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Luzio’s diet

Although prehistoric man lived on river banks ten thousand years ago, he rarely ate fish

EDUARDO CESARLuzio’s teeth: well preserved, with very few cavitiesEDUARDO CESAR

The food eaten by the oldest prehistoric inhabitant found in the State of São Paulo reinforces the theory that inhabitants whose culture combined the habits of the coast and the plateau lived in the Vale do Ribeira region not far from the border with the State of Parana. Luzio, the name given to the human skeleton discovered in 2000, inhabited the basin of the Jacupiranga River, which lies many kilometers away from the coast, yet the culture contained certain elements that connected his people to the sea. The site where the skeleton was found contained hundreds of arrow tips and ornaments made from monkey teeth; other ornaments, made from shark teeth and tips of the stingray tails, were also found at the site. Luzio’s shoulder blades had signs showing that he had been a swimmer or a rower. There were also signs that he had built cemeteries in which the dead were buried under a thick layer of shells – a type of archaeological vestige referred to as sambaqui, (heaps of shells) a characteristic of the ancient inhabitants of the coast. In Brazil, sambaquis are sometimes found in the vicinity of rivers. In spite of these elements that linked him to the coast , Luzio ate the same kind of foods as those eaten by the ancient inhabitants of central Brazil, according to an article published on September 14 in the science journal  Plos One . His daily diet was comprised of the meat of wild animals – probably rodents, boars and deer – some roots, fruit, but – this is an interesting piece of information – no fish or crustaceans from the rivers or the sea.

The reconstitution of the typical meals eaten by the ancient inhabitants of river sambaquis was the work of bio anthropologist Sabine Eggers, of the Institute of Biological Sciences at the University of São Paulo (IB-USP), in partnership with three researchers from abroad. Based on samples of a protein (namely, collagen) and  a mineral (apatite) extracted from Luzio’s bones, the researcher analyzed the existence of different forms – the so-called isotopes – of two chemical elements: carbon and nitrogen. “By using this approach, we were able to infer what Luzio had eaten in the last six months of his life”, says Sabine, an expert on the eating habits and diseases of ancient peoples. “It cannot be stated categorically that Luzio never ate fish, but fish was certainly not a common item on his menu”. The tests on the isotopes were conducted at two different laboratories and produced the same findings.

He measured approximately 1.60 meters. He was given this name because his facial features resembled those of Luzia, the oldest human skull found in Brazil. Luzia was a young woman who lived approximately 11 thousand years ago in the region of Lagoa Santa, in the vicinity of the city of Belo Horizonte. According to scientific jargon, Luzio and Luzia had Negroid features, similar to those of the current Australian and African aborigines. Most researchers believe that this physical type did not leave any descendants on the American continent. The existing indigenous tribes derive from ancient populations with the Mongoloid features (slanted eyes) that are typical to Asians. According to several occupation models of the North and South American continent, the latter arrived in these lands many years later.

When Luzio was retrieved from the Capelinha I archaeological site, located in the municipality of Cajati, during excavations sponsored by a FAPESP theme project, he provided indications that he might have had unique eating habits (see article published in Pesquisa FAPESP issue no 112, of June 2005). He had pretty good teeth for someone who had lived ten thousand years ago. His teeth were well preserved and showed slight wear and tear on the horizontal side. “We found only four tiny cavities in Luzio’s teeth”, says Sabine. “The inhabitants of the coastal sambaquis usually had badly preserved dental arches”. The pre-historic peoples who lived on the Brazilian coast basically ate fish and mollusks; as a result, their teeth came into contact with sand and seashells, which helped wear out their dental arches.

044-047_Dieta Pre-historica_188As Luzio’s teeth were well preserved, the researchers presume that his eating habits were similar to those of the ancient inhabitants of the plateau region, whose meals consisted mostly of meat and plants, which are much easier on the teeth. But the researchers had not suspected that fish were rarely included in these meals. “At one point we believed that Luzio might have been a ceramist, a fisherman, or a gatherer”, says archaeologist Levy Figuti, of the Archaeology and Ethnology Museum (MAE) at USP. Figuti coordinated the archaeological digs in the Vale do Ribeira region that resulted in the discovery of the ten thousand-year old skull at Capelinha. “However, it has become more evident nowadays that Luzio was probably a hunter-gatherer”.

