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Luzia’s cousins

Skulls reinforce theory that peoples with a different biology colonized the Americas

WALTER NEVESSkull found in the Sumidouro site by Lund 160 years ago: traits similar to Luzia’sWALTER NEVES

Luzia’s family does not stop growing; the skull of this prehistoric young woman was recovered in Pedro Leopoldo, a municipality in the environs of Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais, 30 years ago, and today it features as one of the most ancient remains of the original colonizers of the Americas. The last batch of human remnants incorporated into the clan are the 31 skulls found 160 years ago by the Danish naturalist Peter Lund (1801-1880) in a cave from Sumidouro, one of the archeological sites of the Lagoa Santos region of Minas Gerais and Luzia’s homeland.

Well preserved, the skulls, which are to be found in the Zoology Museum of the University of Copenhagen, were personally examined by bioarcheologist Walter Neves, from the Biosciences Institute of the University of São Paulo (IB/USP) and classified, with the help of a computer model, as belonging to Paleo-Indians with traits similar to those of Luzia, whose age is roughly 11 thousand years: broad nose and eye sockets, the face jutting out, and the head thin and elongated. “With Lund’s material, we now have data of the physical characteristics of 81 skulls from Lagoa Santa, the largest sample of ancient skeletons of the Americas”, says Neves, who, on December 12, 2005, published an article on the theme in the electronic edition of the American scientific magazine Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

This set of bones from skeletons from Brazilian prehistory, made up of 42 men and 39 women, with an age estimated or dated at between 7,500 and 11 thousand years, challenges the most accepted theory about the first inhabitants of the New World. The skulls from the region in Minas Gerais indicate that the original discoverers of the Americas had, like Luzia, features that recall those of the present-day aborigines of Australia and blacks of Africa, although it is impossible to know what the color of their skin was, whether light or dark.

Nevertheless, they were very different from the peoples of Asiatic origin, with oriental (Mongoloid) traits, usually described by the more traditionalist anthropologists as being the first humans to set foot on our continent. To classify these eighty-odd skulls from Minas Gerais as similar, in terms of physical constitution, to the present-day inhabitants of the sub-Sahara and Oceania, Neves compared, with the help of various computer models, about 50 morphological parameters of the skeletons with the typical measurements of the main ethnic groups that currently make up the world population.

Since 1989, the researcher from USP and his collaborators have defended the thesis that the Americas were colonized by two migratory currents of hunters and gatherers, both coming from Asia, probably by the Bering Strait, but each of them made up of different biological groups. The first is said to have occurred 14 thousand years ago, and its members would have the appearance of Luzia. However, for reasons as yet unknown, all its descendents seem to have become extinct after living here for a few thousands of years, without there being today just one Indian with traits similar to those of the ancient inhabitants of Lagoa Santa. The second group to enter the New World is said to have been of Mongoloid peoples, roughly 11 thousand years ago, from which descend nowadays all the indigenous tribes of the Americas.

Known as the “Model of the two main biological components”, the proposal from Neves, who is carrying out his researches with funding from a Thematic Project of FAPESP, was always accused by its critics of being based on a small sample of skulls. Its detractors said that the Brazilian had formulated a theory of colonization of the continent calculated on the analysis of a single skull. Luzia, whose physical traits were said to be an aberration, an exception, and not the rule amongst the peoples of the prehistory of the Americas. “But today our hypothesis is based on over 80 skulls from Lagoa Santa”, explains Mark Hubbe, who studies for a doctorate under Neves and is the coauthor of the work in the PNAS. “It is difficult to continue to argue that our sample is tendentious.”

Could the prehistoric inhabitants in the neighborhood of the capital of Minas Gerais not be the fruit of specific geographical conditions of this region, with their physical characteristics having been forged just there, and so, in this case, hardly representative of the biological constitution of the first colonizers that installed themselves in other parts of the Americas? Neves regards this hypothesis as rather improbable.

Beyond the lands of Minas
For him, the physical traits present in Luzia and her contemporaries must have arisen before Homo sapiens crossed the Bering Strait, that is to say, when man was still on the other side, in Africa and in Asia. “Alterations in the format of the skull only happen in a marked way because of extreme environmental changes”, explains the researcher. One more detail favorable to the theory that the people from Lagoa Santa was not confined to lands of Minas Gerais: ancient human bones of an age and shapes similar to those of the “relatives” of Luzia have now been found in other parts of the Brazilian territory, such as in the states of São Paulo and Bahia, and even abroad (Chile, Colombia, Mexico and even in the United States).

In spite of the growing evidence that the Mongoloid peoples were not the only ones to colonize our continent, and may perhaps have been the first to cross the Bering strait, some questions about the arrival of man in the New World remain open. Besides the more conservative lines in archeology, particularly the American ones, which advocate the occurrence of just one wave of migration en route to the Americas some 11,500 years ago, made up of hunters with Mongoloid traits, the data of molecular biology about the original peopling of the New World also does not agree with the theses of Neves. Analyses of the DNA of the tribes present today from Alaska to Patagonia suggest that the first colonizers arrived here between 12 thousand and 35 thousand years ago, earlier than the majority of archeologists proposes. In short, despite the recent significant advances, the discussion about the arrival of man in America is still far from the end.

The Project
Origins and microevolution of man in America: a paleoanthropological approach (nº 04/01321-6); Modality Thematic Project; Coordinator Walter Neves – USP’s Biosciences Institute; Investment R$ 1,473,126.88 (FAPESP)