"The New York Times, October 26, 1999
An Ancient Skull Challenges Long-Held Theories
By LARRY ROHTER
RIO DE JANEIRO -- A human skull that is prominently displayed at the
National Museum here has been attracting crowds and controversy in equal
measure since it was first unveiled early this month. After two decades in
storage, the fossilized cranium has now been identified by Brazilian
scientists as the oldest human remains ever recovered in the Western
The New York Times
The skull is that of a young woman, nicknamed Luzia, who is believed to have
roamed the savannah of south-central Brazil some 11,500 years ago. Even more
startling, a reconstruction of her cranium undertaken in Britain this year
indicates that her features appear to be Negroid rather than Mongoloid,
suggesting that the Western Hemisphere may have initially been settled not
only earlier than thought, but by a people distinct from the ancestors of
today's Indian peoples of North and South America.
"We can no longer say that the first colonizers of the Americas came from
the north of Asia, as previous models have proposed," said Dr. Walter Neves,
an anthropologist at the University of São Paulo, who made the initial
discovery along with an Argentine colleague, Héctor Pucciarelli. "This
skeleton is nearly 2,000 years older than any skeleton ever found in the
Americas, and it does not look like those of Amerindians or North Asians."
If the date is confirmed, the find could transform thinking about the
peopling of the Americas. It may be some time before that work is completed,
but meanwhile, archeologists here and abroad say the find is potentially
Until Luzia, named as a playful homage to Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old
human ancestor found in Africa, the oldest known human remains recovered in
the Western Hemisphere were those found in Buhl, Idaho, and repatriated to
the Shoshone Tribe in 1997. Radiocarbon dating tests have established the
age of that skeleton as a bit more than 10,000 years old.
Luzia's discovery at a location in the state of Minas Gerais called Lapa
Vermelha is consistent, however, with recent findings made at the celebrated
Monte Verde site in southern Chile. There, evidence of human habitation as
early as 12,500 years ago, including stone tools and a footprint, has been
uncovered, though no human remains have yet been found.
The finds, along with recent discoveries in North America like those of the
so-called Kennewick Man and Spirit Cave Man, are forcing a reassessment of
long-established theories as to the timetable of the settling of the
Americas. Based on such evidence, Dr. Neves suggests that Luzia belonged to
a nomadic people who began arriving in the New World as early as 15,000
Luzia's Negroid features notwithstanding, Dr. Neves is not arguing that her
ancestors came to Brazil from Africa in an early trans-Atlantic migration.
Instead, he believes they originated in Southeast Asia, "migrating from
there in two directions, south to Australia, where today's aboriginal
peoples may be their descendants, and navigating northward along the coast
and across the Bering Straits until they reached the Americas."
About one-third of Luzia's skeleton has been recovered, enough to indicate
that she appears to have perished in an accident or perhaps even from an
animal attack. She was in her 20's when she died, stood just under five feet
tall, and was part of a group of hunter-gatherers who appear to have
subsisted largely on whatever fruits, nuts and berries they came across in
their meanderings, plus the occasional piece of meat.
"This is intriguing and interesting and I want to know more," Dr. David J.
Meltzer, a professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University and an
expert on the paleo-Indian populations of North America, said in a telephone
interview from Dallas. "Skeletal material of this age is extraordinarily
rare, both here and in South America, so I am delighted to know that
something of this antiquity is popping up."
The region where Dr. Neves and his associates are working has been the focus
of archeological inquiry since the mid-19th century, when Peter Wilhelm
Lund, a Danish naturalist, first encountered human skeletal remains there.
Many of the specimens he uncovered are now stored at the University of
Copenhagen, but when Dr. Neves went to examine them, he found that the
material had not been catalogued by geological strata and therefore could
not be used for his research.
Luzia herself was originally discovered in 1975 in a rock shelter by a joint
French-Brazilian expedition that was working not far from Belo Horizonte,
Brazil's third-largest city. The skull was buried under more than 40 feet of
mineral deposits and debris, separated from the rest of the skeleton but
otherwise in remarkably good condition.
