‘First Face of America’ explores how humans reached the New World

Daring underwater retrieval of ancient teen’s bones is featured in a new documentary

scuba diver

DEEP DISCOVERY  A scuba diver photographs the bottom of a submerged, underground pit where many animal fossils, including a teenage girl’s remains, were found in 2007. A TV documentary shows how these discoveries led to insights into the initial settling of the Americas.

Alberto Nava

A teenage girl climbed into an underground cave around 13,000 years ago. Edging through the ink-dark chamber, she accidentally plunged to her death at the bottom of a deep pit.

Rising seas eventually inundated the cave, located on Central America’s Yucatán Peninsula. But that didn’t stop scuba divers from finding and retrieving much of the girl’s skeleton in 2007.

“First Face of America,” a new NOVA documentary airing February 7 on PBS, provides a closeup look at two dangerous underwater expeditions that resulted in the discovery and salvaging of bones from one of the earliest known New World residents, dubbed Naia.

The program describes how studies of Naia’s bones (SN: 6/14/14, p. 6) and of genes from an 11,500-year-old infant recently excavated in Alaska have generated fresh insights into how people populated the Americas. Viewers watch anthropologist and forensic consultant James Chatters, who directed scientific studies of Naia’s remains, as he reconstructs the ancient teen’s face and charts the lower-body injuries that testify to what must have been a rough life.

In one suspenseful scene, cameras record Chatters talking with scuba divers shortly before the divers descend into the submerged cave to collect Naia’s bones. The scientist describes how thousands of years of soaking in seawater have rendered the precious remains fragile. He uses a plaster cast of a human jaw to demonstrate for scuba diver Susan Bird how to handle Naia’s skull so that it stays intact while being placed in a padded box. Bird’s worried expression speaks volumes.

“On the day of the dive, there was so much tension, so many people on the verge of freaking out,” Bird recalls in the show. When the divers return from their successful mission, collective joy breaks out.

AMERICAS’ FIRST A teenage girl’s skull retrieved from an underwater chamber in Central America rests on a laboratory stand. The youth’s roughly 13,000-year-old bones have advanced what scientists know about the first Americans. Francis Cordero Ramirez
The scene then shifts to a lab where Chatters painstakingly re-creates what Naia looked like. Asian-looking facial features raise questions about how the ancient youth ended up in Central America. That’s where University of Alaska Fairbanks anthropologist Ben Potter enters the story. In 2013, Potter and colleagues excavated the remains of two infant girls at an Alaskan site dating nearly to Naia’s time. Analysis of DNA recovered from one of the infants , described in the Jan. 11 Nature , supports a scenario in which a single founding Native American population reached a land bridge that connected northeast Asia to North America around 35,000 years ago. As early as 20,000 years ago, those people had moved into their new continent, North America. Naia’s face reflects her ancestors’ Asian roots.

In tracing back how people ended up in the Americas, NOVA presents an outdated model of ancient humans moving out of Africa along a single path through the Middle East around 80,000 years ago. Evidence increasingly indicates that people started leaving Africa 100,000 years ago or more via multiple paths (SN: 12/24/16, p. 25). That’s a topic for another show, though. In this one, Naia reveals secrets about the peopling of the Americas with a lot of help from intrepid scuba divers and state-of-the-art analyses. It’s fitting that a slight smile creases her reconstructed face.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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