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

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Lagoa Santa sites and remains: old and odd

As promised, this post will look into the Lagoa Santa remains from Brazil, which are very old and have some enigmatic traits.

Lagoa Santa in Brazil is a region covering over 100 km2 in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais (see map further down), it comprises several sites such as Lapa da Amoreira, Lapa de Carrancas, Lapa Mortuária: Rockshelter and Cave, ("lapa" in Portuguese means "cave") Santana do Riacho, Cerca Grande 6, Cerca Grande 7, Escrivania 3, Sumidouro, Cerca Grande 2, Cerca Grande 5, Lapa do Caetano, Lapa D'Agua and the cave where "Luzia" was found: Lapa Vermelha IV.

The first excavations here were done by Peter Lund at Sumidouro Cave (1842). Over the years amateur archaeologists dug the caves searching for bones, and their antiquity was clear because they were found close to megafauna bones in the same sedimentary deposits. [2]

In 1956 W. Hurt and O. Blasi conducted the first professional digs in the area. They managed to date some of their excavations to some 9,720 and 9,028 years before present (BP) at Rock Shelter 6. This was very important as it gave them a Late Pleistocene - Early Holocene age.

Over 250 skeletons have been unearthed in Lagoa Santa since Lunds days.

A breakthrough was the escavation at Lapa Vermelha IV cave in 1975, by Annette Laming-Emperaire who discovered the remains of a female who was named "Luzia" (the name is a homage to Lucy, the Australopithecus afarensis found in Africa in 1974, 3.2 million-years-old).

Luzia, buried under 12 meters of sediments inside the rock shelter was dated [1] using charcoal samples found near her skull. They gave an age of 11,243–11,710 cal BP.

This makes Luzia one of the oldest Paleoindian skeletons found to date in the American continent.

Lagoa Santa Skulls have Australo-Melanesian features

Walter Neves (1999) [3] studied the "Lapa Vermelha IV Hominid 1", or "Luzia" and found that she "exhibited an undisputed morphological affinity firstly with Africans and secondly with South Pacific populations. In the second comparison, the earliest known American skeleton had its closest similarities with early Australians, Zhoukoudian Upper Cave 103, and Taforalt 18. The results obtained clearly confirm the idea that the Americas were first colonized by a generalized Homo sapiens population which inhabited East Asia in the Late Pleistocene, before the definition of the classic Mongoloid morphology."

So her first similarity is with Africans followed by South Pacific people. This is relevant as we will see later.

Six years later he and Hubbe (2005) [2] expanded their sample side and studied 81 skulls recovered from Lagoa Santa and compared them with those of other extant groups using multivariate analysis. They found that: (bold font is mine)

"The results obtained from all multivariate analyses confirm a close morphological affinity between SouthAmerican Paleoindians and extant Australo-Melanesians groups, supporting the hypothesis that two distinct biological populations could have colonized the New World in the Pleistocene/Holocene transition.
The three different quantitative analyses undertaken in this study demonstrate that the first South Americans exhibit a cranial morphology that is very different from late and modern Northeastern Asians and Amerindians (short and wide neurocrania; high, orthognatic faces; and relatively high and narrow orbits and noses) but very similar to present Australians/Melanesians and Africans, especially with the former (narrow and long neurocrania; prognatic, low faces; and relatively low and broad orbits and noses). Taking into account the large number of early specimens used in this study, this trend is unlikely to be a result of sample bias. The phenomenon cannot, as well, be said to represent the result of microevolutionary processes restricted to Lagoa Santa because the same cranial pattern has already been described in places as distant and as ecologically different as Southern Chile [Magellan's Strait], Colombia [Sabana de Bogotá], Mexico [Mexico Basin and Baja California], United States [Florida], and elsewhere in Brazil [Bahia and São Paulo]

So this seems to confirm his initial finding, an Australian / Melanesian - African affinity and this led to the now controversial craniofacial reconstruction of Luzia:

Luzia's skull and face reconstruction

We will cite Neto, Valle and Santos (2010) [4] whose paper "The colour of the bones: scientific narratives and cultural appropriations of 'Luzia', a prehistoric skull from Brazil", looked into the impact of the subjective bias that scientists invariably have:

"the BBC in London, looking to make a documentary on the prehistoric occupation of the Americas, funded a craniofacial reconstruction of the specimen in 1998, undertaken by Richard Neave of the University of Manchester in England. Luzia's skull was mapped using computerized tomography in Brazil and the images sent to Manchester. There a replica of the skull was produced in resin over which the face was reconstructed using red-brown modelling clay. This reconstruction generated a face suggesting a visual similarity between Luzia and the appearance of populations of African origin."

