Bones uncovered in Mexico are likely the oldest human remains ever found in the Americas, according to a new study published in the journal Plos ONE. A team of international researchers uncovered the first specimen — which dates back 13,000 years — in a cave in the Yucatan Peninsula during a dig in 2007. Three years later, divers then found a similar set of remains in the underwater cave Chan Hol.
The corpse analyzed in the study was on its back with its head slightly tilted to the side. Though its right leg was fully extended, its left was bent at a 20 degree angle. This suggests the young man likely died in the cave before being unintentionally buried there.
While the sites sparked great interest, when researchers first studied the area they found it had been looted. As a result, most of the bones were stolen. Only 10 percent of the skeleton could be recovered from the dirt. Not only that, but flooding in the area made it difficult to conduct any accurate carbon dating tests, Tech Times reports.
Even so, the team still managed to estimate the remains’ age by looking at part of a pelvic bone uncovered from the cave. They believe the intact sample is between 11,300 and 13,000 years old, and they assume the skeleton is a similar age.
Though the human bones are the subject of the study, bones from a megalonychid ground sloth, a white-tailed deer, extant pacas, and spider monkeys have also been uncovered in the area. The reason is because the now wet structure was once quite dry and easily accessible by foot. That suggests early settlers in the Americas frequently used the caves as a part of their lives.
“The area appears to be [a] prime site and paleontological and paleoanthropological bonanza, with so many finds from the late Pleistocene in a really small area,” lead author Wolfgang Stinnesbeck, an earth scientist at Heidelberg University in Germany, told Live Science.
The new findings are exciting, but there is not yet enough evidence to reach a proper conclusion about the skeleton’s age. Researchers hope to expand on the discovery in the future to see what it can tell them about early humans in the Americas.