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Giant Underwater Cave Was Hiding Oldest Human Skeleton in the Americas

In a pitch black, 140-foot-deep underwater cave, three divers make a stunning 13,000-year-old discovery: the oldest complete human skeleton ever found in the Americas. In this video, see the ancient remains, venture through the remarkable deep-water chamber, and see how a skeleton belonging to a teenage girl from the last ice age lead scientists to a major revelation about the earliest Americans.

The monumental finding has roots in 2007, when cartographer and National Geographic grantee Alberto Nava and his two friends, Alejandro Alvarez and Franco Attolini, were mapping 100,000 feet of underwater cave passages in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Expecting to see mostly tunnels, the team was shocked when they popped into an unknown 200-foot-wide abyss, littered with the bones of extinct creatures like saber-toothed cats, giant ground sloths, and gomphotheres (elephantlike animals related to mastodons). “This was the discovery of a lifetime. It was mesmerizing,” Nava recalls. “We really didn’t know what to do. We were sitting there laughing. Our regulators were coming out of our mouths from laughing so much.” The overjoyed team would name the giant void Hoyo Negro, which translates to Black Hole.

A diver explores Hoyo Negro, the flooded cave where the remains of 'Naia,' a teenage girl who died 12,000-13,000 years ago, were found.
A diver explores Hoyo Negro, the flooded cave where the remains of ‘Naia,’ a teenage girl who died 12,000-13,000 years ago, were found.

While Hoyo Negro was an amazing finding on its own, it’s home to an even more exceptional discovery, many millennia in the making. While exploring the cave, Alvarez found a skull, “and all of a sudden,” as Nava recounts, “we discover the most complete, and the oldest human remains ever found in the Americas.”

Led by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History and supported by the National Geographic Society, Nava and an international group of scientists have spent years working to protect, recover, and study the skeleton. “We have an intact cranium. We have all her teeth. We have most of her vertebra, most of her ribs, all her limbs. We have the pelvis, and we have the pubic bone. It’s just amazing,” Nava says in wonderment.

“I feel proud of the discovery and we’re all happy that we did it, but at the same time it’s become this responsibility of seeing the site protected, seeing the research and the science done so that we can actually unravel all the secrets of Hoyo Negro,” Nava says. “We’re the first ones to interact with whatever is left of this human that lived during the last ice age.”

Divers retrieve the skull of ‘Naia,’ a teenage girl who died 12,000-13,000 years ago, in Hoyo Negro, the flooded cave where her remains were found.

That human was a teenage girl who lived about 13,000 years ago, before the cave was underwater. The Hoyo Negro team has affectionately dubbed her “Naia,” after the water nymphs in ancient Greek mythology. “One of the researchers said, ‘Okay, we got to give it a name,'” Nava remembers. “Because it becomes a different relationship. Now you’re not talking about an ‘it,’ you’re not talking about bone, you’re talking about a person.” And Nava thinks about the human element of the discovery frequently.

“For me, when we go in these caves, we think that we’re doing this great exploration, but in reality the original explorers of these tunnels were Naia and her people. We’re just following them 13,000 years later. I just imagine the conditions they were living in at that time. This is a deserted area and they’re going in there and having to find water and food and shelter and fight animals,” Nava says, wondering just how Naia found her final resting place in Hoyo Negro. “Hoyo Negro and Naia have become an integral part of my life, part of my story.”

Turns out, Naia is part of a lot of Americans’ stories, or at least their histories. Scientists were able to extract ancient, intact DNA from one of Naia’s teeth, determining her DNA matches that of modern Native Americans. This suggests that the earliest Americans migrated from Siberia via a now nonexistent land bridge, and any physical differences among populations are due to natural changes that occurred after humans arrived in the Americas, and not from having migrated from multiple locations in Europe and Asia, as some anthropologists previously thought.

“The discoveries that we’re making inside the cave in the Yucatán Peninsula give us a view of how life used to be and it gives you a sense of how small our existence is compared to what the planet has gone through, to what humans have gone through,” says Nava. “For me, Hoyo Negro and Naia are the stars of this project, and we all work to bring their stories light so we understand a little bit better about where do we come from.”