You can judge this reconstruction by yourself, please take a good look at the image below:

Luzia's craniofacial reconstruction by R. Neave. BBC

Quite controversial indeed, Luzia as depicted in that reconstruction looks like an African or even an Australian Aboriginal or a Melanesian person.

But there were more skulls at Lagoa Santa, and one team led by A. Strauss (2015), [5] studied one belonged to a person who had been decapitated. Yes, this man was is the oldest decapitation known in the New World.

Another Lagoa Santa facial reconstruction

A. Strauss and his team studied the man of Lapa do Santo, Burial 26, whose head had been chopped off 8540+/-50 14C BP. (There are plenty of photos of the site and the skull in the paper [5]).

They too compared it to other human groups and found that (bold is mine):

"The DFA also show similar results for both size and shape, and size corrected analyses (S4 Table). When either posterior probabilities or typicalities are taken into account, Burial 26 classifies clearly with Australia, which has been shown in the past to share high morphological affinities with Early South Americans. Yet, interestingly, in none of the analyses Burial 26 appear close to the other Lagoa Santa remains. When typicalities are taken into account, in both analyses, Burial 26 is statistically different (p<0.05) from Lagoa Santa’s centroid. However, these results may be influenced in this case by the reduced number of individuals in the Lagoa Santa sample, which is probably biasing the population estimates in these analyses.
The results do not indicate Burial 26 from Lapa do Santo presents a distinct morphology compared to other specimens from the Lagoa Santa region, thus supporting the notion he was a local individual and not an outsider.

Again we come across a similarity with Australians, and some remarks that it is "not close to" other Lagoa Santa skulls but isn't exactly different either (they looked into this to discard the possibility of the Lagoa Santa people beheading a prisoner from some other tribe or group).

One of the team's members, Caroline Wilkinson, a specialist in forensic reconstruction, at the John Moores University in Liverpool, England, and a "disciple of Neave" conducted a facial reconstruction of this skull [6].

She worked on a digital model fo the skull, and the outcome is quite different from Luzia.

Strauss explains: "Even though we are used to the traditional facial reconstruction of Luzia, with strong African features, this new image reflects in a more precise manner, the appearance of the first inhabitants of Brazil, displaying generalized and undifferentiated features, from which, over thousands of years, the great Amerindian diversity was established." [6]

What Strauss is saying is that the Lagoa Santa people left Asia before those that stayed behind acquired their current "Asian" features, and once in America evolved into the current Amerindian features.

Below is this new facial reconstruction, which could be that of a modern European, Indian or Middle Eastern person. Eurasian features. The flat nose and the African features are absent.

Lagoa Santa, Lapa do Santo, Burial 26 man, facial reconstruction. C. Wilkinson.

Genetics of the Lagoa Santa people

Bones are interesting, but DNA comparisons are also revealing. A study on Central and Southern American populations (C. Posth. et al., 2018) [7] compared ancient remains in Asia and the Americas, North and South. Posth's paper mentions two rare genetic variants in the Lagoa Santa genome:

1. Y chromosome haplogroup: "our observation of the currently extremely rare C2b haplogroup at Lapa do Santo disproves the suggestion that it was introduced after 6,000 BP".

C2B is extremely rare in modern and recent Amerindians. In fact, it is so rare that a late arrival to America (after all the other groups had settled the continent) had been suggested to explain this odd situation.

But the Lapa do Santo individual carried this haplogroup, and he died more than 6,000 years ago.

