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The land of Luzia

Map covers 100 prehistoric sites from the Lagoa Santa region of Minas Gerais, where the oldest human skull of the Americas was discovered

If by some miracle science were to be able to produce a clone of Danish naturalist Peter Lund, who died 123 years ago on Brazilian soil, the contemporary replica of the pioneer in archeological and paleontological studies in Lagoa Santa would now have great help for locating with precision the dozens of prehistoric sites present in this area of Minas Gerais, close the capital Belo Horizonte. With the assistance of devices called GPS (Global Positioning System), which use satellites to provide the exact geographical coordinates of any point on the globe, a team led by archeologist Walter Neves, from the Biosciences Institute of the University of São Paulo (IB/USP), determined – and corrected, when necessary – the location of 100 prehistoric sites positioned inside the Lagoa Santa Karst Area of Environmental Protection (APA in the Portuguese acronym).

The term karst refers to the characteristic relief of the region, marked by the presence of limestone, which provided for the formation of massifs, cliffs and closed depressions. This kind of landscape leads to the appearance of temporary lakes, caverns and shelters under the rock, good places for prehistoric human settlements. It is not mere chance that the most ancient fragment of the human skeleton so far discovered in the Americas, the 11,000-year-old skull nicknamed Luzia, came precisely from the entrails of Lagoa Santa.

From the legal point of view, the majority of sites are on private properties, inside the APA, which extends partially over the territories of six municipalities – Pedro Leopoldo, Matozinhos, Prudente de Morais, Vespasiano, Funilândia and Lagoa Santa – and cover the entire area of Confins. A more technical version of the map was made to guide the movement of scientists in the archeological region, which occupies an area of 363 square kilometers, about four times larger than the city of São Paulo.

To publicize the archeological heritage amongst the local population, 3,000 copies of a simplified geographical map were sent to schools in Minas Gerais. “With the map, anybody can visualize the enormous concentration of archeological sites in the region”, Neves comments. “Society needs to know the importance of Lagoa Santa for the prehistory of Brazil and the Americas. This is the only way that it will get engaged in the preservation of thearea.” The costs of printing and distributing of the school maps was met by the cement company Camargo Corrêa Cimentos.

Almost all the prehistoric sites are in plain areas, at the edge of or near to rivers and lakes, seeing that easy access to water was – and still is – a necessity for populations to survive. The largest number of them (51) is to be found in shelters under the rocks, another significant portion (47) is in places in the open air, and two are hidden away inside caves. Some 30 of the 100 sites cataloged were discovered in the last two years by researchers involved in FAPESP’s thematic project coordinated by Neves, who put forward a new theory on the arrival of man in the Americas, from Luzia and other ancient human skulls discovered in the region of Lagoa Santa.

A large part of the work of updating and perfecting the geographical location of these hundred sites rich in prehistoric material was done by Luís Beethoven Piló, from Minas Gerais, and one of the members of the Human Evolutionary Studies Laboratory of the IB/USP, led by Neves. “I had to go into all the sites to determine the coordinates”, says Piló, who made use of maps, books, writings and testimonies from residents in the region, in search of places where archeological material was hidden away. “In some cases, the information didn’t ring true, and I had to leave some places out.” Some known sites, such as Lapa Vermelha de Lagoa Santa, where there were human skeletons and rupestral paintings, do not feature on the cartographical survey, because they were destroyed by work carried out by mining companies.

Giant mammals
Joining together the findings from its old and new sites, the Lagoa Santa area provides a fine picture of what daily life was like in those days, between one thousand and eleven thousand years ago, a period to which the bones, objects and drawings so far discovered in the region belong to. In the course of the last 170 years, researchers – and a few adventurers – have found there everything from rupestral paintings, quartz weapon tips and ceramics to bones from mammals of the extinct megafauna, like the giant ground sloth, and remains from 250 human skeletons. The region went into the world-wide archeological scenario due to the work of Peter Lund, who moved to Brazil in 1833. For over a decade, the Nordic explorer delved into hundreds of caves and grottoes in the region. Almost the entirety of his collection of discoveries – over 12,000 pieces, including a set of skulls of what was then called the Lagoa Santa Man – are now to be found in the naturalist’s native land, Denmark.

