Guide to Patagonia's Monsters & Mysterious beings

I have written a book on this intriguing subject which has just been published.
In this blog I will post excerpts and other interesting texts on this fascinating subject.

Austin Whittall

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Punin skulls from Ecuador and Homo Erectus

Last century some odd shaped skulls, with "archaic" appearance were dug up in Ecuador. Their appearance and apparent antiquity led some scientists to believe that these were of an Australoid origin, and that they predated the current Amerindians of Asian origin. Today's post deals with these findings.

The 1923 Punin skull

The Punin skull was discovered in the Andean highlands in Ecuador, by a team from the American Museum of Natural History.

The discovery took place on November 2, 1923, by field assistant G. H. H. Tate. They were exploring the Chalan ravine close to Punin, in Chimborazo near Riobamba, Ecuador when they uncovered the skull.

The site was close to a river at 9,000 ft (2.700 m) altitude, 3 ft. (1 m) below the top of the alluvial bank (2 m - 7 ft high).

When they found it, it was, according to one of the scientists (E. H. Anthony), damp and very fragile. Once it had been removed, it dried and hardened.

It was a startling discovery due to its archaic appearance perhaps due to its "exceptionally pronounced supra orbital robusticity" [2] (i.e. prominent brow).

The skull was ovoid and had a wide and short face with big teeth. It lacked its lower jaw. As it was surrounded by bones of extinct Pleistocene mammals (horses, camelids and mastodon), they assumed it was very old. These animal remains were between 15 - 30 m (50 - 100 ft.) from the skull.

It belonged to a woman who was about 45 to 50 years old, it was found embedded in a stratum of volcanic ash, with megafaunal fossils (10 - 20 kya). [2]

However, in the 1980s, Don Brothwell and Richard Burleigh dated the skull to 4,750 +/- 250 BCE [4], it is not "ancient", but quite "recent". Though it is contemporary with the Late Paleoindian stage no cultural remains such as tools or ceramic remains were found close to the crania. [3]

I believe that if it was a burial, the grave was probably dug into older strata (10-20,000 years old, with megafaunal fossils), but the woman was from 4.750 years ago.

Nevertheless, E. H. Anthony, who wrote the report on the finding, thought otherwise: the skull's position in the soil was not the usual one for a burial as was the lack of other bones; he believed it was contemporary with the fossils found in the ash beds. [5]

I have managed to unearth (pun intended) the description and measurement of the 1923 skull (Sullivan and Hellman, 1925) [5], and, as you can see in the photographs below, it does have a "solid" bone behind the eyebrows.

punin skull
punin skull
Photographs of the 1923 Punin skull. From [5].

In the early 1920s the Punin skull caused quite a stir in anthropological circles. Some, such as British anatomist Arthur Keith (1886-1955) noted that upon examination:

"its resemblance to the skulls of the native women of Australia [was striking] ...the points of resemblance are too numerous to permit us to suppose that the skull could be of a sort produced by an American Indian parentage.
We cannot suppose that an Australian native woman had been spirited across the Pacific in some migratory movement and that afterwards her skull was buried in a fossiliferous bed in the high plateau of Ecuador...The discovery at Punin does compel us to look into the possibility of a Pleistocene invasion of America by an Australoid people.

Harvard anthropologist Earnest Houghton stated " any competent craniologist would identify as Australian in type" and pointed out that ancient burials in America yielded more "Australoid-looking dolichocephals ...than anything in the way of a skull that resembles a Mongoloid."

They supported the theory of an ancient peopling of America by "Austronesians"

The Austronesian hypothesis

Allow me to quote from my book Monsters of Patagonia:

These ‘Australoids’ were indeed part of the first wave of modern humans (Homo sapiens) to leave Africa about 100,000 years ago. They used watercraft to navigate coastal waters and could have easily sailed along the shores of Asia, across Bering Strait into America long before the appearance of the Mongoloid type in Siberia 20,000 years ago.
When the Mongoloid Asians later moved across Beringia into America, they advanced on those original Americans replacing them. A few remnants of the first wave survived extermination by the newcomers isolated in the remote Patagonian hinterland.
This theory that we have outlined above was first proposed by French ethnologist Paul Rivet (1876-1958), but its validity rests on the disputed navigation skills of the Australoids. To overcome this, Portuguese anthropologist Mendes Correia (1888-1960) proposed a migration route via Tasmania, the Antarctic and Drake Passage, instead of trans-Pacific route, entering South America at Tierra del Fuego some 8,000 years BP, before the Antarctic ice cap formed. But this is conception is highly disputed and lacks archaeological proof.

