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Luzia’s America

Excavations at Lagoa Santa reinforce an alternative theory of the peopling of the continent

Crania from the Lagoa Santa: fossil remains from the Minas Gerais region backed an alternative theory of how the continent of the Americas was populated

EDUARDO CESARCrania from the Lagoa Santa: fossil remains from the Minas Gerais region backed an alternative theory of how the continent of the Americas was populatedEDUARDO CESAR

In 1988, archeologist and anthropologist Walter Neves of the Emílio Goeldi Museum in the State of Paraná was hurriedly called to an assignment abroad by Guilherme de la Penha, then research director of the museum. Neves, who was instructed to represent the museum at a conference on salvage operations to be held a week later in Stockholm, Sweden agreed to fill in for his boss during the trip, but under one condition: he wanted to extend his stay in Scandinavia for a few days to visit Copenhagen in order to see the Peter Lund collection of extinct mammals and human skulls. The remains, some thousands of years old, were found by the naturalist Lund in the 19th century in the Lagoa Santa region of the State of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Neves’ visit to the Danish capital would alter the course of his research. He conducted anatomical measurements on 15 skulls from the collection’s Minas Gerais find and, upon his return to Brazil, shared his findings, all surprising ones, with an Argentine colleague, archeologist Hector Pucciarelli of the National University of La Plata. The Paleoindian skulls from Lagoa Santa seemed to have belonged to people with negroid features similar to modern-day Africans and Australian Aborigines. The skulls were longer and narrower, with prominent cheekbones and projecting jaws. They were not reminiscent of the almond-shaped eyes found in Asiatic populations whose descendants are found in the indigenous tribes still present today in the Americas.

The findings met head-on with established archeological views, especially those in the United States, concerning the process by which the continent was populated. According to conventional and widely-accepted theory, the Americas were settled by three migratory waves of individuals bearing mongoloid (Asiatic) features – the first of which occurred approximately 13,000 years ago across the Bearing Strait. According to the Brazilian archeologist, the skulls in the Lund collection failed to corroborate this notion and even provided evidence to support alternative hypotheses. Neves and Pucciarelli presented the initial draft of this alternative hypothesis in a 1989 article published in the now out of print journal Ciência e Cultura. In planting the seed for what would come to be called the dual-component biological model, the archeologists suggested that there were two original migratory waves to the Americas. The first, composed of hunter-gatherers bearing negroid features, emigrated approximately 14,000 years ago and is no longer represented in any current population group. The second migration, made up of individuals whose appearance was closer to that of Asians, made its way to the New World approximately 12,000 years ago. Present-day Amerindian tribes are the morphological descendents of this second migratory wave.

234-239_walterneves_esp50-INGFor quite some time, Neves’ ideas had few repercussions, even in more specialized circles. Sometime in the mid-1990s, however, Neves was able conduct detailed studies on pre historic human skulls from the Lagoa Santa region in the collection at the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro. The bones, gathered in the mid-1970s by a joint Brazilian-French expedition in the Pedro Leopoldo municipality at the Lapa Vermelha IV site, belonged to a young woman who probably died when she was about 20 years old. The geological strata in which her skull lay was found to be approximately 11,000 years old, and the hunter-gatherer’s remains came to be called Luzia. With non-mongoloid features and physical characteristics similar to those of the Lund skulls, Luzia was the oldest human skeleton ever discovered in the Americas.

Neves began publishing scientific articles on the newly discovered Lagoa Santa skull, which soon became the symbol and key evidence to support his alternative theory of how the continent was populated. “Before Luzia, all of our work was solemnly disregarded,” says the University of São Paulo (USP) researcher, “but the media attention Luzia brought forced American archeologists to take a look at our work.” World-renowned news organizations like The New York Times in the U.S. and England’s BBC television network carried reports about the Brazilian skull that backed a new model of how the Americas were occupied. British forensic expert Richard Neave of the University of Manchester made an artist’s rendering of what Luzia would have looked like for BBC television– on the basis of tomographies of the oldest skull ever to be found in the Americas. The image of a broad-nosed young woman with thick lips was shown all over the world and gave a face – both visible as well as figurative – to what was once just a theory.

International dissemination of the dual-component biological model also had its critics, especially those from the more traditional sectors of the American archeological community who claimed that Luzia was an aberration, an exception, and not the rule for the first inhabitants in the Americas. These scholars affirmed that Neves had built his thesis on the basis of a single skull. According to this logic, the Clovis culture – identified on the basis of a New Mexico archeological site discovered 80 years ago, where 11,500 year-old lithic spearheads were found but never any Homo Sapiens – would be incontestably the oldest evidence of prehistoric man in the Americas. Luzia is certainly not pre-Clovis, but to Neves her presence in South America, her advanced age and her unique morphology all indicate the possibility that another people could have arrived in the Americas before the hunter-gatherers of the Clovis culture. Neves finds still other critics of his hypothesis among geneticists who refute the possibility of an early migration of hominids with Luzia’s biological features.

