One of the biggest mysteries of American history is working out who the first Americans were. However, when a team of divers risked their lives after venturing into a dark hole, their findings would completely change how Americans looked at themselves forever…
The Pit Of Secrets
In 2007, a cartographer by the name of Alberto Nava stumbled across a dark hole near Tulum, Mexico. This 100 feet deep hole led Nava to a mysterious, ominous pit, but he would never believe what he was about to discover at the bottom…
Enter The Black Hole
This pit, more commonly known as a cenote, was just one of 6,000 that exist in Mexico. However, this one is unique and is called El Hoyo Negro, which translates into “The Black Hole.” This is because it is full of dark, spooky tunnels and caves. Even the most seasoned cave divers are terrified of this particular cenote, with some referring to it as an “inescapable trap.” But this didn’t stop Nava’s team from venturing into its dark depths…
What Is A Cenote?
Cenotes are naturally formed pits that are normally associated with the Yucatán Peninsula. But did you know that the Mayans had an interesting relationship with cenotes? In the pre-Columbian era, the Mayan people considered them as holy sights and one of the most notable of them was the sacred cenote in Chichen Itza. It was here where the people performed sacrifices to the rain god Chaac. They would use human sacrifices by stabbing individuals and throwing them down the hole…
Nava’s team are determined to explore as many cenotes as possible, as they’re generally considered goldmines for some of the most ancient secrets of American history. What has preserved these secrets for thousands of years is the rainwater, which falls to the ground and floats over the saline water from the coast. Nava, Alejandro Alvarez, Franco Antonelli and others came prepared with the essential equipment, and they would need to take extreme precautions as this was the most dangerous mission they had ever done…
Not only was it a dangerous adventure for the team, they were also cautious about causing damage to this precious cenote. Just the smallest of movements could cause a domino effect of damage to the rock formations. Ice can easily crack from the smallest disturbance. Also, there have been at least 400 cave divers that are believed to have died as a result of their cenote explorations. However, the crew was aware of the risks they were taking and they were determined to get it right…
As they got deeper into the Black Hole, darkness would gradually consume them. Needless to say, flashlights were an indispensable tool in this mission. “We had to follow along the wall. I happened to be in the front,” Alvarez said. Eventually, the team arrived at an underground cavern and this is when they noticed something completely out of the ordinary. But what was it exactly that caught their attention? Surely it was a living thing, nothing could survive down here…
Suddenly, they noticed something peculiar in the water. On closer inspection, they could see that it was in fact, a bone. However, they were running out of breath due to the tight spaces and lack of air tanks. So they took their discovery and returned back where they came from. This was just one of the many dangerous caves in the region that had become archives filled with relics from previous eras. So who did this bone belong to exactly?
This bone belonged to a species called a gomphothere, which is related to elephants. This breed lived between 1.2 million and 1.6 million years ago in North America. After dying off in the ice age, many bones fell to the bottom of the cenotes in this region. Many bones belonging to native Americans have been regularly found. They were believed to have belonged to people who were killed and thrown to the bottom as sacrifices. However, this discovery was different…
Returning To The Depths
Excited by their discovery, the team wasted no time and went back down the Black Hole. This time, they stocked up on more air tanks so that they could stay under for longer. Amazingly, they discovered more bones belonging to many more different species. One of the bones belonged to species that had never been previously discovered, a type of giant ground sloth. They resembled the sloths of today but were closer to the size of an elephant.
Other discoveries that the team made included short-faced bear fossils that were embedded into the walls. These were possibly the largest carnivores ever to roam North America, standing at 8-10 feet tall and were more ferocious than any of today’s bears. Also, there were the remains of Saber-tooth cats. Despite not actually having been members the feline family, the Saber-tooth cats are amongst the most famous prehistoric creatures. However, the team’s most game-changing discovery was just around the corner…
A Groundbreaking Discovery
It was near the end of their second trip in the Black Hole that the team made a discovery that could potentially change American history forever. Lo and behold, they noticed a human skull with a full set of teeth. “We knew this was a very important find, but for two years we could not figure out just what to do with it,” Alvarez said. Eventually, the team, along with researchers from the US, tried to work out who the human remains belonged to…
Amazingly, Nava’s team didn’t take the remains after their expeditions in the Black Hole. As a result, word traveled far and wide and many other archeologists and scientists were determined to steal the remains right from under their noses. There were many unauthorized divers who went to take remnants in an effort to sell illegally. In the process, they caused much damage and the decision was made by scientists to take the remains in order to preserve them.
