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Walter Neves: Luzia’s father

USP archeologist and anthropologist describes how he developed a theory on man’s arrival in the Americas



Walter-Neves_Leo-RamosHe is the father of Luzia, an eleven thousand-year old human skull, the oldest skull ever found in the Americas. Luzia belonged to an extinct group of hunter-gatherers from the region of Lagoa Santa, in the vicinity of the city of Belo Horizonte. Archeologist and anthropologist Walter Neves, coordinator of the Laboratory for Human Evolution Studies of the University of São Paulo (USP), was not responsible for retrieving this ancient skeleton from its pre-historic site. However, thanks to his research work – Luzia – the name he gave the skull – became the symbol of a controversial theory on how America was populated. This theory is based on a biological model with two components.

Developed over twenty years ago, the theory advocates that our continent was colonized by two waves of Homo sapiens coming from Asia. The first migration wave is believed to have arrived approximately 14 thousand years ago and had been comprised of individuals resembling Luzia, with non-mongoloid morphology, similar to that of the current Australians and Africans. This first wave did not leave any descendants. The second migratory wave is believed to have arrived here approximately 12 thousand years ago and the members of this group had the physical features of the Asians, from whom the modern-day indigenous people possibly derive. In this interview, Neves – a feisty, popular scientist who loves to take part in an active academic discussion – talks about Luzia and about his career.

How did you become interested in science?
I come from a poor family from the town of Três Pontas, State of Minas Gerais. For some reason, I already knew at the age of 8 that I wanted to be a scientist. At the age of 12, I wanted to work in the field of human evolution. I can’t really explain that.

When did you come to São Paulo?
In 1970, after the World Soccer Cup. We migrated to the city of São Bernardo, where I lived most of my life.

What was it like?
Everybody in my family had to work. The family was small: my father, my mother, my brother – who is three years older than I am – and me. When we arrived in São Paulo, my father worked as a bricklayer and my mother was a street vendor – she sold Yakult. I was 12 going on 13 at that time. I started working one year after we came to São Paulo. I sold pasta once a week at a street market in my neighborhood. My first real job was at Malas Primicia, a luggage manufacturer; my job was to make suitcase locks. And I hated that job. It was boring. It did not require any skills. And I only lasted there for a short while. One month later, I was hired to work at Rolls-Royce’s turbine manufacturing facility, in the city of the São Bernardo. I benefitted enormously from that environment, which was refined, full of rules, and had a respected hierarchy. I believe my excellent management skills were developed during the time I worked at Rolls-Royce. I had top-rate bureaucratic training. Every day, when arriving at the plant, we had to bow to a portrait of the Queen of England. I used to love that. It was a glamorous update for a boy who had come from the backwoods. I was 13 at the time, going on 14.

What did you do?
I started out as a clerk and when I left the company I had been promoted to the post of assistant to the technical director. The job of Rolls-Royce in Brazil was to receive the turbines and do repair and general maintenance work on them. My boss was the director of that department and I was his assistant. I worked eight-hour days and went to night school. I studied at a public school, and entered the biology program at USP, in 1976. At that time, Brazil’s public high school education system was excellent.

Why did you choose biology?
I had always believed that the way to study human evolution was to study history. When I was still in high school, my class went on a visit to USP. I visited the Pre-History Institute, which no longer exists. The institute had been founded by Paulo Duarte and was housed in the Zoology building, which nowadays houses the Ecology program. At that time, I visited the History department because I wanted to get some information on the course. I was told that I would not learn anything about human evolution if I studied History. I was walking down Matão Street, when I saw a sign with “Pre-History Institute” written on it. I went to the institute and met archeologist Dorath Uchôa. There I saw replicas of hominid fossils and pre-historic skeletons that had been dug out of the middens found on Brazil’s seacoast. So I said to Dorath: “I want to enroll in the archeology course and study skeletons.” And she answered: “Don’t enroll in History. You have to enroll in Biology or Medicine.” I couldn’t enroll in Medicine because it was a full-time course. So I decided to enroll in Biology. It was a good choice. I was hired as a technician in 1978 by the Pre-History Institute, while I was still attending the undergraduate course.