Artist’s rendering of Luzia, owner of the oldest skull ever found in the Americas at 11,000 years old, and similar in appearance to modern-day Africans and Australian Aborigines

RICHARD NEAVE Artist’s rendering of Luzia, owner of the oldest skull ever found in the Americas at 11,000 years old, and similar in appearance to modern-day Africans and Australian AboriginesRICHARD NEAVE

To gather additional arguments to back his theory and prove that Luzia was no anomaly, the USP archeologist decided by the late 1990s to organize excavations in the Lagoa Santa region supported by a series of projects with financial backing by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), and would include two thematic projects. “I realized I had to go into the field,” says Neves. The fieldwork proceeded throughout most of the last decade, usually during winter months when the weather is driest in southeastern Brazil. Expeditions through the grottos and caverns of Minas Gerais, sometimes involving as many as 50 members, would soon begin to bear fruit. In July of 2001, the USP team found the remains of three groups of 8,500 year-old bones at the Lapa das Boleiras archeological site in Matozinhos municipality, site of a prehistoric cemetery last excavated in 1956. All the remains bore physical characteristics that were similar to those of Luzia. Although much more recent than the oldest skull ever found in the Americas, the Boleiras skeletons bore special significance for being the first prehistoric human remains uncovered in the Lagoa Santa region since the 1975 Luzia discovery.

And the Boleiras skeletons were not the only finds. In late 2004, Neves and his colleagues published an article in the British scientific journal World Archaeology presenting nine skulls found in the 1950s in Cerca Grande, a complex of seven prehistoric sites situated in the Lagoa Santa region. The remains all had afro-aboriginal characteristics dating back approximately 9,000 years. In another article published around the same time in the U.S. journal Current Research in the Pleistocene, the USP archeologist discusses a skull found at Toca das Onças, a site rich in prehistoric material in the area of Caatinga do Moura, in the State of Bahia. It was also about 9,000 years old and had negroid features. The existence of such old bones associated with non-mongoloid peoples with origins so far from Lagoa Santa was another indication that people having these physical characteristics had spread throughout other parts of the continent at some time during prehistory. “Their geographic distribution was broader than we at first believed,” says Castor Cartelle of the Natural Sciences Museum of the Catholic University of Minas Gerais (PUC/MG), co-author of an article on the Toca das Onças skull, in a Pesquisa FAPESP interview. “Perhaps negroid-featured people lived along the entire expanse of the São Francisco river basin, up to the State of Piauí,” adds Cartelle, who organized the team that discovered the Toca das Onças human remains during an expedition to that region of Bahia in the late 1970s.

Excavations at the Lapa do Santo site, Minas Gerais: field work that yielded additional proof supporting Neves’ theory

ARCHIVO LEEH Excavations at the Lapa do Santo site, Minas Gerais: field work that yielded additional proof supporting Neves’ theoryARCHIVO LEEH

Even in areas in the State of São Paulo, long considered an archeological wasteland in terms of early datings, a male skull was uncovered that so resembled that of Luzia that it was given the male version of the name: Luzio. In April 2005, the U.S. Journal of Human Evolution announced the discovery of bones dating back approximately 10,000 years, salvaged in 1999 at the Capelinha I archeological site in the Jacupiranga River basin, in Ribeira Valley. Luzio was a hunter-gatherer who roamed the riverbeds of the southern region of the State of São Paulo.

“The bones were buried in very shallow geological strata,” recalls archeologist Levy Figuti of the University of São Paulo’s Museum of Archeology and Ethnology (MAE) who coordinated the project responsible for finding the skull. “We never imagined she was so old,” he remarked in an interview for Pesquisa FAPESP. Neves was one of the co-authors of the article on Luzio.

The strategy of trying to find prehistoric skulls similar to Luzia’s bore fruit even outside of Brazil. Remains in Mexico, Colombia, and even the United States were found to have similarities with the people of Lagoa Santa. In December 2005, Neves, along with his then-student Mark Hubbe, who is now working abroad, published an extensive synthesis of their findings in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The researchers’ article examined 81 of the Lagoa Santa –skulls, which comprised the largest sample of the region’s fossil remains ever studied. Using numerous computer models, they classified the remains as Paleoindian with characteristics similar to those of Luzia. The skulls (42 male and 39 female) had been stored in museums in Brazil and abroad and were approximately 7,500 to 11,000 years old. Approximately 50 morphological skeleton parameters were compared against typical measurements associated with the main ethnic groups that make up the current world population. The study concluded that they looked more like Africans and Aborigines – as in the case of Luzia.

