scientists published the findings of their examination of the girl, “Late Pleistocene Human Skeleton and mtDNA Link Paleoamericans and Modern Native Americans,” in Science magazine. The remains of Naia are the most complete ancient skeleton that have been found to date. Assessing the skeleton’s age required a new approach as dating the bones was difficult because the collagen used for standard radiocarbon analysis had decayed away. The research team analyzed tooth enamel and bat-dropped seeds using radiocarbon dating and calcite deposits found on the bones using the uranium-thorium method, thus establishing the age between 12,000 and 13,000 years.

Although in facial appearance she did not seem to resemble modern Indians, mitochondrial DNA extracted from the skeleton’s wisdom tooth found it belonged to haplogroup D, the same as the Anzick child, and found in about 11 percent of living American Indians. The paper ascribes the differences in appearance between the ancient skeleton and modern Indians as the result of evolution.

The paper’s lead author, James Chatters, said, “this expedition produced some of the most compelling evidence to date of a link between Paleoamericans, the first people to inhabit the Americas after the most recent ice age, and modern Native Americans.” But even more important than the findings is the man who proclaimed it. Chatters was the anthropologist who first examined Kennewick Man, the remains of a prehistoric person discovered in 1996 on the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick County, Washington, and who set off the whole debate about whether or not modern Indians were descended from ancient “Palaeoamericans.” Chatters was the scientist who first asserted that since Kennewick Man’s facial features did not seem to resemble modern Indians, that there was no relationship between the two. Chatters’ findings led to a bitter legal battle between archaeologists, who wished to study the body, and the federal government, which was enforcing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) on behalf of the Umatilla Tribe, which wished to rebury him, a battle won by the archaeologists in 2004.

Now, Chatters has done a complete about face. “For nearly 20 years, since Kennewick Man turned up, I’ve been wondering why these early people looked so different from Native Americans,” but after this new discovery, Chatters believes that, “Paleoamericans and Native Americans descended from the same homeland.” Even still, Chatters uses the new term Paleoamerican (Ancient American), as opposed to the generally accepted term, Paleoindian (Ancient Indian), which was the standard before this controversy ever started. The point is not small, as noted anthropologist David J. Meltzer observed in his book, First Peoples in a New World:

It used to be that the first Americans were referred to as Paleoindians (from the Greek palaios or old). In the last decade in some circles, there has been a non-too-subtle change in language: Paleoindian is now insistently referred to as Paleoamerican. The terms may be synonymous in a very general sense… But the explicit effort to substitute one for the other is not just a matter of synonymy. The change corresponded with the Kennewick discovery and ensuing legal battle… Calling the first peoples Paleoamerican rather than Paleoindian is not just a statement about the genuine uncertainty of identifying ancient remains with modern tribes; it subtly implies the first people to the New World were not ancestors of American Indians.

It also blurs the distinction between Indians, to whom this hemisphere rightfully belonged and much of its still belongs, and those Americans whose claims to ownership come after those of Indians.


Though the new study didn’t deal directly with Kennewick Man, the findings raise questions about the fate of the skeleton that remains locked away at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum. A group of scientists led by Smithsonian anthropologist Doug Owsley was allowed to study the bones in 2005. Owsley, who declined to comment on the new report, said his team’s book-length manuscript will be published this fall. Owsley is steadfast in his belief, based on physical features, that Kennewick Man is not genetically linked to the tribes who wish to rebury him.

RELATED: The Long Legal and Moral Battle Over Kennewick Man

Washington State University anthropologist Brian Kemp, who deciphered Naia’s DNA, said that the results from Mexico add ammunition to the Umatilla’s argument that “just because his head is shaped differently from theirs, doesn’t mean they aren’t related.” He added that “If DNA is ever obtained from Kennewick Man, my prediction is that he’s Native American. I have no reason to believe that he could be anything else.”

Although the study may hopefully end the debate over the links between modern and ancient Indians, it argues that the DNA evidence shows that Naia and all American Indians are descended from “the hunter-gatherers who moved onto the Bering Land Bridge from northeast Asia (Beringia) between 26,000 and 18,000 years ago, spreading southward into North America sometime after 17,000 years ago.” But the “Beringian Standstill theory,” the idea the Paleoindians made a 10,000 year long pit stop in the region of the Bering Strait, is highly controversial. There are a number of new studies that cast doubt on that hypothesis. The Beringian Standstill theory is in itself an attempt to reconcile conflicting evidence in an effort to prop up the Bering Strait theory, long a source of contention between scientists and Indians.

RELATED: More Reasons to Doubt the Bering Strait Migration Theory

This story was originally published May 18, 2014.

American Indian heritage is a common perception among many Americans, and many people claim to be Native without truly basing their personal history on facts. Tribal nations such as the Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole and Chickasaw have been heavily documented and can trace family lineages back to the 19th and 18th centuries through censuses and lists such as the Dawes Roll.

Be warned: Many Native Americans will roll their eyes at family tales of the mythical ‘Cherokee Princess’ in one’s background, or to be told upon greeting a non-Native that ‘I’m part Cherokee.’ (Cherokee, for a variety of reasons, is the tribe most often associated with families’ genealogy myth-making.)

Most important, contemporary Indian nations have active lists and Native citizenship requirements. They know who belongs to their tribe. ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Who are your people?’ are the most common questions asked at events and pow wows, and there is often something akin to less than six degrees of separation among contemporary Natives. So, as a rule of thumb, ‘discovering’ you are Native or have Indian heritage somewhere in your genealogy bloodline is hardly enough to guarantee tribal enrollment or the benefits of social services (of which there are many myths and misunderstandings)—or, for that matter, the right to call yourself Indian. Tribal historians and enrollment officers can be contacted at individual nations if you need to learn more about a particular tribe’s requirements.

In the modern era, Native American history is rife with examples of families broken apart and separated as part of the boarding school era, the termination era (in which tribal nations were forcibly disbanded) and urban migration (forced off the land and into the cities). There are many stories about families who lost members during this historical trauma and have since sought out hidden branches of their family tree. Given the far-flung landing places for dispossessed people, family reunions are not uncommon in Indian country.

There are also many recovery and healing efforts involving the disproportionate number of children adopted out of Indian country due to misguided government policies. The search to find and heal such ‘Lost Birds’ is ongoing.

The intersection of African American and Native cultures, and the interactions between black Americans and Indians for hundreds of years is also fertile ground for genealogy research. Black Indians form a well-known pantheon in Native history as well, as well as a lively line of genealogical research.

The proliferation of over-the-counter and online DNA kits have also fueled interest in Native genealogy. The results of this method, however, can be far more complicated an ambiguous. Identifying certain strains of heritage through various haplotides is extremely fraught, and a degree of ‘Native blood’ does not often resolve very much. Building and verifying a family tree is the only real means of making sure of a particular tribal descent.


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