"This is a site where the soil was high in limestone content, which helped
to preserve these remains for so long," explained Dr. André Prous, a French
archeologist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, who was part of the
initial team and continues to work in the area. "In other places, the bones
disappear after a short time."
Along with other material from the same expedition, Luzia was then taken to
the national museum here. But she was put away in storage, and it was not
until 1995 that Dr. Neves examined the skull, quickly noticed its unusual
characteristics and invited other scientists, including Dr. Joseph Powell,
an anthropology professor at the University of New Mexico, to join him in
drawing up a profile of Luzia.
Dr. Neves bases his estimate of Luzia's age on the fact that the skull was
found in a geological strata where the age of other organic material has
been established through radiocarbon dating. The same procedure would
ordinarily have been done with Luzia, but the specimen does not have enough
collagen, the protein that gives bone its resiliency, to allow that standard
technique to be used.
"We're sort of stuck," said Dr. Powell, who is also curator of human
osteology at the Maxwell Museum. "We know that she is so old that most of
the organic portion of the bone has leached out. It would have been great to
have the radiocarbon dating, but that is not going to happen unless
techniques improve dramatically, which they may."
With that avenue of verification closed, Dr. Neves is making other efforts
to determine the racial and other characteristics of Luzia. Early this year,
a computerized image of Luzia's skull was sent to Richard Neave, a forensic
specialist on the faculty of medicine at the University of Manchester in
England, with a request that he reconstruct her face.
"It was in much better shape than many other forensic subjects we have had
to do," Mr. Neave said in a telephone interview. What he ended up with when
he finished was a face "with the features one associates with Negroid
skulls, particularly the nose" and jaw.
"When you do this sort of work, it is very important to have no preconceived
ideas," Mr. Neave said. "I personally would stick my neck out and say it is
conclusive support for his findings and demonstrates without any doubt at
all" that Luzia is of non-Mongoloid origins.
When her remains were discovered, Luzia was alone. But more than 40 other
skeletons that appear to be from the same general period have been found in
a nearby area called Lagoa Santa, and scientists in Brazil hope to be able
to test Dr. Neves's theory by doing radiocarbon dating on at least some of
"There are a large number of skeletons at this site, some of them in better
condition than that of Luzia," Dr. Prous said. "There is a great density of
skeletons there, buried in an organized fashion, and so we conclude this was
a cemetery for them, perhaps the oldest in the Americas."
Initial indications are that these skeletons indeed have many of the same
facial features and other characteristics that first made Luzia stand out.
"We see this pattern with other skeletons of the same age" from the Lagoa
Santa site, Dr. Powell said. "We have seen 37 of them now, and they all have
this sort of unusual appearance."
In an effort to test the theory that Luzia belonged to a people ethnically
distinct from the ancestors of modern North and South American Indians,
scientists have also begun DNA sequencing in the Lagoa Santa skeletons. Dr.
Sérgio Pena, a geneticist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, is
conducting one set of tests while other samples have been sent to the Max
Planck Anthropological Institute in Germany, where the DNA of Neanderthal
Man was isolated in 1997, for examination.
"We know that today's Amerindians have four main groups," said Dr. Pena, who
found a genetic marker common to 17 different widely dispersed Indian groups
across the Americans in the course of an earlier project. "What would
constitute molecular proof of Walter's hypothesis is to find DNA sequences
completely different from those four groups."
Dr. Meltzer said: "This is clearly the way to resolve the issue. The skull
is intriguing morphological evidence, but in order to really nail down this
issue of affinity, you need evidence, and DNA is the way to go"
Paulo Alexandre Monteiro
Delegacao do Centro de Nacional de Arqueologia Subaquatica nos Acores
Caminho de Baixo, 68, Sao Pedro
9700 Angra do Heroísmo
351-936-24 13 815