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.
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.
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.
This story was originally published May 18, 2014.