Reconstructed Naia
Timothy Archibald/National Geographic
The reconstructed face of Naia, who was found in a sinkhole 20 miles north of Tolum.

Researchers Unveil Reconstructed Face of Ancient American Indian

Alex Ewen

The remains of “Naia,” the human skeleton found off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, has been reconstructed by artists to provide a hypothetical image of what she looked like. A clay model of her face was presented in the January 2015 issue of National Geographic Magazine. 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. Believed to have been a young girl of 15 or 16, Naia apparently fell to her death in the sinkhole sometime between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago and her remains were subsequently preserved as the ocean levels rose and the cave system was flooded after the last ice-age.

The remains of Naia are the most complete ancient skeleton that have been found to date in the Americas. Mitochondrial DNA extracted from the skeleton’s wisdom tooth found it belonged to haplogroup D, found in about 11 percent of living American Indians. This has helped to settle the debate as to whether living Native Americans are descended from Paleoindians (Ancient Indians). Part of the reason there was a debate about this at all, was that early Paleoindian remains did not have Northeast Asian facial features, which was to be expected under the prevailing Bering Strait Theory of early Indian migrations which presumes Indians and Northeast Asians are closely related.

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The new facial reconstruction likewise does not support an Asian relationship, as, according to the scientists who have examined Naia, “her skull has a shape associated with African or South Pacific populations rather than the typical Siberian look.” Scientists also claim the facial features do not correspond to modern American Indians, although the constant grouping of Indians—an incredibly diverse people whose diversity extends throughout the hemisphere—into one “type” is one of science’s greatest shortcomings.

The lack of association between Naia’s features and Asian or Native American features—and that the very few skeletal remains of Paleoindians that exist often show signs of injury to the men—has led to some wild speculation among anthropologists. Jim Chatters, co-leader of the Hoyo Negro research team that excavated and reconstructed Naia, believes that the reason Paleoindian facial features look so different from those of modern Native Americans is that these are all indications that the earliest Americans were “risk-taking pioneers” and “the toughest men were taking the spoils and winning fights over women.” He has dubbed them “Northern Hemisphere wild-type” people that are “bold and aggressive, with hypermasculine males and diminutive, subordinate females.”

Chatters is also known for his role in the controversy over “Kennewick Man,” an ancient skeleton discovered on the banks of the Columbia River in 1996. At that time, Chatters’ argued that since Kennewick Man’s facial features did not seem to resemble modern Native Americans, that there was no relationship between ancient and modern Indians, setting off a highly charged scientific and social debate. Chatters reversed himself since the discovery of Naia and accepts the link between old and new. But now he believes that the perceived violence of a population (based on only 10 male Paleoindian remains, five of whom had been injured in some manner during their lifetime, and five who were not) has some bearing on what they look like because “their robust traits and features were being selected over the softer and more domestic ones evident in later, more settled populations.” The idea that facial features somehow can define the nature of a society harkens back to the now discredited “craniometric” studies of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which were used to “prove” the supposed racial superiority of white Europeans.

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Despite the speculative theories surrounding her appearance, the discovery and analysis of Naia’s remains has at least settled the debate as to whether or not modern Indians are related to Paleoindians. It is now generally accepted by scientists that Indians are descended from these earliest peoples. But the question of how and when these Paloeindians came to the New World is still very much a mystery.

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Jonathan Fisher
Jonathan Fisher
Submitted by Jonathan Fisher on
There are some factual inconsistencies/omissions in this article. The original article quotes a scientist from Texas A & M as saying "Now we’ve got two specimens, Anzick and Hoyo Negro, both from a common ancestor who came from Asia, ... and like Hoyo Negro, the Anzick genome unquestionably shows that Paleo-Americans are genetically related to native peoples.” Plus, linguistic research indicates a strong link between Native American languages and an ancient Siberian (Russian) language. The original article also discusses how the original colonizers, from Asia, were likely seafarers and may or may not have used Beringia on the way over, but not like in the original Bering Strait hypothesis. Like any research, there's a lot of uncertainty in these origin hypotheses, and like all science, conclusions can only be drawn using the available data.