What year were you in at the university?
I think I was a sophomore about to enter my junior year. When I concluded my licentiate in 1980, I was hired as a researcher and a professor. There was no competitive exam held at that time. Professors were appointed.

Was the institute independent?
Yes. Later on, it came under the Museum of Archeology and Ethnology/ MAE. At the time, archeology was taught at three different places at USP: at the Pre-History Institute, the oldest venue; at the MAE; and at the archeology department of the Paulista Museum, in the neighborhood of Ipiranga. In the late 1980s, the three institutes were merged into one. I worked as a researcher at the Pre-History Institute from 1980 to 1985. In1982, I entered a “sandwich” doctorate program at Stanford University. I was self-taught, because there were no specialists in this field in Brazil at that time. The material was available at the Pre-History Institute, which also had a library, but there was nobody at the Institute who could be my academic advisor.

Wasn’t there any research work being done on human evolution?
The institute was very small; it was staffed by two researchers, who acted as if they owned the place. I was hired together with Solange Caldarelli, another archeologist. We formed a very productive pair. We worked in the State of São Paulo, doing research on groups of hunters-gatherers believed to have lived in that region 5 to 3 thousand years ago. She encouraged me to become an archeologist. My transformation from biologist to physical anthropologist was self-made. The progress of our research group exposed the mediocrity of the work being done at the Pre-History Institute and in Brazil. This led to a fierce battle between us and the establishment. We were kicked out of the university in 1985.

How so?
Kicked out. We were fired.

On what grounds?
None. We did not have formal employment. Most of the faculty members had been hired as temporary professors and we were kicked out of the Pre-History Institute by the older faculty members.

What is the difference between a physical anthropologist and an archeologist? What do you consider yourself nowadays?
I consider myself an anthropologist and an archeologist. In fact, I classify myself under a category that exists in the United States called evolutionary anthropologist. Even among evolutionary anthropologists it is difficult to find those who are involved in physical anthropology, archeology and social-cultural anthropology. I have a unique career in this sense, which my colleagues did not fully understand. I studied physical anthropology and biological anthropology and was involved in archeology projects. When I went to the Amazon Region, I worked with ecological anthropology. I’m one of the very few people in the world involved in all possible fields of anthropology. On one hand, I am not proficient in any of the referred fields; on the other hand, my understanding of the human being is much more multifaceted than that of my colleagues.

So the archeologist does the field work and the physical anthropologist waits for the material?
The physical anthropologist can do field work, but doesn’t. He waits for the archeologists to deliver him the material so that he can study it. I rebelled against this in Brazil. I said: I want to be an archeologist as well. In the United States in the late 1980s, a field called bioarcheology was defined; the professionals in this field are physical anthropologists who got tired of depending on archeologists. I rebelled independently against this situation. The fact that I had to leave the institute in 1985 was traumatic because seven years of field work was lost. My career was eliminated from one minute to the next. Fortunately, by that time I had already presented my doctorate thesis.

Here, in the Biology Institute; more specifically, on paleogenetics. I went to Stanford, thanks to a six-month sandwich grant from the CNPq. To survive in Stanford and in Berkeley, I counted on my salary from the institute, which at the time was equivalent to US$ 250, and [Luigi Luca] Cavalli-Sforza, who I worked with, paid me another US$ 250 for my work at the laboratory.

He is a leading researcher, but he studies population genetics.
Ask me why I didn’t go to work with a physical anthropologist if I was self-taught in terms of osteology. I didn’t, because the work that Cavalli-Sforza does is fascinating. He combines various fields of knowledge. At the time, I was enrolled in the master’s degree program in Biology, and my advisor here was [Oswaldo] Frota-Pessoa.

