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NOVA's FIRST FACE OF AMERICA - February 7, 2018




 Premieres Wednesday, February 7, 2018 at 9PM/8C on PBS

(check local listings)

Twitter: @novapbs

BOSTON, MA – Deep underground in a flooded cave system in the Yucatan’s remote jungles, divers discover a huge underwater pit littered with a treasure trove of bones: more than 20 extinct species—and a nearly complete human skeleton of a teenage woman. Painstaking investigation reveals a unique time capsule preserving an astonishing glimpse of Ice Age life in America. But who was the girl? Where did she come from, what did she look like and how did she die? In FIRST FACE OF AMERICA, NOVA, a production of WGBH Boston, makes an incredible journey—from stunning Mexican caves to the Alaskan wilderness, to leading genomics and forensics labs—to pursue groundbreaking new finds that are rewriting the story of the forgotten First Americans who ventured into our vast continent.

NOVA FIRST FACE OF AMERICApremieres Wednesday, February 7, 2018 at 9PM ET/8C on PBS (check local listings).

“The question of who were the first people to inhabit the Americas remains a tantalizing puzzle,” said Paula S. Apsell, Senior Executive Producer of NOVA. “FIRST FACE OF AMERICA is an intriguing story of discovery—an underwater adventure, archaeological detective story and forensic mystery all rolled into one—with state-of-the-art genomics unlocking remarkable new clues to the earliest Americans.”

On an unlucky day around 13,000 years ago, a 15- to 16-year-old-girl tumbled to the bottom of a 100-foot pit deep inside a huge cave in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Eventually, rising seas flooded the cave, sealing it off from the outside world. The body lay undisturbed until 2007, when a team of divers exploring underwater caves discovered a human skeleton surrounded by pristine fossils of extinct Ice Age beasts—including a mastodon, giant sloths, an elephant-like gomphothere and saber-tooth tigers.

In FIRST FACE OF AMERICA, NOVA investigates the incredible find by expert divers Alex Alvarez and Alberto “Beto” Nava, a National Geographic Explorers Grantee, who named the girl “Naia,” after a sea nymph. NOVA also follows scientists and divers as they return to the site to retrieve the ancient fossils from the cenote known as Hoyo Negro, or “Black Hole.” Cameras accompany the recovery team on the dangerous dive through the cave’s narrow submerged passages and down into the pitch-dark depths of the flooded pit. Tensions and enthusiasm run high as the divers carefully extract Naia’s skull and most of her skeleton, then swim back with their precious cargo to the daylight and safety of the cave entrance.

The phenomenally intact bones are transported to Mexico City and analyzed by an international group of scientists led by forensic anthropologist James Chatters, co-director of the Hoyo Negro Project. Intricate detective work yields provocative findings: the mystery bones are among the most complete and oldest known human remains found in the Americas.

As the story of Naia emerges, her bones provide crucial evidence for researchers developing a detailed new picture of how and when the first pioneering human populations entered our continent. Scientists have long established that the first Americans were nomadic hunter-gatherers who crossed a land bridge connecting what is now Siberia and Alaska. But the identity of these earliest pioneers and the exact route they took as they spread south has long been a matter of controversy and conjecture. In central Alaska, NOVA investigates tantalizing traces of the hunters’ ancient camp sites uncovered by archaeologist Ben Potter and his team. Among their most striking finds is one of the earliest ceremonial burials yet discovered in the Americas. At the Upward Sun River site, two young children—one of them still an unborn fetus and the other an infant 6-12 weeks old—were laid to rest together with great care and a sprinkling of red ocher pigment more than 11,000 years ago.

