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Diver Susan Bird at bottom of Hoyo Negro cave in Yucatan Peninsula, brushing pristine remains over 12,000 years old. (Photo by Paul Nicklen/National Geographic)

June 4, 2014

Researchers Use 3D Visualization Technique to Document Underwater Cave, Paleoamerican Remains

When exploratory divers discovered the underwater Mexican cave site known as Hoyo Negro, the conditions of the cave were so pristine and stable, says archaeologist Dominique Rissolo, “it looked like no one had ever exhaled a breath there.” But there was evidence that at least one person had been inside the cave before the divers: A Paleoamerican girl nicknamed Naia, who had fallen to her death while presumably collecting water from the cave during the late Pleistocene era, between 13,000 and 12,000 years ago. The divers found her skeleton, as well as the remains of several Ice Age animals, on the cave floor. According to Rissolo and project co-director, James Chatters, it was like the La Brea tar pits without the tar. The value of Hoyo Negro as a site of archeological and paleontological significance cannot be overemphasized, and there remains much work to be done to document both the site and the remains found in situ. There’s just one problem: The remoteness and inaccessibility of Hoyo Negro itself. It translates, after all, to “black hole.” Added Rissolo: “So far the mapping of the cave has been done entirely by the dive team, but a site as complex as Hoyo Negro requires a more sophisticated level of mapping. We need to step up our game.” That’s where CISA3 team came in, taking photos to create a 3D structure-from-motion model of the cave site, and using the same technique to recreate Naia’s missing mandible.

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