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Skull of ‘Luzio’. The investigation that covered four different parts of Brazil carried out analysis of genomic data from 34 fossils, including larger skeletons and the famous mounds of shells and fishbones built on the coast. Source: André Strauss/Nature

Lost Civilization of the Sambaquis Builders: Unraveling the Mystery of Luzio's People

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A team of researchers has unearthed and analyzed genomic data from 34 ancient skeletons scattered across Brazil. Their new study reveals the astonishing tale of 'Luzio,' a courageous wanderer who was buried in a mound of shells and fish bones around 10,000 years ago, marking a momentous milestone in the prehistory of South America.

Finding the Origins of Luzio

A peer-reviewed article published today, July 31, in Nature Ecology & Evolution introduces the world to Luzio, the oldest human skeleton discovered in São Paulo state (Brazil). According to the study, DNA has revealed that Luzio, who lived in the São Paulo region over 10,000-years-ago, was a descendant of an ancestral population that arrived in the Americas at least 16,000 years ago, which seeded all modern Indigenous peoples, such as the Tupi.

First author of the article, Dr. Tiago Ferraz, explains that he worked in partnership with researchers at the German University of Tübingen’s Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment. The archaeological investigation that led to the discovery examined four areas of Brazil, and studies were conducted on genomic data gathered from 34 human fossils. Professor André Menezes Strauss, an archaeologist at the University of São Paulo’s Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (MAE-USP), who was lead investigator in the study, said cultural information was obtained from huge shell and fishbone mounds ( sambaquis) that were erected along the coastline.

Ancient Trash, Archaeological Treasure

The new study, which represents the largest collection of archaeological genomic data in Brazil, dived deep into ancient mounds of shells and fishbones, which archaeologists refer to as “middens.” Comprising compacted organic waste, these waterside middens in Brazil served as dwellings, ceremonial centers, burial grounds and territorial boundaries.

A closeup of a shell midden in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. (Mikelzubi/CC BY-SA 4.0)

A closeup of a shell midden in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. (Mikelzubi/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Dr. Strauss said that, after the great Andean civilizations, the Atlantic coast sambaqui builders were “the human phenomenon with the highest demographic density in pre-colonial South America.” The lead researcher described the midden builders as “kings of the coast, for thousands and thousands of years.” However, the people suddenly vanished about 2,000 years ago, leaving behind an archaeological mystery, which has now been solved by the new study. More about this at the end of the article.

Encased In Fish Bones For 10,000-Years

To discover more about the people who built the sambaquis, the team of researchers analyzed the genomes of 34 people from four different areas of Brazil’s coast. All 34 samples dated to at least 10,000 years old. Some of the human remains were recovered from sambaquis, and the others were found at “Cabeçuda, Capelinha, Cubatão, Limão, Jabuticabeira II, Palmeiras Xingu, Pedra do Alexandre and Vau Una,” according to the study.

Luzio, representing the oldest modern human skeleton ever discovered in São Paulo, was recovered in the Capelinha river midden located in the Ribeira de Iguape valley. Comprising layers of discarded shells, animal bones, and artifacts, this particular midden offered valuable insights into the ancient Tupi people's diet, lifestyle, and culture, revealing the nuances of their hunting and fishing practices.

The Amerindian Origins of Luzio

“Luzio” was discovered by a team of archaeologists led by Professor Levy Figuti, from MAE-USP. The paper says the morphology of Luzio’s skull “is similar to that of Luzia,” which, dating from about 13,000 years ago, is the oldest modern human fossil found in South America. Many readers will already have noticed that these two fossils - Luzio and Luzia - are named after the iconic Australopithecus afarensis discovered in Africa, "Lucy" (no relation!)

The new study demonstrated that Luzio was an Amerindian, like the Tupi, Quechua or Cherokee peoples of North America, but hastened to add that this “does not mean they’re all the same.” However, zooming out from Brazil to a global perspective, the researcher said all of these genetic groups derive from “a single migratory wave that arrived in the Americas not more than 16,000 years ago.”

Where Did the Sambaquis Builders Go?

Luzio’s DNA revealed that middens built beside rivers were different from coastal examples. This indicated that the 10,000-year-old skeleton “cannot be considered a direct ancestor” of the people who built the classical sambaquis that appeared much later. In turn, the scientists write that this points towards “two distinct migrations, one into the hinterland, and another along the coast.”

The idea of two independent waves of immigrants is supported by previous genetic data that revealed “subtle differences between these two ancient communities.” Now, says Strauss, this new genetic analysis “has confirmed it,” once and for all. In conclusion, the paper says the ancient coastal populations “weren’t isolated but swapped genes with inland communities,” and that over thousands of years differences occurred in the sambaquis.

A secondary, but perhaps one of the most revealing aspects of the new study, is that the new genomic data suggests that if an earlier population of explorers arrived in the Americas around 30,000 years ago, at the onset of the Last Glacial Maximum, “it didn’t leave descendants among these groups”.

Top image: Skull of ‘Luzio’. The investigation that covered four different parts of Brazil carried out analysis of genomic data from 34 fossils, including larger skeletons and the famous mounds of shells and fishbones built on the coast. Source: André Strauss/Nature

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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