2. EDAR gene Variant.: "Our data show that a variant in EDAR that affects tooth shape, hair follicles and thickness, sweat, and mammary gland ductal branching and that occurs at nearly 100% frequency in present day Native Americans and East Asians was not fixed in USR1, Anzick-1, a Brazil LapaDoSanto 9600 BP individual and a Brazil Laranjal 6700 BP individual, all of whom carry the ancestral allele. Thus, the derived allele rose in frequency in parallel in both East Asians and in Native Americans."

This is interesting, the Lapa do Santo individual carried the ancestral allele for the EDAR gene, so he reached America before the mutated form (the "derived" alelle EDAR V370A) evolved.

The derived EDAR is found in 100% of contemporary Native Americans and East Asians but was not present in Lagoa Santa, Anzick Montana (12,000 years ago) or in USR1 (Upward Sun River, Alaska) 11,500 BP.

Posth concludes that the derived EDAR was not yet fixed at that time and that it evolved later, in some kind of convergent evolution on both sides of the Pacific.

Then we have the issue of the "Polynesian mtDNA" among the Botocudo people in Brazil, considered the descendants of the Lagoa Santa Paleoindians:

Botocudos with Polynesian mtDNA

Goncalves, et al., (2013) [8] studied the cranial masures of different groups of extant and past American Natives. They concluded that "the Botocudo Indians presented sufficient similarities with the Lagoa Santa Paleoamericans to be considered candidates to be their possible descendants".

There is nothing odd in this finding, the probem is that when they analyzed the mtDNA of Botocudo skulls they found that they had a haplogroup that is found on the other side of the world!:

"[they had a ] sequence as belonging to haplogroup B4a1a1a (32–34). This haplogroup is found at high frequency in Polynesia, Micronesia, parts of Near Oceania, and Easter Island".

How could these genes find their way into Brazil? Goncalves' team put forward three explanations: (1) Slave trade from Africa brought Madagascar / Polynesian / Melanesian people into Brazil. (2) Slave trade from Polynesia (enslaved Polynesians) into South America -such as what happened to the Easter Island people, forcibly taken to South America and (3) the Botocudo got the genes from their Lagoa Santa ancestors who supposedly carried this haplogroup (no papers have reported it though).

We will look into their comments on the third explanation:

"[This] scenario, prehistoric, is related to the possibility of genetic continuity between the Paleoamericans from Lagoa Santa and Botocudo Indians, which indeed originally had motivated this study. It is conceivable that the Lagoa Santa Paleoamericans carried ancient mtDNA sequences related to those of modern Polynesians, possibly because of a contact with their ancestors, and passed them on to early Amerindians, along with genes associated with Paleoamerican skull morphology.
However, for this scenario to be acceptable it has to be chronologically compatible with what is known about the evolutionary history of the mtDNA "Polynesian motif" (14022G, 16217C, 16247G, 16261T), which has been associated with the Austronesian expansion and settlement of Polynesia and Micronesia at a time scale more recent than peopling of the Americas. Notably, the Polynesian motif has additionally been found in Indonesian populations at low frequencies and also in Madagascar.
Polynesian islands were apparently populated around 3,000 y ago. Nevertheless, the time to the most recent common ancestor (TMRCA) for the Polynesian motif in Papuans and Polynesians was calculated as 9,300 +/- 2,000 y before present... These TMRCA dates for the Polynesian motif appear too recent for having been introduced into the Americas by the Paleoamerindian migration. Still, we cannot rule out this possibility—however improbable—because, as pointed out by Friedlander et al., the variances of these coalescence estimates may be greater than generally acknowledged.

In my opinion, the link across the Pacific via Lagoa Santa people seems to weak. The likely explanation lies with hypothesis (1) or (2): slave trade.

Nevertheless, Strauss, Neves et al. (2015) [9] reached the same conclusion: Botocudos descend from Lagoa Santa people. But they couldn't explain the Polynesian DNA found in the former:

"In conclusion, our analyses of the morphological affinities of the Botocudo Indians within a worldwide context support the hypothesis proposed by Lacerda and Peixoto (1876) that these groups from East-Central Brazil retained the same morphological pattern from the early inhabitants from Lagoa Santa
From a morphological point of view, our results fit better a scenario where the Botocudo are biological descendants from early Paleoamerican groups (e.g., Lagoa Santa), who share they last common ancestor with Polynesian groups probably in Southeast Asia, before the morphological differentiation that resulted in the present-day morphological pattern seen in Asia and most of the Americas occurred.
However, this scenario fails to shed light on the origin of the Polynesian DNA lineages found in the two Botocudo specimens collected from Rio Doce.