Who is also in the field of genetics.
Yes, he’s in genetics, but he has a much broader view of the human being. If it hadn’t been for Frota, I would not have been able to get my master’s degree . He realized what kind of situation I was in and was very generous. When I was concluding my work at Stanford, Cavalli-Sforza found out that I was enrolled in the master’s degree program and not in the doctorate program. He would look at me and say: “How can you be enrolled in a master’s degree program if you have already published several papers, you coordinate two archeological projects and have seven students? This doesn’t make sense. I’m going to send a letter to Frota-Pessoa suggesting that you go directly into the doctorate program .” Nowadays, this is a common procedure. And that saved me. I defended my doctorate thesis in December 1984 and, a few months later, I was fired. Solange Caldarelli was so disgusted by the whole episode and by the academic community that she gave up her university career. I wanted to go back to the academic world. And this is when three possibilities arose. One was to enter a post-doctorate program at Harvard; another was to enter a post-doctorate program at Pennsylvania State University and the third possibility was unexpected. When I was fired, I told Frota that I wanted to go abroad. He knew that my condition would always be in conflict with Brazilian archeology. At that time, the CNPq had an integrated genetic program, which was a major factor for the development of the field of genetics in Brazil. Frota coordinated some of the itinerant courses. So Frota said: “Now that we were going to have a specialist in human evolution you are leaving. I understand, but I would like to invite you , before you leave to go abroad, to give an itinerant course around Brazil on human evolution.” I taught the course at the Federal University of Bahia, at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, at the Goeldi Museum, and at the University of Brasília. I was quite impressed by the Goeldi. On the last day of the course, the museum director asked to meet me. I told him about my career and that I was going to the United States. He asked me “ Is there anything I can do to make you change your mind?” I answered: “Look, Guilherme,” his name is Guilherme de La Penha, “the only thing that would make me stay in Brazil would be an opportunity to set up my own interdisciplinary research center, which would not be connected with anthropology or with archeology.” And then he invited me to set up what at the time was referred to as the biology and human ecology center. I also had a personal reason that led to my decision to stay in Belem.

Was this in 1985?
This was still in 1985. I fell deeply in love for the first time in my life a short while before I started to teach this course around Brazil. I fell in love with Wagner, the best thing that had ever happened to me. If I went to the United States, it would have been very difficult to take him along. In Belem, it would be easier for him to find a job and continue our relationship. So this is why I accepted the offer to work at the Goeldi Museum. But I had to leave the skeletons. In the Amazon Region, the last thing that you can do is work with skeletons because they cannot be preserved.

What did you do?
I began to dedicate myself to ecological anthropology.

So what is ecological anthropology?
Ecological anthropology studies how traditional societies adapt to the environment. Up to that time, this was a line of research that American researchers had really focused on when working in the Amazon Region. This line of research never moved forward in Brazil, because our anthropology is based mostly on structuralism and breaks out in a rash whenever there is anything said or done that involves biology. So I thought to myself: “Great – so I’m going to pick another fight. I’m going to train the first generation in ecological anthropology.” Most of my research work on ecological anthropology in the Amazon Region involved the indigenous people. So I decided to do research work on traditional mixed race populations.

You published a book, right?
We published the first major study in how mixed race peoples adapt to the Amazon Region. The book was published in Brazil and abroad. I sent some of my students who worked with me in the Amazon Region to enter doctorate programs abroad.

What conclusions would you highlight in this study?
As I was studying these traditional populations from the Amazon Region, I realized that everybody who goes there – especially the NGOs – believe that those people have a malnutrition problem. Indeed, they do have a growth deficit in comparison to international standards. But our research work showed that they eat enough carbohydrates and proteins. The problem is parasitosis.

How did you come back to USP?
In 1988, sometime after I had moved to the Amazon Region, Wagner was diagnosed as having AIDS. So we made the decision to go back to São Paulo when he was at the terminal stage. I came back to get a post-doctorate degree in anthropology. After Wagner died, in 1992, I didn’t want to go back to the Amazon Region, so I took two competitive entrance exams.

Were you attending the post-doctorate program in anthropology at USP?
Yes, at the College of Philosophy, Letters, and Human Sciences. Then I took two competitive entrance exams, one of which at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, in the field of ecological anthropology. But I wanted to stay in São Paulo. As in 1989 I had already discovered what would become my model of the occupation of the Americas, I thought to myself: “I have to work somewhere where I can dedicate myself to this field and go back to focusing on human skeletons.” Then a vacant position was announced in this department, in the field of evolution. I passed both exams, but I decided to stay here. I knew I would be able to set up a center for studies on human evolution that would include archeology, physical anthropology, and ecological anthropology.

