At the bottom of a water-filled cavern in Mexico, archaeologists have discovered a number of skulls that are challenging what we know about the first humans in North America. It turns out, these people were perhaps way more diverse than we previously assumed.
Researchers from The Ohio State University have recently studied four ancient skulls that were found in the cave systems at Tulum in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. The skulls belonged to people who lived 9,000 to 13,000 years ago, a time when people lived in the caves before they became flooded with water.
Reporting their findings in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers studied the structure and shape of these skulls with the aim of learning more about these mysterious people. By comparing the skulls’ morphology to a dataset of worldwide modern human populations, they found these early Americans were remarkably diverse, bearing similarities to different populations that live across a wider stretch of Europe and Asia.
The oldest skull shared close similarities with modern native Americans in Greenland and Alaska, while the second-oldest skull was more similar to modern European populations. Another displayed close association with Asian and Native American groups and the final skull had a mix of features seen in Arctic populations and some modern South American populations.
“The first Americans were much more complex, much more diverse than we thought,” Mark Hubbe, co-lead author of the study and professor of anthropology at The Ohio State University, said in a statement.
This suggests that the people who arrived in North America from Asia were not simply a uniform group from the same background. Instead, they were a diverse bunch who perhaps had origins in other far-flung corners of Eurasia. However, the diversity appears to have become diminished by the time humans dispersed into South America, for unknown reasons.
“We always assumed that what was happening in South America was true in North America. Now we need to revise that,” said Hubbe.
“We need to stop talking about the settlement of the Americas. We should talk about the settlement of North America and the settlement of South America as very different.
“Whatever we thought about the settlement of the Americas is probably not the whole story. We still have a lot to learn,” he concluded.
Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is full of underwater cave systems that are like a treasure trove for archaeologists. Divers have even discovered the tooth of an extinct megalodon shark in one of these inland caves.
One of the most incredible discoveries was the remains of a 14,000-year-old woman dubbed the Eve of Naharon, thought to be the oldest human skeleton found in the Americas yet. Researchers have even constructed the face of a young woman, providing some fascinating insights into what this highly important person might have looked like.