Although it was successful, Neves’ Lagoa Santa research project left him frustrated to a certain extent. “I had hoped to find a number of 11,000 year-old Luzias in the region,” the researcher admits. It did not happen that way. Nothing as old as Luzia turned up. “If ever there was a pre-Clovis occupation at Lagoa Santa, it was very sparse,” says Neves. Still, there is nothing to complain about. The USP archeologist has boxes upon boxes in his laboratory, all filled to the brim with humanoid and mammalian bones from the Minas Gerais region waiting to be dated and studied. It is enough work to last a lifetime.

Aerial view of limestone formation, site of a prehistoric shelter, in Matozinhos (MG): the presence of this type of mineral helped preserve the skeletons of the Lagoa Santa region.

MARIANA INGLEZ/LEEH Aerial view of limestone formation, site of a prehistoric shelter, in Matozinhos (MG): the presence of this type of mineral helped preserve the skeletons of the Lagoa Santa region.MARIANA INGLEZ/LEEH

Megafauna and carvings
Excavations of Lagoa Santa led by Neves did yield finds that, while not supporting his theory, lent greater consistency to the USP researcher’s hypothesis. His fieldwork also led to discoveries in areas bearing some relationship to the arrival of humans in the Americas. In 2002, carbon-14 dating of a rib fragment belonging to a giant land sloth of the species Catonyx cuvieri – found in an area of Minas Gerais rich in prehistoric sites – showed that these enormous mammals had in fact not completely disappeared some 10,000 years ago. The study reinforced the idea that the older terrestrial species and the more adept of the modern arboreal sloths were contemporaries of Luzia’s people and practically shared the same territory. “The test demonstrated that the sloth inhabited that area 9,990 years ago,” says Neves. The giant sloth was one representative of the spectacular megafauna that inhabited the southern portion of the American continent.

More recently, on February 22, 2012 Neves published an article in the scientific journal Plos One in which he announces an unexpected find, encountered during the final moments of his fieldwork at Lagoa Santa in 2009. At Lapa do Santo, site of an ancient rock shelter, excavation work revealed a petroglyph measuring approximately 30 centimeters. The rock carving was of an anthropomorphic or stylized human figure of a man with an enormous phallus, which lay hidden at a depth of four meters. The carving was estimated to be between 9,600 and 10,400 years old. “This rupestrian carving is the oldest in the Americas to present incontestable age,” Neves claims. “It strongly suggests that the culture that existed between the end of the Pleistocene and the beginning of the Holocene (12,000 years ago) was not limited to subsistence and the manufacture of stone implements, but also boasted a rich symbolic dimension.” With this new discovery, Lagoa Santa bears the distinction of having both the oldest human skull and the oldest rupestrian carving ever found in the Americas, according to the USP researcher.

1. Origins and Microevolution of Man in the Americas: A Paleo-Anthropological Approach II (nº 99/00670-7); Grant mechanism Thematic Project; Coordinator Walter Neves – Biosciences Institute/USP; Investment R$ 538,172.80 and US$76,000.00
2. Origins and Microevolution of Man in the Americas: A Paleo-Anthropological Approach III (nº 2004/01321-6); Grant mechanism Thematic Project; Coordinator Walter Neves – Biosciences Institute/USP; Investment R$ 1,555,665.94

Scientific articles
NEVES, W. A. and PUCCIARELLI, H M. Extra-Continental Biological Relationships of Early South American Human Remains: A Multivariate Analysis. Ciência e Cultura. vol. 41, p. 566-75, 1989.
NEVES, W. A. and HUBBE, M. Cranial Morphology of early Americans from Lagoa Santa, Brazil: Implications for the Settlement of the New World. PNAS. vol. 102, n. 51, p. 18309-14, 2005.
NEVES, W. A. et al. Rock Art at the Pleistocene/Holocene Boundary in Eastern South America. Plos One. vol. 7, n. 2, pp. e322-28, 2012.

From our archives
Walter Neves: Luzia’s father – Issue 195 – May 2012
Like our parents – Issue 182 – April 2011
Luzia’s cousins – Issue 119 – January 2006
Rediscovering the new world – Issue 107 – January 2005
The land of Luzia – Issue 86 – April 2003