Pieces of Ancient Luzia Skull Recovered From Scorched Brazilian Museum

By George Dvorsky on at

A recovery team working at the site of Brazil’s burnt-out National Museum in Rio de Janeiro have rescued several pieces of the 11,500-year-old Luzia skull—one of the most ancient human fossils ever discovered in the Americas.

In the aftermath of the devastating 2 September 2018 blaze, it wasn’t clear how many of the 20 million items in the museum’s historic collection would be salvaged. Since the fire, recovery experts have been sifting through the debris and ash in search of potentially rescuable artefacts, a process that’s expected to last until February 2019, according to Brazil’s GloboNews.

Access to the site is limited due to safety concerns. The only interior sections explored so far are areas where workers had to clear the ground to anchor the walls, explained Alexander Kellner, the museum’s director, at a press conference held on 19 October, as reported in Science Magazine. In the first major good news to come from this effort, the salvagers managed to find one of the museum’s most prized possessions—the renowned Luzia skull. Or at least, most of it.

“The skull was found to be fragmented,” Kellner was quoted as saying by GloboNews. “We have found almost the entire skull and 80 per cent of the fragments have already been identified and we [hope to] increase this number.”

The skull is in pieces because the glue that held it together melted in the fire, Science Magazine reported. The pieces did experience some damage, but museum officials are hopeful they’ll be able to reconstruct the skull. The fragments “suffered alterations, damage,” said Claudia Rodrigues, as reported by the AFP news agency, “but we’re very optimistic at the find and all it represents.” The box in which the skull was stored was also recovered, but the femur, which was kept elsewhere in the 200-year-old building, is still missing. The metal box, the BBC reported, was stored inside a cabinet and in a “strategic place” that protected the precious contents from fire damage.

The Luzia skull and femur were discovered in 1974 by French archaeologist Annette Laming-Emperaire in a cave near Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Dated to around 11,500 years ago, it’s one of the oldest human skeletons ever found in the Americas. Named after the famous Lucy skeleton, this female individual, who was around 20 years old when she died, likely belonged to the first wave of humans to venture into South America, hence its important archaeological significance.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, and it’s not immediately clear how much funding the museum, which is managed by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, will receive from the Brazilian government for the recovery operation. Restoration of the museum is expected to cost millions of Brazilian real. The situation is currently in limbo due to Brazil’s upcoming federal election, which is scheduled for next week.

“We need to do a restoration and we need a [laboratory to do] it,” said Kellner, as reported by UOL News. “We’re fighting in the National Congress for the budget—it’s a job of time and resources,” he said, adding that “it’s going to take a long time to do this.” [GloboNews, Science Magazine, UOL, BBC]