Brazil’s Oldest Skeleton “Luzio” Tells Us About the Settlement of the Americas

A 3D rendering of Luzio's skull.

The historical exploration of settlements in South America continues to captivate the interest of researchers and scholars on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Recently, studies have revealed the presence of human traces around 25,000 years ago at the Santa Elina site in Brazil.

Luzia skull found in the rubble of the National Museum.

In a research article released on July 31st within the pages of the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, a group of scientists collaborating together presents the comprehensive findings resulting from extensive studies conducted on the remains of an individual who existed during the Greenlandian Holocene epoch, roughly 10,400 years before the present time. Discovered within the vicinity of São Paulo, the well-preserved remains belonging to this man, known as “Luzio,” trace their origins back to the year 8,400 BCE. Remarkably, he stands as the second-oldest set of human skeletal remains ever discovered in South America. The name “Luzio” is derived from his elder female counterpart, “Luzia,” who boasts an age of approximately 11,500 years.

Over 16,000 Years of Genetic History Down to the Present Day

A cast of Luzia's skull at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
A cast of Luzia’s skull at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Image: Flickr.

At present, researchers hailing from South America have so far unearthed a limited array of ancient human remains. Nevertheless, a considerable assortment of archaeological sites provide evidence of the development of semi-nomadic societies along the coastal areas of Brazil. Spanning nearly 3,000 kilometers, ancestral populations constructed ‘sambaquis,’ which are sizable burial mounds constructed from limestone and organic materials and subsequently fossilized over time. While unearthing these sites, archaeologists have additionally brought to light artifacts and human skeletons. In their investigations of 11 excavated locations, they have encountered a total of 34 individuals.

Beyond the cultural and historical importance of this research, the scientists have taken custody of the remains for further study, delving into the specialized field of archaeobiology. This field has facilitated geneticists in scrutinizing the DNA extracted from the bones via genetic sequencing. By contrasting the genomic data of Luzio, the discovered individual, with that of the other 34 persons, scholars have identified shared genes with contemporary Native American communities. Specific groups such as the Cherokee, Quechua, and Tupi have garnered notable attention from the researchers. It is conceivable that Luzio himself could be descended from populations that inhabited South America around 16,000 years ago, although this particular aspect remains more of an educated guess than a definitively affirmed statement.

The Mysterious Disappearance of the Sambaqui Builders

Sambaquis from the Southern Brazilian Coast
Sambaquis from the Southern Brazilian coast. Image: MDPI.

The study of Luzio’s genome and its genetic affiliations is rooted in the quest to understand migrations on the continent. According to historians, Luzio could be a tangible link, explaining potential interactions between prehistoric tribes moving inland and those establishing themselves on the coast. Simultaneously, scholars hope to unravel the mystery surrounding the rapid disappearance of the builders of the Sambaqui funerary mounds.

These constructions began to appear 8,700 years ago, with the phenomenon experiencing significant growth between 5,500 BP and 2,200 BP. The establishment of sambaqui sites started to decline before vanishing in favor of other types of funerary mounds around 2,000 BP. Thus, much hope seems to rest on Luzio’s skeleton. Will scientists once again succeed in deciphering the remains of the man who passed away more than 10,000 years ago?