The Story of Luzia, the Oldest Human Skull Found in the Americas

A fire burns at the National Museum of Brazil on September 2, 2018 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

When a fire ripped through the Museu Nacional de Rio de Janeiro in early September, the world mourned the loss of a massive collection of historical artifacts and research that cemented the past and future of Brazil’s people. The museum housed the largest collection of Brazilian Indigenous ethnology, Egyptian artifacts, and a paleontological collection that made the institution a beacon of history and culture for Brazil.

As the extent of the damage continues being assessed, Luzia, the oldest human found in the Americas, is possibly among the losses.

Found in 1970, experts believe Luzia, a skeleton from the Upper Paleolithic period, was a 25-year-old woman. Archeologists hypothesize that Luzia was part of the first wave of nomadic peoples that migrated to South America. French archaeologist Annette Laming-Emperaire – who focused on finding early human life in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina – found the skull under 40 feet of debris and mineral deposits.

Laming-Emperaire found the 11,500-year-old skull separated from its skeleton. Eventually, one-third of her body was recovered – enough for forensic scientists to determine that Luzia died in her early 20s. Although the discovery of Luzia came in the 1970s, it took nearly three decades for a team of archaeologists at Museu Nacional to examine the skull. In 2010, researchers at Britain, University of Manchester managed to produce a digital recreation of what Luzia may have looked like.

Researchers have long debated the skull’s origins. Some say her ancestors may have come from southeast Asia, but the recreation of her skull actually revealed a face more closely associated with “Negroid skulls,” as the Museu Nacional director Paulo Knauss told The Economic Times.

Luzia supposedly came in at less than 5 feet tall and shared facial features with Indigenous groups in Australia, according to University of São Paulo anthropologist Walter Neves. However, other anthropologists have disputed this and explain that the discrepancies between the skull and the recreation’s features might be due to genetic development in Native Americans.

It remains unknown if the skulls is one of the artifacts damaged in the fire. Firefighters found a skull in the debris that researchers will examine. But as we wait for answers, many have pointed fingers at the government for the incident, which many think was preventable. President Michel Temer cut the arts and culture budget, and even years ago, the conditions of the museum had come into question. Newspaper O Globo first said the museum was at risk more than 40 years ago. Established in 1818, the Museu Nacional is Brazil’s oldest cultural institution.