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Museum Fire May Have Destroyed Western Hemisphere's Oldest Known Human Skull

The skull, housed in Brazil's now-destroyed National Museum, belongs to a Paleoindian woman whose remains are believed to be the earliest ever discovered in the Americas.
The Luzia skull, the oldest skull ever found in the Americas. 

The Luzia skull, the oldest skull ever found in the Americas. 

On September 2, 2018, a fire ripped through Brazil’s 200-year-old National Museum, destroying as much as 90 percent of its items, statues and extraordinary treasures. Among those artifacts whose fate remained unknown was an utterly irreplaceable 11,500-year-old skull known as Luzia.

The skull belongs to a Paleoindian woman whose remains are believed to be the earliest ever discovered in the Americas.

In 1975, a joint Brazilian-French expedition led archaeologists into a rock shelter, near Belo Horizante, Brazil. Under more than 40 feet of mineral deposits and debris, excavators found the remains of a human woman: a skull, a pelvis, and bits of her legs. For decades, the fossils languished in the museum’s archives. In fact, it was not until scientists investigated them further that they discovered that the museum had something incredible on its hands: the then-oldest human remains ever recovered in the Western Hemisphere.

Luzia was more than just the ancient human bones of a long-deceased 20-year-old. Her discovery revolutionized how archaeologists and anthropologists thought about human migration. Facial reconstruction suggests that Luzia had a strong jaw and a flat nose, consistent not with the native American Indians previously believed to be Brazil’s first settlers, but with nomadic people thought to have come to the continent as early as 15,000 years ago. In 2013, further analysis of her skull offered a more accurate time of death—Luzia likely lived sometime between 11,243 and 11,710 years ago.

A drone view of Rio de Janeiro's treasured National Museum on September 3, 2018, a day after a massive fire ripped through the building. 

A drone view of Rio de Janeiro's treasured National Museum on September 3, 2018, a day after a massive fire ripped through the building. 

“We can no longer say that the first colonizers of the Americas came from the north of Asia, as previous models have proposed,” anthropologist Walter Neves told the New York Times following the 1999 study. “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.” Instead, he said, her people likely came to Brazil from Southeast Asia, “navigating northward along the coast and across the Bering Straits until they reached the Americas.''

Luzia was given her nickname in homage to the famous fossil, Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old hominid discovered in the 1950s. Luzia was young at the time of her death, and alone, suggesting she may have died in an accident or perhaps even from an animal attack. Scientists believe she lived in a community of hunter-gatherers, who foraged for nuts and berries and ate animals wherever they could. Ordinarily, her remains would have been consumed by the elements, but the high limestone-content of the soil around where she was found helped preserve her bones. The fact that two-thirds of Luzia’s bones were missing is consistent with her having been attacked by some large predator. In 2010, improved technology allowed scientists to recreate her head properly for the first time, revealing a friendly, open face.

In the years since the study, Luzia has become known as Brazil’s first woman, winning the hearts of many Brazilians in the process and becoming a national icon of sorts. She was one the museum’s most treasured possessions, considered a jewel in their collection and a vital part of the country’s history.

If her remains are confirmed lost, it will come as a huge blow to many of her countrymen, who are already struggling to cope with the museum’s destruction. For now, the museum says, they are not optimistic. "Luzia is a priceless loss for everyone interested in civilization," Paulo Knauss, director at Brazil's national history museum, told AFP. The president of the National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage, Katia Bogea, was still more despairing about the potential loss, saying, "Luzia died in the fire,” according to the newspaper, Estado de S.Paulo.

But there is a glimmer of hope. The Guardian reported that as firefighters combed the wreckage, they came across some bones and the fragments of a skull. If it is Luzia, as is hoped, it’ll be a small comfort to a grieving people—and an incredible feat of survival for artifacts that have already defied the odds.

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