Brazil's oldest skeleton reveals why ancient builders swiftly vanished

In pre-colonial South America, sambaqui builders ruled the coast for thousands of years. Their fate remained enigmatic — until now.
Sade Agard
Luzio the skeleton lived in São Paulo 10,000 years ago and was Amerindian like Indigenous people now.
Luzio the skeleton lived in São Paulo 10,000 years ago and was Amerindian like Indigenous people now.

André Strauss 

Archaeologists unveil intriguing insights into Brazil's Indigenous ancestry using the oldest human skeleton ever found in São Paulo state, Brazil, according to a new study published in Nature on July 31.

The findings suggest the skeleton — known as Luzio — belonged to the ancestral population that settled in the Americas more than 16,000 years ago, eventually giving rise to present-day Indigenous communities like the Tupi.

The study also addresses the enigmatic disappearance of Brazil's oldest coastal communities, known for building the iconic sambaquis. These massive shell mounds served as dwellings, cemeteries, and territorial markers.

The Sambaqui builders

"After the Andean civilizations, the Atlantic coast sambaqui builders were the human phenomenon with the highest demographic density in pre-colonial South America," said the study's lead author André Menezes Strauss, an archeologist at the University of São Paulo's Museum of Archeology and Ethnology (MAE-USP).

They were the 'kings of the coast' for thousands and thousands of years. They vanished suddenly about 2,000 years ago."

The researchers analyzed the genomes of 34 samples from different coastal areas in Brazil, dating back at least 10,000 years. The materials, including Luzio's remains, were sourced from sambaquis and other sites across eight locations.

Brazil's oldest skeleton reveals why ancient builders swiftly vanished
An example of the iconic sambaquis built by south America's oldest coastal communities.

Previously, scientists believed Luzio might have belonged to a biologically distinct population from present-day Amerindians, who settled in Brazil around 14,000 years ago. 

However, this latest study debunks that notion. "Genetic analysis showed Luzio to be an Amerindian, like the Tupi, Quechua, or Cherokee," stated Strauss. 

The genetic evidence also sheds light on the evolution of Brazil's ancient societies. It suggests that there were two separate migrations—one into the hinterland and another along the coast, giving rise to the diverse communities found in the southeast and south of Brazil.

Ancient technology

Furthermore, the study delves into the mysterious disappearance of the sambaqui builders, the first hunter-gatherers of the Holocene period. 

Contrary to the European Neolithic model of population substitution, the findings indicate that the change observed in these coastal communities was not due to an influx of new populations but rather a shift in cultural practices.

Genetic material from Galheta IV, a renowned site from this era in Santa Catarina state, revealed a transition from using shells to ceramics for food processing. The coastal communities seemed to have adapted and embraced pottery, adopting techniques from the hinterland.

"This information is compatible with a 2014 study that analyzed pottery shards from sambaquis and found that the pots in question were used to cook not domesticated vegetables but fish," Strauss said.

"They appropriated technology from the hinterland to process food that was already traditional there."

The full study was published in Nature on July 31 and can be found here.

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