Tracking the first Americans

SMU archaeologist David Meltzer talks about new discoveries and lucky finds in the search for the first Americans.

By Glenn Hodges

The first face of the first Americans belongs to an unlucky teenage girl who fell to her death in a Yucatán cave some 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. Her bad luck is science’s good fortune. The story of her discovery begins in 2007, when a team of Mexican divers led by Alberto Nava made a startling find: an immense submerged cavern they named Hoyo Negro, the “black hole.” At the bottom of the abyss their lights revealed a bed of prehistoric bones, including at least one nearly complete human skeleton.

Nava reported the discovery to Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, which brought together an international team of archaeologists and other researchers to investigate the cave and its contents. The skeleton—affectionately dubbed Naia, after the water nymphs of Greek mythology—turned out to be one of the oldest ever found in the Americas, and the earliest one intact enough to provide a foundation for a facial reconstruction. Geneticists were even able to extract a sample of DNA. 

Together these remnants may help explain an enduring mystery about the peopling of the Americas: If Native Americans are descendants of Asian trailblazers who migrated into the Americas toward the end of the last ice age, why don’t they look like their ancient ancestors? . . . 

To archaeologist Jim Chatters, co-leader of the Hoyo Negro research team, these are all indications that the earliest Americans were what he calls “Northern Hemisphere wild-type” populations: bold and aggressive, with hypermasculine males and diminutive, subordinate females. And this, he thinks, is why the earliest Americans’ facial features look so different from those of later Native Americans. 

Chatters’s research is just one interesting development in a field of study that has been exploding in fresh directions over the past two decades. New archaeological finds, novel hypotheses, and a trove of genetic data have shed fresh light on who the first Americans were and on how they might have come to the Western Hemisphere. But for all the forward motion, what’s clearest is that the story of the first Americans is still very much a mystery. 

That seems to be an emerging theme. It appears to be the story not just at Paisley Caves but at Monte Verde and the Friedkin site in Texas as well. In each of these cases people seemed to have been settled in, comfortable with their environment and adept at exploiting it. And this suggests that long before the Clovis culture began spreading across North America, the Americas hosted diverse communities of people—people who may have arrived in any number of migrations by any number of routes. Some may have come by sea, others by land. Some may have come in such small numbers that traces of their existence will never be found. 

“There’s a whole lot of stuff that we don’t know and may never know,” says David Meltzer, an archaeologist at Southern Methodist University. “But we’re finding new ways to find things and new ways to find things out.” 

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