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Fossil Site scientists travel the globe to discover prehistory

Jessica Fuller • Updated Feb 11, 2018 at 12:02 AM

Scientists at the Gray Fossil Site are still working hard to tell this area’s 5-million-year-old story.

But that doesn’t keep them from extending their research to other parts of the world to uncover bits and pieces of the past.

For the past several years, Gray Fossil Site Director Blaine Schubert has been studying prehistoric animal skeletons in the Yucatán in Mexico, where scuba divers found a 13,000-year-old human skeleton in an underwater cave about 10 years ago. Named Naia by scientists studying her, the early Native American has been instrumental in piecing together parts of human history that were missing until she was discovered.

Naia was discovered in a large pit in the cave system, called Hoya Negro, or the Black Hole, and scientists think she was looking for water when she fell in the pit when the cave was still above water before the end of the Ice Age. But Naia wasn’t the only one to fall into the pit 13,000 years ago — scuba divers have uncovered skeletons of dozens of animals since then, Schubert said.

On an hour-long PBS “Nova” special called “First Face of America” that premiered this week, Schubert talks about the animals that have been found in this cave and would have lived in the area during the Ice Age.

“One of the draws for this research is that the underwater caves and sinkholes of the Yucatan, which are full of Ice Age bones, serve as analog of what the Gray Fossil Site would have been like 5 million years ago,” he said.

All of the skeletons found in the cave are at least 10,000 years old, Schubert said, because that marks the end of the Ice Age when melting glaciers began filling in the cave and leaving the bones to be undisturbed for thousands of years.

The General Shale Natural History Museum in Gray is now housing a couple of the skeletons and pieces collected from the site, including the complete skulls of two short-nosed bears, a species that is now extinct.

While Schubert has been taking intermittent trips to Mexico for more research, he’s not the one going hundreds of feet underwater to uncover them.

During the recovery process, Schubert said scuba divers show him and other researchers photos of the site, from which researchers point out which pieces to bring to the surface on their next dive. Because the bones are laying out in the open and there’s no digging required to get to them, it makes the selection process easier, but it can be several hours before divers return to the surface with the bones.

This research has also been important to help scientists piece together bits of Central America’s past.

Since the climate in that area is warm and humid, preservation is very poor, Schubert said. But this site has provided scientists with bones of ground sloths, saber-toothed cats, bears and even prehistoric elephants who were walking through the cave thousands of years ago when they fell to their deaths like Naia did.

“We just don’t know very much about the people and animals and plants from this time and area,” he said. “Now we have a lot of information because of what we’re finding in these caves, and we’re not just finding bits and pieces, we’re finding complete skeletons of animals.

“Some of the animals we’re finding are from South America, and we never knew they came out of South America until now.”

The research has been made possible through a grant funded by the National Geographic Society, of which Schubert is the principal investigator of megafauna research. That earns him the title of National Geographic Explorer, and he will be returning to Mexico City to present preliminary results of what’s been found and studied so far.

Going forward, he and other researchers will be digging in to the lives of these animals and learning about the ecosystems were like 13,000 years ago.

Schubert will be giving a presentation on his work on this project next Saturday at the museum for Darwin Day. His talk begins at 11 a.m.

“This is most certainly the most extraordinary project I have ever worked on,” he said. “What’s exciting is this is a story that will keep telling.”

Email Jessica Fuller at jfuller@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Jessica on Twitter @fullerjf91. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jfullerJCP.

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