By Janet Tappin Coelho
The face of a 10,000 year old African caveman has been revealed for the first time – settling the debate over whether Africans or Asians were the first ancient people to set foot on American soil.
Digital imaging by Brazilian graphic designer, Cicero Moraes, shows the features of a 40 to 50-year-old prehistoric man whose face resembles Australian Aborigines.
The relic, nicknamed Apiuna, was discovered deep inside a cave during an archaeological dig in Lagoa Santa, south east Brazil, some 50 years ago.
It appears to confirm a decades old argument that Africans were the first colonisers of the Americas.
The news comes just weeks after Moraes also revealed the 3D facial characteristics of a 28-year-old Siberian Asian male, modelled from another prehistoric cranium.
This skull, found in the same archaeologically rich region, has similar traits to today’s American indians.
The discovery of the African’s face challenges the thinking about the American continents’ first pioneers.
For Apiuna bears a close likeness to Luzia, the name given to the 11,500-year-old skull of a young African woman whose remains are the oldest ever found on the South American continent.
In 1998, Luzia’s fossilised bones, excavated more than 20 years before from the same region as the primitive men, were found to have similar
ethnic characteristics to modern-day indigenous Sub-Saharan Africans, native Australians and Melanesians.
Walter Neves, a professor of human evolutionary research at Sao Paulo University, was the anthropologist who revealed the surprising discovery of the cavewoman’s race.
At the time, the revelation sent shock waves through the scientific community because Luzia looked nothing like the Siberian Asians who scientist agree are the genetic forebears of today’s native Americans.
Neves findings were confirmed in 1999 by British anatomical artist, Richard Neave, formerly a professor at Manchester University, who used a cast of the ancient skull to sculpt a clay bust of Luzia’s face.
The head of the young African, who was in her twenties when she died, is displayed in Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro.
Luzia’s people was one of two groups of early settlers in the New World according to scientific studies.
Archaeologists believe there were at least two large migratory waves of distinctively different people who made the odyssey across the Bering
Straits, the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, reaching the American continent thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived.
Apiuna may have been in the first nomadic wave with Luzia. The Siberian Asian, called Diarum, whose face was unveiled by Moraes in May this year, probably trekked across in the second flow.
Professor Claudia Rodrigues, director of Brazil’s National Museum said: “The discovery of these new faces from the past reinforces the complexity of the settlements of the South American peoples. It’s not a simply process and there’s still a lot we don’t know.”
Moraes makes clear the 3D facial reconstructions do not attempt to solve the mysteries surrounding the occupation of the New World.
“My job was to bring the past into the future through artistic creativity and to add to the discussion,” he said.
It took two months to reconstruct the features of the immigrant cave dwellers.
Moraes explained: “The process involved photo-scanning both fossils using an advance computer programme. We took images from various angles and algorithms calculated key measurement points on the skulls and converted the information into the 3D results.”
Photos taken by researchers at the Lapinha Museum in Lagoa Santa, where the skulls are exhibited, were emailed to the graphic designer in Sinop, central east Brazil, some 1,500 miles away.
Moraes continued: “I sent the data to Marcus Paulo Machado, a forensic specialist in Rio de Janeiro, who did a blind identification of both skulls.
“He had no historical information about the craniums but was able to tell their ages and verified both were males. He concluded one had the physical characteristics of an Asian and the other had those of an African Austro-Melanesian.
“I used the information and data to do the anatomical reconstruction. The features that emerged confirmed the ethnic groups. So, I applied Asian and African colour palettes, blending skin tone and imitating hair texture, to reveal who the two men once were,” said the 3D scientist.
The imaging of both skulls was done in collaboration with historian Erika Suzanna Banyai, director of the Lapinha Museum.
Erika’s Hungarian-born father Mihaly, a self-taught archaeologist, founded the museum in the 1970s. The archive holds more than 700 fossils, the largest number of archaeological finds in Brazil.
The family-run museum is situated in Lagoa Santa’s environmental protection zone. The region was once roamed by the prehistoric newcomers who wandered the vast savannah in search of food and water, fought animals, lived in rock shelters and were buried, when they died, deep inside caves.
Erika admitted: “I cried the first time I saw the faces of both the skulls. My father found the fossilised remains of Diarum, the Siberian Asian, in 1971 and I wish he was here to see what they looked like.
“I have managed this museum since my dad passed away and after years of displaying these two relics behind glass, I am thrilled to see their remains transformed into human beings with stories to tell.
“As their faces were brought back to life, I could imagine some of the emotional experiences, family responsibilities and their daily struggles as they fought to survive on the harsh and unforgiving Brazilian plains around 10,000 years ago,” she said, adding the 3D facial reconstructions are theoretical ‘near-likenesses’ as there is no DNA evidence to conclusively prove who they were.
Neves stressed: “We have to be very careful in terms of making big hypotheses about the occupation of the Americas based solely on facial reconstruction. Because facial reconstruction of prehistoric bones is done after lengthy scientific analysis, then artistic creativity follows.”
Even so, the anthropologist added research strongly suggests the first wave of inhabitants to the New World was Luzia’s people who began arriving as early as 15,000 years ago.
“These people were Africans with Austro-Melanesian characteristics. They came from South East Asia migrating from there in two directions. Some went south to Australia, where today’s aboriginal people appear to be their descendants. And others went north navigating along the coast and across the Bering Straits until they reached the Americas,” Neves explained.
“Not everyone made the journey at the same time. Many remained in Siberia and this population evolved into North Asians during the harsh climatic conditions. This group entered the Americas a couple of thousand years after Luzia’s people,” said Neves.
And he revealed while many experts believe the original stone-age African Americans died out, DNA evidence points to Luzia’s community surviving until very recently.
Analysis of the remains of the Botocudo Indians, a hunter-gatherer tribe that once lived in south east Brazil, shows their bones had a similar genetic history to Luzia’s African Austro-Melanesian heritage.
The Botocudo’s died out at the end of the 19th century after living an isolated existence away from groups that gave rise to the modern native south American people.
Neves continued: “Today I believe in three different scenarios. That in some places of the Americas Siberian Asians totally replaced the Austro-
Melanesians. While in other places the Austro-Melanesians managed to survive until very recently and lastly, in different parts of the continent the two races interbred.
“This is a very complex issue. Proof of who came first and why one race was more dominant than the other will be researched and debated for many years to come,” said Neves.