Alejandro Alvarez’s eyes widened against the dark underwater void that would become known as the Black Hole on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
His flashlight shined on ancient bones from extinct species, and eventually he would discover the hemisphere’s oldest, most complete skeleton, a find that may transform the way we think about the development of American man.
“What in the world is this?” Alvarez recalls thinking. He and two diving buddies with him knew that they had stumbled across something special.
“We immediately realized the importance,” Alvarez, now 52 and still diving, said in an interview. “It was very exciting.”
The discovery of the 12,000-year-old skeleton of a teenage girl occurred seven years ago but wasn’t announced until this month, after additional, sometimes-risky exploration and detailed scientific investigation.
Published first in the American magazine Science, then elaborated upon by Mexican scientific officials, the find has provided immeasurable evidence on the origins of the first Native Americans.
The genome of a young boy buried at Mal’ta near Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia some 24,000 years ago has turned out to hold two surprises for anthropologists.
The first is that the boy’s DNA matches that of Western Europeans, showing that during the last Ice Age people from Europe had reached farther east across Eurasia than previously supposed. Though none of the Mal’ta boy’s skin or hair survives, his genes suggest he would have had brown hair, brown eyes and freckled skin.
The second surprise is that his DNA also matches a large proportion — about 25 percent — of the DNA of living Native Americans. The first people to arrive in the Americas have long been assumed to have descended from Siberian populations related to East Asians. It now seems that they may be a mixture between the Western Europeans who had reached Siberia and an East Asian population.