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archeology

Africans came first

Parts of three human bones, close to 8,400 years old, that have just been found by a team from São Paulo

During the whole of the month of July, an expedition of 25 people led by the bioarchaeologist Walter Neves, of the Biosciences Institute of the São Paulo University (IB-USP), did some diggings on pre-historic sites in the region of Lagoa Santa in the State of Minas Gerais. Situated some 40 kilometers to the north of the city of Belo Horizonte, 26 years ago the area provided the oldest fragment of a human skeleton found in the Americas, the skull of Luzia, a young girl who lived some 11,500 years ago and who had features similar to the Australian aborigines and to the African blacks. Now, parts of three bones recently found by the team, with characteristics similar to Luzia, help to boost the theory of Dr. Neves, according to which the American territory was occupied long before it is currently imagined and by populations that originated from Africa and non-mongoloid, different from the proposal of the traditional line of research in this area.

The new bones were discovered in the archaeological dig of Lapa das Boleiras, in the municipality of Matozinhos, where there is a pre-historic cemetery which hasn’t been excavated since 1956. Firstly, on the 5th of July, a mere 30 centimeters from the surface, they found an ilium (a bone of the pelvis), some ribs, pieces of bone from the hands and feet along with a skull. Seven days later they rescued another skull and a dental arch. Then on the 21st a knee joint. “From the location and the depth at which they were found, the bones must be close to 8,400 years old”, Neves estimates. The exact age will only be known when they are dated using the carbon-14 method. As well as the bones, the researchers unearthed the rests of campfires, stone slivers, stone instruments and the bones of animals.

The researchers also began to dig at another pre-historic site in Matozinhos, that of Lapa de Cerca Grande. Shortly afterwards they stopped their work. Instead of a cemetery, they had run into a piece of land flattened by the mineral exploration of the limestone and calcite. “We became very sad and tense with this discovery.” laments Neves. “However, as we had another site to dig at, we didn’t lose hope.”

The Boleiras finds were sent to the Peter Lund Research Base situated in Quinta do Sumidouro, in the neighboring municipality of Pedro Leopoldo. The advance post of the expedition, some 12 kilometers from the dig, is a house, adapted to temporarily shelter the rescued material, where it is cleaned an inventoried. The base’s name is in honor of the pioneer who discovered ancient bones in the region of Lagoa Santa, Danish naturalist Peter Lund (1801-1880), who during the first half of the 19th century dug up more than 30 human bones in the region and sent the majority of them to his own country.

Day by day
After a working day on the dig which began at 8:00 am and finished at 5:00 pm, the team planned the following day at the general headquarters of the expedition, the Hotel Eliana in the center of town of Matozinhos. There, the USP researchers (the majority of the group), those of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), of the Human Science Faculty of Pedro Leopoldo as well as the Archaeological Center of Lagoa Santa stayed. The local speleologists also collaborated in the project, assisting the scientists to get to know the caves and grottos of the region.

Though much younger than the oldest skeleton in America, the bones of Boleiras have special significance. They are the first to be unearthed in the region of Lagoa Santa since 1975, when Luzia’s skull was discovered in the cave of Lapa Vermelha 4, in Pedro Leopoldo. Until today, 62 skulls, more or less complete, have been removed from the region, but only 12 of them have been preserved enough to be submitted to carbon-14 dating. The date attributed to the bones that could be pinned on a time scale vary from 8,000 to 11,500 years, and all of them have presented the same physical characteristics of Luzia.

“Because of a peculiarity of the local terrain, it is difficult to find bones with preserved collagen, a compound indispensable to the carrying out of this type of analysis.” Neves explains. “I hope that these new fragments of skeleton are in the condition to be submitted to the process of dating.” To find more human bones in the area is the main objective of the expedition, thrust forward by the ambitious thematic project led by Neves, who is proposing a new theory for the human settling of the continent. Based on the skeletons of Lagoa Santa, above all that of Luzia, the theory sustains the idea that the process of colonization of the Americas occurred in a different way to that defended by the more traditional line of archaeology, influenced by a North American vision.

On studying of the skulls and the dental arches found in the region, Neves realized that their formation didn’t match those of the skeletons of today’s Native American in the United States. The Brazilian skulls were much narrower and longer, with a prominent jaw and narrow and short cheeks, summing up for the archaeologists, they were typical skulls of an Afro-Australian population and not of a mongoloid people with oriental traits, as the current indigenous population has.

“The North Americans criticized me saying that I was making a theory from part of a skeleton that is an anomaly (Luzia’s skull) and that it doesn’t represent a population.” comments Neves. “This is untrue. The other bones from Lagoa Santa that we also have been to date, show the same characteristics as Luzia.” Another argument in favor of his thesis it that the 40 human bones unearthed in other regions of the State at Serra do Cipó, a distance of 80 kilometers from the area of Lagoa Santa, have been dated at between 8,000 and 11,500 years, and with the same traits as Luzia.

