Northwestern professor contributes research on one of the oldest skeletons in North America

Rebecca Savransky, Campus Editor

A Northwestern scientist is a member of an international team that published a report last Friday about one of the oldest human skeletons found in North America.

The report, published in the journal Science, details the work of Earth and Planetary Sciences Prof. Patricia Beddows and other scientists in investigating Naia, the skeleton found in the Yucatan Peninsula said to be between 12,000 and 13,000 years old.

“The Yucatan Peninsula is a massive carbony region and it has the largest extensive underwater cave systems in the world,” Beddows said.

Beddows said her contributions to the research focus on understanding how the cave forms, how the water flows through the cave systems and how they are related to sea level, noting she has been doing research in the peninsula since the mid-1990s.

Beddows said she began this research in 2010 to look into the origin of the human skeleton.

“Her genetics are telling us about the source region from the people from which she came from, so it’s helping us understand the migration of early humans into North America,” she said.

In addition to the human skeleton that was found, Beddows said the group also discovered several animals in the cave they were exploring. She added that these individuals were likely going through the caves in an attempt to access water, due to the difficulty of finding hydration because of the geological makeup of the caves.

“One common feature to all of these animals not just going underground but going very far along these dark passages, one commonality is the need for water.”

She said the human skeleton found was likely walking through this region, looking for water, before falling over a ledge into the bottom of this black pit. She said the girl had a fractured pelvis which demonstrates that she likely fell more than 100 feet down onto the shallow water pool and rocks, which likely caused her death.

The conditions in that area preserved the body and allowed for the DNA to remain intact, Beddows said. She added that the scientists on the team are planning to research further, including doing a more complete genetic analysis, expanding the research to the other animals found and getting more data on the sea levels and water levels as they changed over time. However, she noted that the published paper is very useful and important for the field.

“The science paper was very powerful because we used a very large number of different analytical techniques to understand not only her genetic heritage but also the osteologists were looking at the shape of her bones and the shape of her face. We’ve done some work on the paleontology on some of the other animals in the site,” Beddows said.

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