NOVA then visits the lab of Danish geneticist Eske Willerslev, a scientist at the forefront of the study of ancient DNA. Despite the great age and fragility of the Upward Sun River bones, Willerslev is able to extract the complete genome from one of the Alaskan infants. He compares this genetic record to similar DNA data extracted from Naia’s bones, meticulously salvaged from the Yucatan cave thousands of miles to the south, as well as to DNA from today’s Native Americans. The conclusion of Willerslev’s analysis is stunning: the Upward Sun child belonged to a group that were the ancestors not only of Naia but of all other Native Americans, both in the distant past and living today. It suggests that Native Americans are descended from a single population of pioneering hunters who probably crossed the Land Bridge from Siberia by at least 15,000 years ago and eventually spread south from Alaska. The finding represents a monumental milestone in the controversial, decades-long efforts to track down the origins of the First Americans.

Besides her role in helping to untangle the mystery of Native American origins, Naia’s remains give us intimate glimpses of a vanished Ice Age way of life. Analysis of her bones provides evidence that her diet was based largely on big game hunting, with no hint of marine resources—even though the cave was a short distance from the sea. Chatters thinks this is a hint that Naia’s people were relative newcomers to this landscape, unfamiliar with local resources that could have helped them thrive. His conclusion is seemingly confirmed by signs of malnourishment that he observes in Naia’s bones and teeth. All the evidence suggests that the life of these First American pioneers was not an easy one. By carefully reconstructing Naia and her world, NOVA gives us a fascinating glimpse of a human individual from the depths of the Ice Age and reveals the FIRST FACE OF AMERICA.

FIRST FACE OF AMERICA is a NOVA production for WGBH Boston. Writer, producer and director is Graham Townsley. Senior Science Editor is Evan Hadingham. Senior Executive Producer for NOVA is Paula S. Apsell.

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by The David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and public television viewers.


About NOVA

Now in its 45th season, NOVA is the most-watched primetime science series on American television, reaching an average of five million viewers weekly. The series remains committed to producing in-depth science programming in the form of hour-long (and occasionally longer) documentaries, from the latest breakthroughs in technology to the deepest mysteries of the natural world. NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston. NOVA airs Wednesdays at 9pm ET/PT on WGBH Boston and most PBS stations. The Director of the WGBH Science Unit and Senior Executive Producer of NOVA is Paula S. Apsell.

About PBS

PBS, with nearly 350 member stations, offers all Americans the opportunity to explore new ideas and new worlds through television and digital content. Each month, PBS reaches nearly 100 million people through television and nearly 28 million people online, inviting them to experience the worlds of science, history, nature and public affairs; to hear diverse viewpoints; and to take front row seats to world-class drama and performances. PBS’ broad array of programs has been consistently honored by the industry’s most coveted award competitions. Teachers of children from pre-K through 12th grade turn to PBS for digital content and services that help bring classroom lessons to life. Decades of research confirms that PBS’ premier children’s media service, PBS KIDS, helps children build critical literacy, math and social-emotional skills, enabling them to find success in school and life. Delivered through member stations, PBS KIDS offers high-quality educational content on TV – including a new 24/7 channel, online at, via an array of mobile apps and in communities across America. More information about PBS is available at, one of the leading dot-org websites on the internet, or by following PBS on Twitter, Facebook or through our apps for mobile and connected devices. Specific program information and updates for press are available at or by following PBS Pressroom on Twitter.

About WGBH

Public media producer WGBH is America’s preeminent public broadcaster and the largest creator of PBS content for TV and the Web, including MasterpieceAntiques Roadshow, Frontline, Nova, American Experience,ArthurPinkalicious & Peterrific and more than a dozen other primetime, lifestyle and children’s series. WGBH’s television channels include WGBH 2, WGBX 44, and the digital channels World and Create. WGBH Radio serves listeners across New England with 89.7 WGBH, Boston’s Local NPR®; 99.5 WCRB Classical Radio Boston; and WCAI, the Cape and Islands NPR® Station. WGBH also is a major source of programs for public radio (among them, PRI’s The World®), a leader in educational multimedia (including PBS LearningMedia™, providing the nation’s educators with free, curriculum-based digital content), and a pioneer in technologies and services that make media accessible to deaf, hard of hearing, blind and visually impaired audiences. WGBH has been recognized with hundreds of honors: Emmys, Peabodys, duPont-Columbia Awards and Oscars. Find more information at