Basically there are two points of disagreement between Dr. Neves and those who don’t share his views. From his point of view, the settling of the New World began close to 15, 000 years ago and not just the 11,500 years as stated by the old model. Also, the first inhabitants were similar to the current Africans and Australian aborigines and did not resemble mongoloids as the majority of archaeologists believe. However, Neves and the North American traditionalists agree on a fundamental point. The pre-historical peoples arrived in the Americas via the Bering Strait which separates Asia from Alaska. Probably they made the crossing by boat, moving from island to island in a type of coastal navigation, or by walking across the frozen ice of the strait that, during the last ice age (between 1.6 million and 10,000 years ago), formed a natural bridge between the two continents.

First wave
But how exactly did the primordial settling of the Americas occur? For Neves, it was the last stage of the first migration of large numbers of human beings, moving out of Africa to other parts of the globe. Close to 120,000 years ago, Homo sapiens left Africa and started out towards southeast of Asia. 40,000 years ago a part of this population migrated to Australia and another part to the northeast of Asia. At this point in history enters Neves’s contribution. Around 15,000 years ago, suggests the researcher, descendants of these collectors and hunters, originally African, crossed the Bering Strait. It was the first migratory wave to arrive and to spread out from the north to the south of the Americas. This gave birth to the paleo Indians, later extinct.

Only as a later date, approximately 11,500 years ago, did the mongoloids take their first initial steps here, also crossing over by the Bering Strait. Of this population of oriental traits, that came in successive migratory waves and also dispersed from north to south, originated the current indigenous groups.”It is probable that these two races, one of Afro-Australian origin and the other Mongolian, lived together for some time in the Americas.” supposes Neves. If this vision is correct, our continent was a multicultural society in its primordial times for at least some time. Then, around 8,000 years ago the family tree of Luzia disappeared from the New World, perhaps subjugated by the competing lineage or by some other event, leaving the territory free for the indigenous population with oriental traits. “It is for this reason that all of the skeletons encountered in the Americas with an age inferior to 8,000 years, do not exhibit Afro-Australian traits but those of the Mongol race”, explains the archaeologist.

Dominant vision
The traditional theory of primordial colonization, a work of the Americans, usually ignores or questions all of the archaeological findings with an age greater than 11,000 years. This dominant vision, which Neves’ thesis puts in check, was constructed atop presuppositions, today highly questionable, that the oldest pre-historic site on the continent is that of Clovis, in New Mexico, in the United States where 11,500 years ago lived the first indigenous population.Human bones have never ever been found in Clovis, only spearheads and other stone instruments. Even though, the archaeologists constructed the theory of the occupation of the continent always taking this location into account.

Their logic was simple. If there was a culture at this point a little older than 11,000 years ago, it is because the crossing of the Bering Strait by the Mongoloid races occurred a little before, perhaps around 11,500 years ago. Tightly clinging to this theory, which only began to be seriously questioned in the 90’s, a large part of the archaeological community refuses to recognize sites and human bones older that the time of Clovis. Not only in Brazil, but in various parts of South America and even north to the Equator, sites or ruins have already been found that demolish this old theory. “In North America there are six skulls with dating greater than 8,000 years.” comments Dr. Neves “and they are not of the Mongoloid race either.”

He has been defending his theory since the end of the 80’s. His ideas, constantly ignored, basically circulated through the academic circles. The debate came to the non-specialized public’s ear in 1998 when the BBC, the British public television network, filmed a documentary on the theory of Dr. Neves.

Dubious benefit
For the program, the Englishman Dr. Richard Neave, a forensic specialist from Manchester University, made a reconstructed model of how Luzia’s face would have looked, from the tomography of the oldest skull of the Americas. This image, of a young Afro-Australian woman of at the maximum 25 years old, with large lips and a flattened nose, ran round the world. “Luzia had dubious benefit in my life” says Neves. She brought notoriety but provoked fierce opposition from the Americans.

“The hypothesis of Clovis having been the first culture of the continent is outdated.” says Hilton Silva, from the National Museum of the federal University of Rio de Janeiro, the institution that guards the skull named Luzia. “However, we still need more field research and laboratory studies so that we can have more precise information.”

During the next three years, always in the month of July, the driest month of the year, ideal for digs, Dr. Neves will put together his team and make his way again to the region of Lagoa Santa in the hope of unearthing more bones. “We are not going to leave the area for the next 20 to 25 years.” he guarantees. “At any moment, we might find a skeleton that is older than Luzia.”

The Project
Origins and Microevolution of Man in America: a Paleoanthropological Account (nº 04/01321-6); Modality Thematic project; Coordinator
Dr. Walter Neves – BiosciencesInstitute of USP; Investment R$ 538,172.80 and US$ 76,000.00

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