At the site of Capelinha 1, in addition to coastal artifacts and vestiges of sambaquis built from land shells, there is a lot of evidence showing that Luzio hunted wild animals. The archaeologists retrieved tips of spears and arrows made of silex or quartz, perforated teeth of bugios (brown howling monkeys) probably used – like shark teeth – to make bracelets or necklaces, and a flute made from the polished bone of land mammals. During the field work, Figuti’s team studied 30 river sambaquis in the Vale do Ribeira region and found approximately 60 skeletons of the region’s ancient inhabitants. In the archaeological site of Moraes alone, located in the Juquiá River basin, the archaeologists found the remains of 40 individuals, most of whom had presumably lived approximately five thousand years ago. None of these skeletons were as old as or had the physical features of Luzio (all of them had an Asian morphology), even though there were signs in some of these places that these individuals had had contact with the coast.

How did Luzio get to the Vale do Ribeira? There are two hypotheses, which do not necessarily exclude each other and could even be combined. Younger and with physical features that resembled those of Luzia, the river sambaqui inhabitant might have been a representative of the descendants of the inhabitants of Lagoa Santa who had traveled across the Brazilian hinterland and settled in the Vale do Ribeira. “When we look at the part of the Brazilian coast that runs from the state of Espirito Santo to the State of Santa Catarina, a region of many sambaquis, we can see that the Serra do Mar mountain range is a great barrier, which probably prevented  contact between the inhabitants of the coast and the inhabitants of the hinterland”, says archaeologist Mercedes Okumura, of MAE-USP. “But the Vale do Ribeira may have been an exception to that scenario”.

Luzio’s skull (on the left) and Luzia’s skull (on the right): their features are similar to those of existing Australian and African aborigines

EDUARDO CESAR E LABORATÓRIO DE ESTUDOS EVOLUTIVOS HUMANOS / IB-USP Luzio’s skull (on the left) and Luzia’s skull (on the right): their features are similar to those of existing Australian and African aboriginesEDUARDO CESAR E LABORATÓRIO DE ESTUDOS EVOLUTIVOS HUMANOS / IB-USP

A bridge to the sea
In this southern region of São Paulo State, the transitional territory that lies between the Serra do Mar mountain region – predominantly covered by the Mata Atlantica ,rain forest – and the coastal region is not as steep, and has lower cliffs. The Ribeira do Iguape River is one of the few rivers in the State of São Paulo that runs from the plateau to the east, down to the sea. This river flows through mountain ranges and small valleys, creating environments that might have been natural bridges between the coast and the plateau. These particular geographical features may have facilitated Luzio’s contact with the inhabitants of the Atlantic coast.

There is another explanation for Luzio’s existence in the southernmost part of the State of São Paulo such a long time ago. He may have migrated from the coast to the plateau. In this case, he would have been part of the group that might have left the coast to settle on higher lands. This hypothesis, however, has one contradiction: so far, the oldest coastal sambaqui that has been discovered is the one located on the site at Capelinha I. The current chronology of the occupation of the Atlantic coast does not support this scenario. However, ten thousand years ago, the coast was some kilometers farther away than it is now. It’s possible that the more ancient sambaquis are now under water and perhaps will never be found.

In the last few years the good news has enthused the archaeologists who study the seashell-covered cemeteries found on the Atlantic coast. New dating of sites with sambaquis has shown that the existence of human beings along parts of the Brazilian coast is older than was previously believed. In the early 2000s, archaeologist Flavio Calippo, currently a professor of the Federal University of Piauí (UFPI), found signs that human beings had inhabited the region of Cambriú Grande, on the Island of Cardoso – also in the Vale do Ribeira – eight thousand years ago. The research team headed by physicist Roberto Meigikos dos Anjos, of Fluminense Federal University (UFF), recently obtained more geological evidence that confirms the age of the Sambaqui do Algodão, located in Angra dos Reis. The archaeological site is actually eight thousand years old. “Apparently. the oldest sambaquis are found on the coast that goes from the State of Rio de Janeiro to the State of São Paulo”, says Meigikos. However, this recent dating does not answer the question of whether Luzio came from the coast or from the highlands,  before settling in Capelinha.

Scientific article
EGGERS, S. et al. Paleoamerican diet, migration and morphology in Brazil: archaeological complexity of the earliest Americans. Plos One. Published electronically on September 14, 2011.