Washington, September 4 : Archaeologists have discovered what may be the oldest human skeleton ever found in the Americas, deep inside an underwater cave in Mexico.
Dubbed Eva de Naharon, or Eve of Naharon, the female skeleton has been dated at 13,600 years old.
According to a report in National Geographic News, if that age is accurate, the skeleton-along with three others found in underwater caves along the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula-could provide new clues to how the Americas were first populated.
The remains have been excavated over the past four years near the town of Tulum, about 80 miles southwest of Cancºn, by a team of scientists led by Arturo Gonzalez, director of the Desert Museum in Saltillo, Mexico.
"We don't now how the people, whose remains were found in the caves, arrived and whether they came from the Atlantic, the jungle, or inside the continent," Gonzalez said.
"But we believe these finds are the oldest yet to be found in the Americas and may influence our theories of how the first people arrived," he added.
Concepcion Jimenez, director of physical anthropology at Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, has viewed the finds and has said that they may be Mexico's oldest and most important human remains to date.
"Eva de Naharon has the paleo-indian characteristics that make the date seem very plausible," Jimenez said.
The three other skeletons excavated in the caves have been given a date range of 11,000 to 14,000 years ago, based on radiocarbon dating.
The remains were found some 50 feet (15 meters) below sea level in the caves off Tulum. But, at the time, Eve of Naharon is believed to have lived there, sea levels were 200 feet (60 meters) lower, and the Yucatan Peninsula was a wide, dry prairie.
The polar ice caps melted dramatically 8,000 to 9,000 years ago, causing sea levels to rise hundreds of feet and submerging the burial grounds of the skeletons. talactites and stalagmites then grew around the remains, preventing them from being washed out to sea.
Gonzalez has also found remains of elephants, giant sloths, and other ancient fauna in the caves.
If Gonzalez's finds do stand up to scientific scrutiny, they will raise many interesting new questions about how the Americas were first peopled.
Clues from the skeletons' skulls hint that the people may not be of northern Asian descent, which would contradict the dominant theory of New World settlement.
That theory holds that ancient humans first came to North America from northern Asia via a now submerged land bridge across the Bering Sea.
"The shape of the skulls has led us to believe that Eva and the others have more of an affinity with people from South Asia than North Asia," Gonzalez explained.