Last but not least, is the skull with prominent brow ridges unearthed by Walters in 1958 at Lagoa Santa, reported by Owen B. Beattie and Alan L. Bryan in 1984 [10] (they were trying to recover them, assuming that they had been sold to some private collector).

I had written about this skull in my post Diprothomo and Lagoa Santa - Homo erectus?, back in 2011, because those heavy supraorbital ridges looked very primitive to me:

Image : Skullcap from Lagoa Santa. Beattie and Bryan (1984) [10]

Harold Victor Walter published his findings in a book "Arqueologia Da Regiao de Lagoa Santa, Minas Gerais. Indios Pre-colombianos Dos Abrigos-rochedos. (Archaeology of the Lagoa Santa Region.)" in Portuguese and English in 1958. Did he mention this skull?


And that is all for now. Lagoa Santa sites are very interesting because they have produced hundreds of skeletal remains of Paleo Indians older than 6,000 years BP. Some have very rare genetic haplogroups. They seem to be linked to an early East Asian - Australian - Melanesian people which lived before the typical East Asian and Amerindian features evolved.

Their purported descendants, the Botocudo people of Brazil carry genetic markers found in Polynesia (an area peopled long after America), so this raises interesting questions too.

Last but not least, the emblematic skull of Luzia, depicted with African features in a facial reconstruction is quite different from the reconstruction of another Lagoa Santa skull, which has a more neutral Eurasian appearance.


[1] Michel Fontugne, (2013), New Radiocarbon Ages of Luzia Woman, Lapa Vermelha IV Site, Lagoa Santa, Minas Gerais, Brazil. Volume 55, Issue 3 (Proceedings of the 21st International Radiocarbon Conference (Part 2 of 2)) 2013 , pp. 1187-1190. DOI:
[2] Neves WA, Hubbe M. Cranial morphology of early Americans from Lagoa Santa, Brazil: implications for the settlement of the New World. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2005;102(51):18309–18314. doi:10.1073/pnas.0507185102
[3] Neves, WA. et al. Lapa vermelha IV Hominid 1: morphological affinities of the earliest known American. Genet. Mol. Biol. [online]. 1999, vol.22, n.4 pp.461-469. Available from: . ISSN 1415-4757.
[4] Gaspar Neto, Verlan Valle and Santos, Ricardo Ventura. The colour of the bones: scientific narratives and cultural appropriations of 'Luzia', a prehistoric skull from Brazil. Mana [online]. 2010, vol.5Selected edition [cited 2019-09-04], pp. 0-0 . Available from: . ISSN 0104-9313.
[5] Strauss A, Oliveira RE, Bernardo DV, Salazar-García DC, Talamo S, Jaouen K, et al. (2015) The Oldest Case of Decapitation in the New World (Lapa do Santo, East-Central Brazil), PLoS ONE 10(9): e0137456.
[6] DNA de fósseis do Brasil desafia teorias de 'descoberta' da América, Evanildo da Silveira De São Paulo para a BBC News Brasil 8 novembro 2018
[7] C. Posth et al., Reconstructing the Deep Population History of Central and South America. Cell 10.1016/j.cell.2018.10.027 (2018)
[8] Goncalves VF, Stenderup J, Rodrigues-Carvalho C, et al. Identification of Polynesian mtDNA haplogroups in remains of Botocudo Amerindians from Brazil, Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013;110(16):6465–6469. doi:10.1073/pnas.1217905110
[9] Strauss A, Hubbe M, Neves WA, Bernardo DV, and Atuí JV. 2015. The cranial morphology of the Botocudo Indians, Brazil, American Journal of Physical Anthropology 157:202–216.
[10] Beattie O.B., Bryan A.L., (1984). A Fossilized calotte with Prominent Browridges from Lagoa Santa, Brazil. Current Anthropology, vol. 25, no. 3:345-346

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia Copyright 2009-2014 by Austin Whittall © 

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