Researching for my book, I came across many similarities between the myths of Patagonian natives and those of the Australian Aboriginals, they are remarkably similar in many strange ways. It gives support to the notion of a common origin for both groups.

But lets get back to the Ecuadorian highlands.

A second crania from Punin

Nearly fifty years later, on September 8, 1972, a farmer named Lucas Antonio Paredes came across a burial in Pailapata, 500 m (1/4 of a mile) from the site where Tate found the "Punin" skull. He promptly notified a trader in fossils and inca relics, Florencio Samaniego Santillán, who came over and, that same day, started digging at the site.

They uncovered a the bones of a (maybe more than one person) human being which was inside a layer of volcanic ash. They also uncovered a dolichoid skull, similar to the one found by Tate.

(One cannot help shuddering when imagining two amateurs digging up a grave without any scientific basis in their digging. Just imagine all the evidence they destroyed, tomb raiders of the worst kind.)

It was named promptly "Punin 2" and exhibited in 1979 at the Central Bank's Museum.

One of the bones (femur) were dated at 1,240 BCE, and belongs to the Formative Period however there is no proof that the bone and skull belong to the same body. [1] Once again, a primitive yet young skull.

Primitive but recent, how come?

Trying to accomodate the relatively recent date of the skulls wit their "primitive" features has led some to speculate that they were in fact of ancient stock, and that the Puninese people, may be a relict of an ancient population that survived in isolation in the Ecuadorean plateu until recent times, when they mixed with the natives of Asian stock.

On the other hand maybe they are just a modern group whose physical features were ingrained due to engogamy, in an isolated tribal group.

The missing upper third molars

An interesting point is the anomalous lack of upper third molars or M3 in the skull found in 1923 [5], this is a congenital defect, which is found at a very low frequency outside of Eastern Asia, but is especially common among the remains of Chinese people from prehistoric sites till nowadays. [6][7]

Table from [7]:

table of M3 agenesis

It was detected in the Lantian Man from Shaanxi (photo below) province in China which is about 650 ky old, and lacks both mandibular third molars congenitally, the more recent Liujiang Man (67 kya) also has congenital absence of upper third molars. [7]

This condition known as "third molar agenesis" is higher in Eastern Asia than in any other part of the world, including Australia and Melanesia, [7] it is very ancient and maybe an inheritance from our ancestor the Homo erectus:

The observations of dental specimens of Chinese populations showed the degeneration of M3 occurred as early as Homo erectus of 650,000 years ago. After that, the frequency of this trait has increased continually. [7]

homo erectus lantian man
Lantian Man (H. erectus) skull, note the similar brow to Punin woman's

Could the third molar agnesis of the Punin woman mean that she has H. erectus genes (from an ancient migration of Homo erectus into America)? or is it a more recent admixture of Chinese genes? (see my previous post on how did the Denisovan genes get to America, since the answer for both cases is similar: either erectus brought them himself or Chinese navigators did so).

She could be the only one in her tribe with this defect or maybe the whole tribe had it, we will never know unless we could obtain a larger sample of her group. It is possible that she has the agenesis because her ancestors were just plain Homo sapiens of Eastern Asian origin who trekked in to America with this trait in their genes, or she may have even been one of an Austronesian group who had this rare, among them, congenital defect.

The "primitive" appearance of the cranium tilts the balance towards a relict H. erectus population in America, thriving in Ecuador until recently... maybe the source of our bigfoot and ogre myths in the Americas.


[1] Daniela Carrillo D., (2007), La Quebrada de Chalán

[2] Joseph F. Powell, (2005), The First Americans: Race, Evolution and the Origin of Native Americans, Cambridge University Press.

[3] Frank Salomon, Stuart B. Schwartz Eds. (1999) Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. Vol 3, part 1. Cambridge University Press. pp. 197

[4] Don Brothwell, Richard Burleigh. (1980) Human Cranium from Punin, Ecuador, With Particular Reference To Morphology and Dating. Journal of Archaeological Science. 7 1: 97-99. 1980

[5] Sullivan, Louis R., and Hellman, Milo, (1925) The Punin calvarium, Anthropological papers of the AMNH ; v. 23, pt. 7.

[6] Liu Wu and Zeng Xianglong, (1995) Preliminary Impression of Current Dental Anthropology Research in China, Dental Anthropology Newsletter, Arizona State University. Vol 9, No. 3.

[7] Liu Wu, The Dental continuity of humans in China from Pleistocene to Holocene, and the origin of Mongoloids, in Quaternary Geology. Volume 21 of International Geological Congress 30, 1996, Beijing, Editors: An Zhisheng, Weijian Zhou. pp 27

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia Copyright 2009-2013 by Austin Whittall © 

Denisovans, Neandertals and the peopling of America

Skoglunda and Jakobssona postulated in a paper [1] published in 2011 that the apparent inflow of archaic genes into modern humans in two separate episodes (one involving Neandertals and the other Denisovans) is not totally correct, at least regarding Neanderthals.