How did you get the idea of creating an alternative model for the colonization of the Americas?
One day, Guilherme de La Penha, director of the Goeldi Museum, called me and said: “Look, Walter, one week from today I have to be at a conference in Stockholm on salvage archeology. I need you to substitute me.” I said,: “At the last minute?” Then I remembered that Copenhagen is on the way to Stockholm. I asked Guilherme for permission to spend some five days in Copenhagen to visit the Lund Collection. I went on the trip and not only did I visit the collection but I also measured the Lagoa Santa skulls that are in the collection. When I came back, I spoke to Hector Pucciarelli, a researcher from Argentina who was spending some time at the Goeldi. Hector is the leading South American bioanthropologist and my closest research partner. I proposed that we use this material to do some research work. At the time, we learned about the work being done by Niède Guidon, whose conclusions seemed to me to be unbelievable, such as her conclusion that the Americas had been populated thirty thousand years ago. My idea for the research work on the Lund skulls was to show that the early Americans were not much different from the currently existing indigenous people. You can imagine how astonished we were when we saw that the Lagoa Santa skulls resembled Australians and Africans more than they resembled Asians. We panicked. We realized that we needed a model to explain that.

So what did you do?
Some classical authors from the 1940s and 1950s, such as French anthropologist Paul Rivet, had already acknowledged that the Lagoa Santa material was similar to that in Australia. However, Rivet’s theory proposes the existence of direct migration from Australia to South America to explain the similarity. Later on, due to the progress of studies on the genetics of the indigenous peoples, especially the work of (Francisco) Salzano, it became clear that all American genetic markers pointed to Asia. There was no similarity with the Australians. So we then decided to create a model that would explore this morphological duality. We did not want to be crucified, as Rivet had been, and so we began to study the occupation of Asia. We found a morphological duality there as well, which had existed in the late Pleistocene Age. The population there at that time included pre-Mongolians and Mongolians. Our Lagoa Santa populations resembled the pre-Mongoloids. The currently existing indigenous population resembles the Mongoloids. This is when we thought that America might have been populated by two different waves: one with a generalized morphology, resembling the African and the Australian morphologies; the other wave with a morphology resembling the Asians. Our first paper was published in Ciência e Cultura, in 1989. As of 1991, we began to publish our papers abroad.

So you created this model before you had analyzed Luzia’s skull.
Ten years before that. In Brazil, several museums had collections with material from the region of Lagoa Santa. But as I was the spoiled child of Brazilian archeology, I was not allowed access to the collections. This is why decided to study the Lund Collection. I was only allowed access to the collections in Brazil from 1995 onwards, after some of the people who had placed the obstacles in this respect had passed away. Luzia’s skull was one of the skulls that I was most interested in.

Did the skull already have this name?
No. I named the skull. At that time, the skeleton was known as Lapa Vermelha IV, the name of the site where the skeleton had been found. The site had been explored by a French-Brazilian mission coordinated by Mrs. Annette Emperaire. Luzia’s skeleton was found during the digging stages in 1974 and 1975. But Mme. Emperaire passed away unexpectedly. With the exception of an article that she had published prior to her death, there was nothing in writing about Lapa Vermelha.

Did she mention in the article that the skull was very old?
Madame Emperaire believed there were two skeletons in Lapa Vermelha: a younger one and an older one, more than 12 thousand years old, prior to the Clovis culture, the culture that Luzia allegedly belonged to. André Prous (a French archeologists who had been a member of the mission and is currently a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais/ UFMG) revised her notes and realized that the skull belonged to the younger skulls, buried approximately one meter above the older skeleton. Luzia was not buried; she had been placed on the floor of a shelter, inside a narrow opening. Prous demonstrated that the skull had rolled over and fallen into a hole in the roots of a rotten gameleira [a type of Ficus tree]. Therefore, the skull belonged to those remains whose age had been estimated at 11 thousand years. Madame Emperaire died believing she had found evidence of a pre-Clovis culture in South America. This is the skull that I baptized as Luzia.