Alberto Nava is a grantee of National Geographic’s Expeditions Council. To learn more about the science and exploration supported by the nonprofit National Geographic Society, visit natgeo.org/grants and be sure to check out more explorers in action in our digital series, Expedition Raw.

Credits:
VIDEO PRODUCER/EDITOR: Nora Rappaport
ASSOCIATE PRODUCER: Jared Gair
SERIES PRODUCER: Chris Mattle

Comments

  1. OnegaiSatan
    United States
    March 21, 1:41 am

    This also goes to show you global warming was in order before we amassed out machinery. Although it didn’t help any slow it down lol. Basically this leads me to believe everything is in one loop from start to finish so who knows maybe deeper down we find more humanlike remains lmao maybe from 2million years back.

  2. Keith Kreider
    USA
    March 16, 6:01 am

    Science is so smart that it is stupid the earth is your history book

  3. Io O Na Hoku
    Hawaii
    March 15, 12:12 pm

    Isn’t it great that the universe has hidden its secrets from all these control freaks who seem to want to control every part of your mind through things that cannot be controlled or things that don’t make sense as we are thought to be! Time is one big mystery that will never be known by any one individual , deity, book, being, or substance. Appreciate life and Live

  4. Patti
    Montana
    March 3, 8:41 pm

    The bible does tell us how old the earth is. We know exactly how many years from Adam to Noah. We know how many years from Noah to Jesus Christ. Our calendar is from Jesus till Now. The earth is not more than 10,000 years old.

  5. Spooky SR
    March 2, 4:10 pm

    @Keith – “Don’t mistake my belief in science to be a disbelief in God, however. I too believe that we were created and didn’t evolve from something else. But the Bible was clearly not meant to be taken literally throughout its entirety. For example, John 6:54 “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

    I urge you to not be stuck in a belief system where one can’t exist if the other does. The Bible provides very little to use in calculating the age of the earth, and what it does give often contradicts itself. In fact, 5 times the Bible mentions 1000 generations, such as this: He has remembered His covenant forever, The word which He commanded to a thousand generations, (Psalm 105:8). Unless a generation is only 6 years, then the earth must be more than 6000 years old.”

    The apostle John was recording the sayings of Yesuha ben Joseph or Jesus Christ. Jesus was not LITERALLY meaning to actually commit cannibalism. He was SYMBOLICALLY referring to those followers taking a loyalty oath to his God Yahweh by symbolically drinking unadulterated wine and unleavened bread during a specific gathering of Nisan 14 after sundown. It’s not what you thought. No one can permanently exist without Yahweh and Jesus – period.

    Moses, the inspired author of Genesis, was NOT trying to give anyone a science lesson. He was writing about something he was never present at. He was only acting like a secretary who was taking dictation but in his own words.

    Moses was not trying to say the planet was 6000 years old by 1975 CE. He was only referring to 6-creative days or ERAS or EPOCHS. People say DAY and may not be referring to an actual solar day. Your grandfather probably said “Back in my day son…” was he referring to a 24-hour period of the sun? So the actual creative days could have been 7000 years a piece. That’s only an educated guess.

    The other stuff your talking about is way over my head. I’ve never seen this what you are talking about. However, it is likely that the Earth is 4.5 By old. It is likely that Adam was created 4026 BCE using biblical chronology. However, the fallen ben Elohim could have started human metamorphism before Genesis 6th chapter.

    Maybe this found girl is one of them? Maybe not. She just may be an Aztec human sacrifice thrown into the Black Hole and the Carbon Dating is totally out of whack!

  6. Spooky SR
    Hartford CT
    March 2, 3:48 pm

    13,000 years is a bit too high. The inventor of Carbon Dating, Dr. Willard Libby, says his invention becomes disturbingly inaccurate after 5ky. So many paleontologists get these figures horribly wrong. This includes the dinosaur numbers of 65my. The T-Rex skin found in Montana USA by Dr. Mary Higby Schweitzer recently was carbon dated to only a few thousand years old putting it squarely in a Antediluvian timeline.

    I don’t disagree with Creationists/Fundamentalists, however, Adam and Eve may NOT have been the first biological humans on Earth. Since the disobedient metaphysical beings at Genesis 6 that Moses wrote about were capable of human metamorphism, why couldn’t they also have done so in “practice-mode”* BEFORE 4026 BCE when Adam was formed by a sentient metaphysical quantum singularity being – also written by Moses – namely YHWH or Yahweh?

