Cave-diving Northwestern scientist Patricia A. Beddows is a member of an international team that announced last week that a near-complete skeleton of a teenage girl — discovered in 2007 in an underwater cave on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula — is one of the oldest human skeletons found in North America.

Scientists have determined the prehistoric girl is between 13,000 and 12,000 years old, and that her remains establish a definitive genetic link between the earliest Americans and modern Native Americans.

Details of “Naia,” who went underground in an extensive cave system to seek water and fell to her death in a large pit named Hoyo Negro (“black hole” in Spanish), were published May 16 in the journal Science.

Beddows, one of the research team’s two cave-diving scientists who have been underwater at Hoyo Negro, has hovered above the skeleton’s site and prospected in the area.

“The preservation of all the bones in this deep, water-filled cave is amazing — the bones are beautifully exposed on the rock of the cave floor,” said Beddows, a co-author of the paper. “The girl’s skeleton is exceptionally complete because of the environment in which she died — she ended up in the right water and in a quiet place without any soil. Her pristine preservation enabled our team to extract enough DNA to determine her shared genetic code with modern Native Americans.”

Beddows is assistant chair and assistant professor of instruction in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Extensive genetic analysis shows the prehistoric girl and living Native Americans came from the same place — Beringia, what is now northwest Alaska and the Russian Far East — during the initial peopling of the Americas.

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