Where was Luzia’s skull when you examined it?
It had always been in the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro; but the information on the skull was not found there. The museum had partnered with the French mission.

Were Luzia’s people restricted to the region of Lagoa Santa?
Lagoa Santa is a unique site. In the article that provides a description of my research work – the article was published in 2005 in the PNAS journal – we referred to 81 skulls from that region. Just to give you an idea of how rare it is to find skeletons that are over 7 thousand years in our continent, the United States and Canada together have only five such skeletons. We also have some material from other parts of Brazil, and from Chile, Mexico and Florida. I proved that the pre-Mongoloid was not unique to Lagoa Santa. I believe that the non-Mongoloids probably arrived in that region approximately 14 thousand years ago and the Mongoloids arrived approximately 10 or 12 thousand years ago. In fact, the Mongoloid morphology in Asia is something very recent. I believe that there is a difference of only 2 or 3 thousand years between one wave and the other. But this is just a wild guess.

Are two or three thousand years enough to change the phenotype?
They were enough to change it in Asia. Nowadays, it has become rather clear that the Mongoloid morphology is the result of the exposure of the populations that came from Africa, with a typical African morphology and were submitted to the extreme cold of Siberia. My model has not been entirely accepted by some colleagues, including the Argentines. They believe that the Mongolian process occurred concurrently and in independent form in Africa and in America. We are not going to solve this issue because we lack samples. But in evolution, we always choose the law of parsimony. You choose the model that involves the smallest number of evolutionary steps to explain what you found. According to the law of parsimony, my model is better than the other models, which depend on the existence of two parallel and independent evolutionary events. But my model is being opposed by some people.

Who are they?
The geneticists. But I don’t believe my model will be buried by this kind of data. There is no reason for the mitochondrial DNA, for example, to behave in evolutionary form in the same way as skull morphology. Where geneticists see a certain homogeneity from the point of view of the DNA, I can see different phenotypes.

Another argument is that there was only one migration wave that came to the Americas, comprised of a population with Mongoloid and non-Mongoloid types such as Luzia.
This is the third possibility. But the genetic drift had to have been astonishing to explain colonization in this manner. Why would have one phenotype disappeared and only the other one remained? Of the options to my model, I believe that this one is the least convincing.

But how do you explain the disappearance of Luzia’s morphology?
In fact, we discovered in the last few years that the morphology had not disappeared. When we proposed the model, we believed that one population had substituted the other one. But in 2003 or 2004, a colleague from Argentina described a Mexican tribe that had been isolated from the rest of the indigenous peoples, in a territory that today belongs to California. This tribe maintained the non-Mongoloid morphology until the 16th century, when the Europeans arrived by sea. We have also discovered that the Botocudo indigenous tribe, from Central Brazil, maintained this morphology until the 19th century. When we studied the ethnography of the Botocudos, we realized that they continued living as hunter-gatherers until the end of the 19th century. They were surrounded by other indigenous tribes, with whom they had a bellicose relationship. That was the scenario. So some non-Mongoloid morphology had remained until recent times.

What is your opinion of the work of archeologist Niède Guidon at the Serra da Capivara National Park? She believes human beings arrived in the State of Piauí approximately 50 thousand, or even 100 thousand years ago.
But where are the articles? She published a short statement in Nature in the 1990s and we are still waiting for more papers. Niède and I were mortal enemies for 20 years. A couple of years ago, we smoked the peace pipe. I have already been to Piauí several times and we even published some papers on the skeletons found there. There were two skull morphologies in the Park. This is very interesting. I had good training in terms of analyzing flint stones. Niède gave me and Astolfo Araujo (nowadays working at the MAE) access to the lytic collection, after which I was 99.9% convinced of the fact that human occupation had taken place more than 30 thousand years ago. But I have this 0.1% doubt, which is highly significant.

How could this doubt be clarified?
Niède should invite the leading international experts in lytic technology to analyze the material and publish the results of the analyses. If she is right, we would have to throw away everything we know. My work – and, thank God, the work of everybody else – would become useless.

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