Yucatan Cave Discoveries Offer Insight into First American Inhabitants

More than 6,000 water-filled caves can be found along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Known locally as cenotes, these limestone sinkholes are popular scuba diving sites marked by their stunningly beautiful stalagmites and stalactites. Over the past 35 years, avid spelunkers and divers have been exploring the underwater caverns, primarily located on the Riviera Maya between the Tulum ruins and Cancun.

In 2007, while diving the site known as Hoyo Negro (Spanish for black hole), a group of amateur cave divers made a startling discovery that would completely transform the way scientists view the first inhabitants of America. Alejandro Alvarez and his friends stumbled upon a completely intact 12,000-year-old skeleton of an adolescent girl. This landmark discovery was only announced publicly this year in the U.S. magazine Science, following years of meticulous scientific investigations by Mexican authorities.

12,000 year old skeleton found in Yucatan water cavern

Mexican scientists believe that the preserved skeleton of the teenage girl, nicknamed Naia (which is old Greek for water nymph), may shed light on the origin of the American continent’s first inhabitants. Later studies on the skeleton’s facial features and skull shape helped identify Naia as a paleo-American woman. Her DNA can be traced back to hunter-collectors who traveled to the Americas from northern Asia more than 20,000 years ago.

Scientists think that the 16-year-old girl possibly fell into the hole before the caverns filled with water. Over the many thousands of years, as glaciers melted, the girl’s bones along with those of prehistoric mega fauna were sealed off in a watery grave.

Fortunately for scientists, the skeleton was found practically untouched and in pristine condition, providing almost a time capsule. In the watery tomb, divers also found many bones of creatures that were later identified as puma, sabertooth, giant tapir, boar, coyote, bear and gomphothere – a distant elephant relative.

Great Maya Aquifer discoveries

Within months of finding the Naia skeleton, underwater explorers made two other notable discoveries within the Great Maya Aquifer in the state of Quintana Roo. Archeologist Guillermo de Anda Alanis and his team discovered a perfectly preserved Maya altar, along with remains of prehispanic building structures dating to 900-1200 AD. Divers also found the fossilized cranium of a man more than 10,000 years old.

Researchers speculate that these ancient remains found in the cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula suggest some sort of catastrophic climate event or drought that occurred in the late classic period.


  1. LA Times, Teen skeleton found by Mexico cave divers has scientists breathless, http://www.latimes.com/world/mexico-americas/la-fg-mexico-skeleton-divers-20140530-story.html
  2. MexicoNews Network, TEN THOUSAND YEAR OLD SKULL FOUND IN QUINTANA ROO http://www.mexiconewsnetwork.com/art-culture/ancient-skull-found-quintana-roo/
Friday, December 16th, 2016
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