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The origin of Zuzu

Skull from Piauí strengthens the idea that physically distinct human groups occupied South America ten thousand years ago

FumdhamIntriguing appearance: the Paleo-Indian had Australian aboriginal featuresFumdham

The saga of Zuzu, a 10 thousand year old human skeleton regarded as one of the most important from Brazil’s pre-history, may be overturned if a new analysis of its morphological characteristics proves to be correct. Years ago, a study indicated that Zuzu was a woman – hence the name. However, details of the skull and pelvis suggest that she was actually a man. More importantly, a man with intriguing traits. Though he died at the age of 35 to 45 in the area that is now in the state of Piauí, he would fit in perfectly with the people who lived thousands of years ago in the region of Lagoa Santa, in the state of Minas Gerais – a people whose physical traits were very different from those of the modern Amerindians and close to those of the Australian aborigines.

This analysis is one of the earliest results of the collaboration between the group coordinated by archeologist Niède Guidon, from the American Man Museum Foundation, in Piauí, and bioanthropologist Walter Neves, from the Human Evolution Studies Laboratory of the University of São Paulo (USP). After several years of conflicting views about when and how modern human beings reached America, both groups decided to set aside their animosity and to explore the possible links between their lines of research.

Zuzu is precisely one of the points in common. Found in 1997 by Niède’s team in the rich prehistoric complex of the National Park of Serra da Capivara, the skeleton is one of the oldest in South America, older even than most of the dozens of skulls and other human bones found in Lagoa Santa. Over the last few decades, Neves and his colleagues have dedicated themselves to showing that these early inhabitants of South America, the Paleo-Indians, had a very different physical appearance from that of the modern Amerindians. With their long and narrow skulls, besides a jaw and other facial bones that projected forward, the Paleo-Indians of Lagoa Santa remind one of the current African peoples or of the natives of Australia and of Melanesia, whereas the modern Amerindians have a clear similarity with the peoples from northeast Asia, also known as Mongoloids.

Neves and his collaborators have already shown that more than 80 skulls from Lagoa Santa, aged 12 to 8 thousand years, fit into the so-called Australomelanesian morphology. The Brazilian researchers think that these people might be the first wave of immigrants to reach the Americas. To show that the population of this ancient region in the state of Minas Gerais is no mere idiosyncrasy generated by isolation, a criticism voiced by other experts on the prehistory of the Americas, the USP team began investigating skulls from other parts of Brazil and of the Americas. “We declared war upon those who doubted the occupation of South America by peoples with Australomelanesian morphology”, Neves sums up. “This strategy of taking samples from several places is a way of cornering the issue, so that people won’t be able to use the argument that the population of Lagoa Santa is a fluke.”

Since then, in addition to the independent work carried out by Argentinean anthropologist Rolando González-José, who found the same Lagoa Santa morphology among 16th century Mexican Indians, the USP team has identified these features in Chile, Colombia, in the Ribeira Valley in the São Paulo inner-state area, and among the botocudo Indian tribe that occupied central Brazil during colonial times. However, it was still necessary to learn where the important population of Piauí, whose earliest representative with a preserved skull was Zuzu, fitted into the picture.

This is where Niède’s invitation to Neves and his collaborators to examine the skull came into the story. There had already been doubts as to Zuzu’s sex for some time. Although a DNA analysis performed in 2002 tended to indicate it was female, the artifacts found with the skeleton gave rise to doubts. “The burial included a number of stone artifacts, as well as two spear points”, tells us Mark Hubbe, a former student of Neves and now a researcher in Chile with the North Catholic University and the San Pedro de Atacama Archeological Museum. “These artifacts theoretically lend strength to the idea that it’s a man’s skeleton”, says Hubbe, who co-authored the analysis presented in an article soon to be published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

In addition to the artifacts that were believed to be for the exclusive use of men, previous anthropological analysis suggested that Zuzu might be just a man whose bone structure was not very strong. In their current work, Hubbe and Neves have reviewed details taken mainly from the skull and the pelvis, which help to determine sex. They have also compared the similarities between the skull from Piauí and those of natives from five continents. The results showed a close association between Zuzu’s skull and those of Paleo-Indians from Colombia and Lagoa Santa, whose features were classified as Negroid, similar to Africans, Australian aborigines and Easter Island natives.

Niède was not surprised by the results of the analysis, which attributed aboriginal traits to Zuzu similar to those of the Lagoa Santa people. “Lagoa Santa is not that far from the north of Minas Gerais and the São Francisco River. As these groups lived by hunting and gathering food they could easily have spread throughout the whole territory”, says the archeologist. “With the work we’ve done we’ve practically exhausted the investigation of the available skeletons of Paleo-Indians from South America. Were finally making progress in convincing the international scientific community that two groups with different physical characteristics must have entered the continent”, comments Hubbe. From the morphological point of view the skeleton really does seem to be that of a male.

Neves praises the willingness of his colleagues from Piauí in their joint work. “Niède was extremely open to cooperation”, says Neves. For the researcher from Fumdham, it is still necessary to define whether a new DNA analysis will be performed on Zuzu to eliminate, once and for all, any doubts about whether this was a man or a woman, which is important information to discover if there were ritual differences between the burial of men and women. “This discussion is now down to the physical anthropologists”, comments Niède. “If they think it’s necessary we’ll do the analysis.”