In Lapa do Sumidouro, one of the two sites classified as caves on the map of the team from USP, Lund realized that this environment, impenetrable to light, served as a prehistoric cemetery. He came across 30 human skeletons close to bones from megafauna mammals”, explains Piló. This finding led the naturalist to formulate the hypothesis that man and these prehistoric animals were contemporaries, a challenge to the classic idea that these enormous mammals had disappeared before Homo sapiens reached the Americas. Lund’s theory was confirmed in April 2002. The age of a fragment of a rib from a ground sloth of the Catonyx cuvieri species, exhumed from a paleontological site known as the Cuvieri grotto, was established at 9,990 years by a carbon 14 test. At this stage of Prehistory, as Luzia and her fellow countrymen from Lagoa Santa attest, man was already installed in America. In Brazil, 13 species of ground sloth were discovered. They could weigh up to 5 tons andreach a length of 6 meters.

The proof that these mammals from the past came to share, for some time, the same environment as the first American paleoindian populations is a weighty contribution of the prehistoric sites of Minas Gerais to archeology. But in terms of the jolt to science, nothing is comparable to the impact caused by Lagoa Santa’s brightest star. Luzia’s skull was found in the mid-70’s at the Lapa Vermelha IV site, a shelter under the rocks, in the municipality of Pedro Leopoldo, not far away from the Tancredo Neves International Airport. The item remained forgotten for a good time, until, at the end of the last decade, the theses of archeologist Walter Neves – supported by anatomical measurements of this fragment of the skeleton and by a dating estimated at 11,000 years – started to find acceptance in academic circles.

For the researcher from USP, Luzia and the whole paleoindian population from this area of Minas Gerais had similar traits to those of today’s Australian aborigines and African Negroes, and they therefore provided support to two pillars of his ideas on the peopling of the Americas. Pillar number one: the first inhabitants of the New World, who lived in Luzia’s time or before, were similar to today’s Africans or Australian aborigines – and not mongoloid (with oriental features), as is upheld by the traditionalist line of archeology, dominated by the Americans. The second pillar: the peopling of the Americas, said to have taken place over the Bering Strait, to the north of the continent, began some 14,000 years ago – and not a mere 11,500 years, as the conventional model has it. “The Lagoa Santa sites have now provided 75 reasonably well preserved skulls that show a similar anatomy to Luzia’s”, claims Neves. “All with an estimated age of between 8,000 and 11,000 years.”

The theory of the Brazilian researcher is still far from being accepted by his peers, above all those from abroad. But, with plenty of happiness and a touch of pride, Neves discovered that books on archeology published in English in the last two years and aimed at the lay public, dedicated some chapters or significant stretches to his ideas on the peopling of the continent and the discoveries at the prehistoric sites in Lagoa Santa. Two works were printed in the United States: Bones – Discovering the First Americans, by journalist Elaine Dewar, and Ancient Encounters – Kennewick Man and the First Americans, by archeologist James C. Chatters.

The other came out in England, Past Lives – Unlocking the Secrets of our Ancestors , by historian Ian Wilson. The references to the theses of the researcher from USP are not always complimentary. Sometimes they are questioned. Neves doesn’t mind. He sees the positive side, that Luzia and the paleoindians from Minas have sufficient strength to be a subject for scientific disclosure in Europe and in the United States. “It isn’t all the time that the ideas of a Brazilian have such a repercussion abroad”, the archeologist comments. Walking around Lagoa Santa, with the new map of the prehistoric sites in his hands, Peter Lund’s clone would be delighted with this news.

The Project
Origins and Microevolution of Man in America (nº 99/00670-7); Modality Thematic Project; Coordinator Walter Neves – USP’s Biosciences Institute; Investment R$ 538,172.80 and US$ 76,000.00