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Naia Reborn: See the Surprising Face of a First American

Image: Naia
Researchers have created a facial reconstruction of a teenage girl who lived 12,000 to 13,000 years ago on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The sculpted visage suggests that the first Americans didn’t look much like later Native Americans, even though genetic evidence confirms their common ancestry. The reconstruction draws upon the work of James Chatters of Applied Paleoscience and sculptor Tom McClelland, and is featured in the January issue of National Geographic magazine. Timothy Archibald / National Geographic

Researchers and artists have reconstructed the face of a teenage girl who lived 12,000 years ago in Mexico, and it's not the kind of face a person might typically associate with Native Americans.

The remains of the girl, nicknamed Naia (after the Greek term for a water nymph), were recovered from an underwater cave on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Naia is regarded as one of the earliest known residents of the Americas — but her skull has a shape associated with African or South Pacific populations rather than the typical Siberian look.

Despite that different look, researchers say Naia is genetically related to Native Americans who came to America later, from Siberia via the Beringia land bridge.

Human Skull Found in Underwater Cave in Mexico 0:33

What's behind the facial differences? Anthropologist James Chatters, one of the leaders of the research team behind Naia's discovery, suggests that the earliest "Northern Hemisphere wild-type" populations may have been distinguished by robust-looking males and softer-featured females — and that natural selection eventually favored the more robust features that are associated with later populations of Native Americans.

That's a controversial claim. Other anthropologists say the differences may merely be due to natural variations within a given population.

The facial reconstruction is based on Chatters' scientific work and sculptor Tom McClellan's artistic flair. The same duo collaborated on a similar reconstruction based on the remains of Kennewick Man, a Paleoamerican who lived 9,000 years ago in present-day Washington state.

To learn more about Naia's reborn face, and about the First Americans, check out the cover story in the January issue of National Geographic magazine.