Their computer simulations suggest that an archaic admixture event (not out of Africa, but in Africa) would result in the current pattern of higher similarity with Neanderthals the further you go from Africa.

This would be caused by genetic drift and ascertainment bias, and the outcome is "artificial differences between populations that have exactly the same admixture history." [1]

However the Denisovan genes in Austronesians and South East Asians could not be explained away by the same cause and the "results suggest admixture between Denisovans or a Denisova-related population and the ancestors of East Asians..." [1]


Ascertainment bias is a systematic distortion in measuring the true frequency of a phenomenon due to the way in which the data are collected: the sampling may cause some members of the population to be less likely to be included in the sample than others. This distorts the randomness of the population, which is not equally balanced or objectively represented.

The study

Their study defines two principal components (PCs) using Denisova, Neandertal, chimpanzee and modern human data.

They obtained a PC1 component which describes general genetic similarity to archaic humans (genomes of both Neandertals and Denisovans - it separates the archaic humans from chimps) and a PC2 which contrasts genetic similarity between Denisovans and Neandertals (it separates Denisovans from Neandertals).


They detected:

  • That moden humans can be grouped into three clusters: Africans, Oceanians and the other non-Africans. See Figure 1B below
  • That PC1 and PC2 were correlated with geography in America and Eurasia, they find this incompatible with existing admixture theories since they expect homogeneous admixture of archaic ancestry in all non-Africans.
  • The "East Asian [...] and Native American [...] populations were found to be more similar to archaic hominins compared with European and Central/South Asian populations"
  • Also the further the populations were from our African homeland, the greater the "archaic ancestry signal". Seen in Fig. 1C

Figures taken from [1].

human groups

Notice in 1B how Native Americans are closer to Neanderthals and further from Denisovans (to which the Oceanians are closer).

Fig. 1C, also shows that both these groups have a greater "signal" of archaic ancestry. (Click on image above to enlarge)

archaic ancestry

Fig. 1D, shows a high Denisovan frequency in Oceania and South East Asia as well as the expected high Neandertal frequency in their former homeland (Europe and Middle East, North Africa), but unexpectedly high in Central America, Mexico and northern South America.

They suggest that these Neandertal genes came to America after its discovery by Europeans with the influx of settlers from that region ("individuals that were skewed to having European ancestry" [1]), and they add that the "remaining pattern of increased signs of archaic ancestry in American populations more distant from Africa is in line with the joint effect of ascertainment bias and genetic drift" [1].

It could also be possible that Neandertals migrated to America and settled there in Mesoamerica, admixing later with modern humans who migrated to America later through Beringia.

Surprisingly the authors state that there is an "apparent absence of Denisova ancestry in Native Americans" is probably due to the bias that makes Neanderthal genome higher in America due to genetic drift and the ascertainment bias.

denisova neandertal content

As far as I can see, there is a high Neandertal frequency but also a high Denisovan one too.

Taking a look at Fig 1E, which replicates the same data as Fig 1D in Europe, SE Asia and Oceania, it clearly shows a high Denisovan frequency in Northwestern South America (Colombia, Ecuador)


Could it be due to an influx of SE Asian navigators' genes in the region (a junk sailing across the Pacific from China to Peru? or does it reflect an ancient migration of Denisovans into America long before modern humans ventured into the region to admix there, in America, with this relict Denisovan population?

If the latter was the case, then it is not a statistical artifact (bias in sampling), but a "real" admixture of genes. The Lack of Denisovan genes in Northern Asia is due to the fact that these genes did not arrive in America via Beringia carried by modern humans, they came long before, inside the bodies of the migrating Denisovans.

The authors however elaborate further by saying that if Americans lack Denisovan genes then their ancestors left Asia before admixture and, tainted with what I call the "recent-peopling-of-America-bias" they place this event some 14- 30 kya.

The maps clearly show an "island" between Mexico and Ecuador where there is a higher proportion of both Neanderthal and Denisovan genes in America. Is it due to a statistical bias? or is it faint proof of the ancient peopling of America by those archaic humans?

Our next post will deal with some odd skulls that were discovered in that region of South America, in Ecuador, and a possible link to H. erectus.


[1] Pontus Skoglunda, and Mattias Jakobssona, (2011) Archaic human ancestry in East Asia.
Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia Copyright 2009-2013 by Austin Whittall © 
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