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A Find from the Ice Age Offers Us a View of the 'First Face of America'
February 7, 2018  | By David Hinckley
 

Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, best known to casual fans as the site of the good-time beach resort Cancun, turns out to harbor a raft of surprising clues about deeper matters like the history of humankind.

First Face of America, which airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on PBS’s Nova series (check local listings), connects an amazing string of evolutionary dots from the discovery of a human skull at the bottom of a Yucatan cave.

The skull belonged to a 15- or 16-year-old girl who lived in those parts during the Ice Age, some 13,000 years ago. She apparently plunged to her death in a pool of water at the bottom of this dark cave, and there she has lain ever since.

While it doesn’t offer any consolation, she wasn’t the only one to make that fatal misstep. Her bones were surrounded by an eerie zoo of extinct mammals who also roamed the Yucatan back then, like mastodons, giant sloths, and saber-toothed tigers.

Nova focuses on the girl, whom scientists named Naia. Forensic anthropologist James Chatterley and his team literally put Naia back together while reconstructing, CSI-style, a likely scenario of her life and death.

They then use the information they collected from Naia’s skeleton to paint a much fuller picture of how human life evolved all across the Americans during and after the Ice Age.

Naia’s ancestors, it turns out, were a hunting tribe that traveled across the land bridge that once connected present-day Siberia to present-day Alaska.

Branches of that tribe slowly made their way south, and Chatterley’s team suggests Naia’s people were relatively recent arrivals in the Yucatan area.

And why do they think that? Glad you asked.

The growth pattern of her teeth suggests she went through stretches each year when she didn’t get enough protein, which leads scientists to speculate that her tribe had not yet figured out the hunting patterns it needed to ensure a steady supply of meat.

Ice Age life in general sounds like less than a festive holiday. While it may sound cool that you could see living, exotic creatures like the wooly mammoth, you paid the price for that.

Most women, for instance, didn’t live past their early 20s. Men made it to their mid-30s, on average, a fact that increased the competition for women and seemed to have helped foster a culture of physical violence; Naia’s skeleton showed a spiral fracture of the arm.

In the larger anthropological picture, the DNA links between Naia and Ice Age bodies found in Alaska provide long-sought evidence about the ancestry of Native Americans, as well as migration patterns of other early humans.

The most compelling part of writer/producer/director Graham Townsley’s tale, however, is the girl in the cave.

Her story has a tragic, even gruesome ending and nothing in it suggests there was much to envy about life in the Ice Age. But Naia was a link in the unbroken chain that leads to now, and the better we understand that chain, the better we understand both ourselves and our fascinating backstory.

 
 
 
 
 
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