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Ancient skeleton shedding light on first Americans

NEW YORK -- Thousands of years ago, a teenage girl toppled into a deep hole in a Mexican cave and died. Now, her skeleton and her DNA are helping scientists study the origins of the first Americans.

Their research bolsters the idea that those pioneers arrived from Asia by way of a land bridge that has long since disappeared, according to an analysis released Thursday by the journal Science.

The girl's nearly complete skeleton was discovered by chance in 2007 by expert divers who were mapping water-filled caves north of the city of Tulum, in the eastern part of the Yucatan Peninsula. One day, they came across a huge chamber deep underground.

“The moment we entered inside, we knew it was an incredible place,” one of the divers, Alberto Nava, told reporters. “The floor disappeared under us and we could not see across to the other side.” They named it Hoyo Negro, or black hole.

Months later, they returned and reached the floor of the 30-meter tall chamber, which was littered with animal bones. They came across the girl's skull on a ledge, lying upside down “with a perfect set of teeth and dark eye sockets looking back at us,” Nava said.

The divers named the skeleton Naia, after a water nymph of Greek mythology, and joined up with a team of scientists to research the find.

The girl was 15 or 16 when she met her fate in a cave, which at that time was dry, researchers said. She may have been looking for water when she tumbled into the chamber some 12,000 or 13,000 years ago, said lead study author James Chatters of Applied Paleoscience, a consulting firm in Bothell, Washington. Her pelvis was broken, suggesting she had fallen a long distance, he said.

The analysis of her remains, reported by scientists in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Denmark, addresses a puzzle about the settling of the Americas.

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In this June 2013 photo provided by National Geographic, diver Susan Bird, working at the bottom of Hoyo Negro, a large dome-shaped underwater cave in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, brushes a human skull found at the site while her team members take detailed photographs. (AP)

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