    *”practice-mode” – for lack of a better term.

    There are also ostensibly Antediluvian artifacts found in Atacambra Mexico and Lima Peru, which depict prehistoric saurian-like creatures interacting with humans (among other things as well). The Univ of Penn (USA) tried miserably to label these as modern 20th century hoaxes, but fails to explain how these artifacts where brought back to Spain by Conquistadors in the 16th century CE and now reside in a Madrid museum. How could a 20th century hoax be in a 15th century collection? And there are other forensic clues that these artifacts are not modern hoaxes.

    So this story may or may not depict an Antediluvian find. Certainly Native Americans appeared in North America across the Bering Straits sometime after 2370 BCE in a post-deluge world. They have been proven by DNA to be descendants of Beringers of Siberia Russia. They have not been in Americas for anywhere near 13,000 years. However, Antediluvian cultures where. They ostensibly are the ones buried in all of those huge mounds in North America.

    Someone should penetrate the mounds and take DNA if they are allowed to by Native Americans (et al). Let’s see who is really buried in these ancient mounds. I’ll bet they are NOT Native American Indians as they claim.

  7. Keith
    Pittsburgh
    February 20, 5:38 pm

    Kenneth, I’m not sure where you’re getting your information, but there’s no evidence to support the theory that humans lived with dinosaurs. The saber tooth died out around 10,000 years ago, and radiometric dating puts the youngest dinosaur at 65 million years ago. Humans are also much older than 5900 years. The oldest remains found so far are 195,000 years. Which puts humans living with mammoths and saber tooths, but still 64.8 million years after dinosaurs.

    Don’t mistake my belief in science to be a disbelief in God, however. I too believe that we were created and didn’t evolve from something else. But the Bible was clearly not meant to be taken literally throughout its entirety. For example, John 6:54 “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

    I urge you to not be stuck in a belief system where one can’t exist if the other does. The Bible provides very little to use in calculating the age of the earth, and what it does give often contradicts itself. In fact, 5 times the Bible mentions 1000 generations, such as this: He has remembered His covenant forever, The word which He commanded to a thousand generations, (Psalm 105:8). Unless a generation is only 6 years, then the earth must be more than 6000 years old.

  8. Kenneth bentley
    Bloomington illinois
    February 9, 9:31 am

    The undersea cave discovery is interesting that proves that prehistoric animals lived with humans that were not supposed to be alive except in dinosaurs ages . The fact that saber tooth tigers were alive at that time also means that dinosaurs were alive at the time humans lived .

  9. Kenneth bentley
    Bloomington illnois
    February 9, 9:26 am

    The number 13,000 years is a bit far fetched. That is more than twice the years that man has been on this planet . Man has only been on the earth a little over 5900 years . The earth itself maybe billions of years old but not man . The myth of evolution of man and animals is just an attempt to deceive and lie about creation . I grew up believing we came from apes and asked myself why isn’t there any missing links to support the theory .

  10. Scientology Guy
    ZA
    February 1, 6:01 am

    Why are there never pictures. Seriously

  11. David
    topside
    November 10, 2016, 8:56 am

    Finding the skeletons is really interesting as we can learn much about how they lived. 13,000 years ago would put that pretty much at the end of the last ice age when the ocean levels were over 300 feet lower than today.

  12. peg
    Florida
    November 4, 2016, 11:07 pm

    Love seeing more solid evidence of early Americans.

  13. Johanna Blows
    Kincumber
    November 4, 2016, 10:10 pm

    A great discovery, of the 13,000-yeare old skeleton of an indigenous American woman, whose genes correspond to those of contemporary indigenous Americans! Sheds interesting light on the history of the Americas!

  14. Johanna Blows
    Kincumber
    November 4, 2016, 10:03 pm

    This is an exciting discovery, which throws light on the history of settlement of the Americas. And ainteresting to discover that “Naia’s” dna is the same as that of contemporary indigenous Americans.

  15. questioner
    earth
    November 3, 2016, 3:57 pm

    why are there never pictures

  16. Kathleen
    Spain
    November 2, 2016, 9:39 pm

    This looks interesting.

  17. Kathleen
    Spain
    November 2, 2016, 9:38 pm

    This looks interesting.