When scientists made their way to the depths of the Black Hole to retrieve the remains, they knew what they were doing was dangerous. With just the faintest of touches, the skull could have broken into thousands of pieces. “We were praying that it would not just shatter in their hands. It turned out, [it’s] as solid as a rock,” one researcher said. Thankfully, no damage was incurred on the remains, but the hard work had only just begun…
Game Changing Skull
After scientists analyzed the skull, the results suggested that it belonged to a 15-year-old girl who had lived between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago. Fittingly, the scientists who worked on the skull called the girl Naia, alluding to the water nymphs of Greek mythology. As a result, Naia is now the oldest remains found of any human being to have lived in the Americas. Moreover, the girl proves that there were humans living in the Americas a lot earlier than originally presumed.
The First Settlers
This new discovery is bound to change the way that historians look at the colonization of the Americas. Prior to this, the mainstream belief was that Native Americans originally crossed the Bering land bridge to be the first settlers in North America over 20,000 years ago. Based on Naia’s remains, the people who lived in the Americas long before Native Americans were actually a different ethnic group altogether. Is there a way to work out exactly where these people came from?
Puzzling Yet Amazing
It seemed though that Naia’s remains actually presented more questions than answers. Scientists struggled to get their heads around the physical differences between her and the Native Americans, initially putting it down to evolutionary reasons. One thing was for sure though, her remains were the most complete and oldest to have ever been found in this part of the world, at least. Nava’s team had collected her teeth, vertebra, pelvis, pubic bone, ribs, and all of her limbs.
One big question loomed over Naia’s remains: how did she perish? Researchers theorized that she potentially fell into the Black Hole of Death while she was searching for water. If this is the case, this means that Naia would have taken a half-mile long fall to her certain death. Amazingly though, the pit preserved her body for thousands of years and when the team discovered it, it was nearly completely intact, 130 feet below sea level and fixed underground.
One expert from Northwestern University backed up this theory, claiming that there were a variety of important factors that went into the incredible, natural preservation of Naia. “The girl’s skeleton is exceptionally complete because of the environment in which she died – she ended up in the right water and in a quiet place without any soil,” he said. “Her pristine preservation enabled our team to extract enough DNA to determine her shared genetic code with modern Native Americans.”
Close Attention To Detail
After intensive DNA tests on her ribs and teeth, scientists were able to deduce a bunch of interesting details about Naia. Firstly, she was very small for her age, which could have been due to malnutrition. Another fascinating detail was that scientists believe that she may have given birth shortly before her death. But the scientists were determined to settle once and for all whether or not she was connected to the Native Americans who crossed the Bering Strait.
What Did Naia Look Like?
Specifically, Naia probably would have been about five feet tall and weighed about 110 pounds at the time of her death. And the wonders of genetic reconstructional technology suggest that Naia would have had a narrow face and wide eyes. Her forehead was small while her nose was fairly flat. According to scientists, Naia would’ve looked “about the opposite of what Native Americans look like today.” So this poses the question: was she something completely different?
Further analysis proved that Naia had many genetic similarities with Native Americans. However, her physical differences were still very much a mystery. The main theory that researchers had in order to explain this were adaptations that spanned over 13,000 years between her people and other Native Americans. Eventually, archeologists found another set of remains that shared the same sort of physical features. This skeleton was called the Kennewick Man. However, there are other theories that have suggested other circumstances surrounding Naia’s origins…
The Other Side Of America
In a report from the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, it is suggested that Naia’s skull shape implies that she is “much closer to African and Australo-Melanesians populations than to the modern series of Native Americans.” The report also suggests that there were other ways for travelers to enter the Americas. This means that it was possible for people to have arrived in the continent from as far as Australia where the aforementioned ethnicities hailed from.
An Older Discovery
Despite being the oldest, most complete remains to be discovered in the Americas, Naia’s remains weren’t the first to be discovered in the continent. In 1968, an infant skull was discovered in Montana that was believed to be nearly 13,000 years old. The remains were named after Sarah Anzick who discovered them on her property. Scientists proved that the Anzick child descended from Central and South American natives rather than Western Europeans. But there’s one key detail that links the two cases…
It is believed that Naia and Anzick actually descended from the same ancestor, and although the evolutionary changes between the two are steeped in mystery, scientists are firmly convinced that the two are related. Another person who may have been related to the pair was a woman that archeologists named Eve of Naharon. The woman who was believed to be between 25 and 30 years old at the time of her death was discovered close to where Naia was found.
The Search Goes On
The common belief amongst scientists is that humans originated in Africa over 100,000 years ago. However, it was only 20,000 years ago when the first people settled in the Americas. There is no doubt that archeologists and scientists are getting closer to fully unraveling the secrets of the first people to arrive in America. However, there is no denying that Naia’s remains add another fascinating layer of detail to one of the most intriguing mysteries in American history.