As I am sure you heard in the news, in early September a fire completely consumed the 200-year old museum at Rio de Janiero. This is a tragedy on many levels, not least for the loss of the beautiful museum building but also the destruction of volumes of South American heritage.
One of the many specimens consumed in the fire was the remains of one of the earliest known people from the Americas, a partial skeleton of a young woman known as “Luzia”. Dated to between 11,243–11,710 years before the present day (Fontugne 2013), her remains come from a critical time period for our understanding of human migration around the globe during the last Ice Age.
For many years, it was believed that the Americas were first populated at around 12,000 years ago, by people known from their very distinctive stone tools (“Clovis Points”). Controversy has raged about exactly who the first Americans were, where they came from, what route they took and which groups of today’s people they were most closely related to – not to mention whether they were responsible for the demise of the Ice Age fauna, like mastodon and woolly mammoths.
Luzia’s part in this grand and ever fractious tale is that the shape of her skull appeared to be more in line with people living in sub-Saharan Africa, or native Australians. Not necessarily what the academics would have expected, and producing as many questions as she could have potentially answered about the origins of the first Americans.
And now, of course, she is gone. Surviving for 12,000 years preserved in the sediments of a rock shelter, she has been lost within a single human lifetime after her discovery in 1975. Tragically, she is far from the only piece from our evolutionary story that has been destroyed, or that has vanished without trace.
In 1945, a fire similarly raged through the Mikulov Castle in southern Czechia, this time started deliberately by German troops on the retreat. Inside were skeletons even older than Luzia – a collection dating to between 28 and 31 thousand years old, from the Czech site of Předmostí. A tremendously rare collection, the adult and child skeletons from Předmostí seemed to be deliberately placed together underneath a looming cliff, with people returning to the site to add more of their dead potentially across multiple generations (Svoboda 2008). The potential for the rarest of glimpses into spiritual life, and the treatment of the dead, during such an early and mysterious chapter of the human story – now truncated in its scope by the loss of these specimens.
Better known than Předmostí is the mysterious disappearance of “Peking Man” – a huge collection of Homo erectus fossils from the Zhoukoudian Cave – which vanished en route to the American Museum of Natural History whilst being transported for safekeeping during the Second World War. Rumour has it that they may (much like Richard III) be buried underneath a car park (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/mystery-of-the-lost-peking-man-fossils-solved-166415409/), but in all likelihood they will never been seen again.
So, what can we learn and what is to be done? Thankfully, casts and photographs were made of these fossils so that some studies can still take place. In the digital age, scanning and X-Rating specimens is another important move, not only to protect against the worst-case scenarios, but to improve access to collections for enthusiasts and experts alike. But our technology changes all the time, and where originals are lost then new approaches like ancient DNA or isotopic analysis can sadly never take place.
People from Rio are rightly furious that such an iconic museum and all it contains could have been lost so suddenly, so senselessly. This was not a World War, instead fingers have pointed to the consequences of underfunding and a beautiful museum sinking into a state of disrepair ( https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/03/fire-engulfs-brazil-national-museum-rio). Who is truly to blame for the disappearance of this world-important heritage? We do not know what started the fire at the National Museum of Brazil, but the message is clear: love it or lose it, as heritage lost may never return.
Fontugne, M. (2013) “New Radiocarbon Ages of Luzia Woman, Lapa Vermelha IV Site, Lagoa Santa, Minas Gerais, Brazil”. Proceedings of the 21st International Radiocarbon Conference. 55 (2–3).
Svoboda, J.A. (2008) “The Upper Paleolithic burial area at Předmostí: ritual and taphonomy”. Journal of Human Evolution. 54:1 (15-33).